The conventional wisdom about women in the media is that although women are certainly not yet equally represented, progress is continually being made — and women are clearly taking on a more prominent role in the production and presentation of news and entertainment programming.

Furthermore, the CW continues, after years of old-fashioned bias and discrimination, the FCC and other governmental agencies have created legislation, commissions and programs in recent decades that attempt to ensure equal opportunity for women and minorities in the media.

Unfortunately the CW is wrong — way wrong.

Take, for example, the new “Off the Dial” (PDF) study by the media reform organization Free Press, which reveals women and minorities own just 6 and 7.7 percent of all broadcast radio stations in the country respectively.

As Kristal Brent Zook of the Women’s Media Center writes, “This means that listeners in an average radio market have 16 white male-owned stations to choose from, but just one woman-owned and two minority owned alternatives.”

“Off the Dial” follows the Free Press 2006 study “Out of the Picture.” According to Zook, that study found that “women of all races own just 5% of the 1,400 commercial broadcast television stations in America. People of color, who make up 33% of the national population (and will be more than 50% by 2050), own just 3.6%.”

And, according to the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, these numbers, at least in terms of minorities, reflect at least a 14 percent drop since 1997.

Why have we regressed? Zook argues that it reflects the fact that the FCC, among others, no longer cares. After crafting a ground-breaking “Statement of Policy on Minority
Ownership” in 1976 and watching it make a positive impact over the next 20 years, the FCC has succumbed to a senseless backlash. Most recently, it refused to even consider any of the 18
recommendations from its 29-member Advisory Committee on Diversity.

And the problem isn’t just in media ownership. Two recent studies by Media Matters reveal what is rather obvious to anyone who watches the news: Women and minorities — as anchors and commentators — are very few and very far between.

On the Sunday talk shows in 2005 and 2006, male guests outnumbered female guests by an average ratio of 4 to 1, and white guests outnumbered guests of any other race/ethnicity by 7 to 1.

On cable news shows, during the weeknights before the Don Imus controversy, gender and ethnicity of the hosts and guests was even more starkly male and white.

And the people who create and book these news shows have no excuses for this lack of diversity. Programs like Women in Media and News’ POWER Sources Project and provide readily accessible lists of diverse female experts on every issue under the sun.

And a show like PBS’ “To the Contrary” proves on a weekly basis just how many female news analysts are ready and waiting to offer their opinions.

When the news networks do value women, unfortunately, it’s often for their appearance as much as their substance. David Bauder reports:

News credentials didn’t seem foremost on CNN U.S. president Jon Klein’s
mind when he was explaining to reporters why Kiran Chetry was named co-anchor of “American Morning.”

“One look at her tells you why she deserves the slot,” he said. “She’s a fantastic anchor. She lights up the screen. And she’s got a passion for news.”

Physical attractiveness is certainly a plus for a job in television news, Potter said. It doesn’t mean knockout looks are the only factor, but without them, it’s that much more difficult to get a job, she said.

“Some people will tell you the standards have changed a little bit and now the men have to be as good looking as the women,” Potter said. “If that’s progress, I don’t know.”

(If Potter’s cluelessness doesn’t make you laugh, Samantha Bee’s hilarious “Daily Show” satire of the issue will.)

The present state of women in the media doesn’t surprise feminist icons like Martha Burke and Gloria Steinem, both of whom know their history and the broader cultural context. Burke, in a speech to the National Press Club, noted how women not very long ago were literally second-class citizens in the news world. As recently as 1971, female reporters weren’t allowed to get seats on the floor level and ask questions at the Press Club’s famous luncheons.

And in response to the Free Press study, Steinem commented, “It’s not about biology. It’s about programmers who share the experiences of their audiences. It’s about … culture, and the ethics of the whole industry.”

Just last week, former CBS anchor Dan Rather remarked that CBS is “dumbing it down and
tarting it up,” referring to the current “CBS Evening News” with Katie

Women’s Media Center President Carol Jenkins issued a statement that read in part:

We would expect Dan Rather, who also endured scathing criticism for his performance at CBS through the years, to be more sensitive to the issue of giving anchors time to settle in — he was given 24 years.

But more than concentrating on Rather’s provocative remarks, intended to wound a former boss more than his replacement, we would like executives and the public to take note and action on two recent blatant displays of failure of diversity in the media: a full page ad showcasing a network’s debate coverage anchors, which includes all white men; and the recent elevation of top management at a cable outlet — a quartet of white men. We cast no judgment on the qualifications of the chosen, but the under-representation of women is industry-wide and shockingly tolerated. The question we ask is: where are the women, where are the women and men of color in our media?

It’s a question we’ll have to keep asking.


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