What women think
Tom Flanagan, former adviser and mentor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has been embroiled in controversy this week for saying that the head of Wikileaks should be killed. (Did I just really write that here?) And yes, he's publicly issued regret for his words. But that's not what this post is about.
In the clip from CBC's Power and Politics, Flanagan explains the remark by saying he was feeling "manly."(Did I just write that too?) Let's assume it's preposterous. Still, I find it interesting that he reached for that defence.
Being "manly," it seems, is exactly what will vault your opinion into the mainstream media. It is "manly" to be provocative and, in the parlance of the TV producers, "edgy." Everybody wants to be edgy and manly. If you're not, you're, well, feminine and kind of boring. Not edgy at all.
This week, an organization called Informed Opinions released some revealing stats into the gender balance of the commentariat in Canada. Here's what it found, after an exhaustive, day-by-day analysis of the major media over a period of a couple of weeks:
In the six papers published during the period surveyed, only 16% of the op eds 18/113) and 15% of the regular columns (12/81) were written by women. The results varied by newspaper, with the Toronto Star publishing the highest ratio of female columnists (44%), but zero op eds by women. The National Post, in contrast, featured entirely male columnists and only 12% women-penned commentary, all of which was reprinted from American publications. Women wrote 8% of the op eds on The Globe and Mail’s comment page and 18% of the columns during the week studied, during which Margaret Wente was off). Women writers in the Ottawa Citizen made up 20% of the columnists and 27% of op ed contributors.
On the electronic front, both the public broadcaster did a better job of including women’s voices than the private station. CBC Radio’s The Current featured 31% female guests (11/35), but CTV’s Power Play, focusing exclusively on federal politics, included only one woman out of 27 guests.
I'm happy that my newspaper triumphs in female-column representation. That's a true achievement -- nearly 50 per cent. Meanwhile, as a consumer, and some-time participant on the TV end of things, I find the television numbers startling, but funnily enough, not surprising.
First, some full disclosure. Shari Graydon, head of Informed Opinions, recently recruited me to be one of the "mentor journalists" to help other women get their points of view published (I've yet to actually *do* any of that advising, but I'm supportive in principle so far.)
As well, most regular readers of this blog know that I also turn up from time to time on those political TV shows that were analyzed in the study. (It used to be mainly CBC, but now I'm mostly on CTV, where it was announced this week that Don Martin will be the new host of Power Play. Why did I drift to the other network after a two-decade-long commitment? That's another story.)
The producers and hosts of these shows will tell you that they're not discriminating against women -- that women journalists and politicos don't generally say 'yes' when they're asked. I think they're right about that.
Everyone has a theory: women are juggling more things, at home and at work, and getting an opinion out there takes time. (Unless of course you want to go on TV and advocate that someone be killed, in which case, you can probably toss that off while you're making dinner plans.) There's also the simple numbers issue, in that there are fewer of us here on the Hill, so it's easier to find men to opine on air.
But here, from someone who's in this world, let me offer just a couple more thoughts. First of all, I've noticed that there is a real status difference in Ottawa between veteran women and men in the political-reporting world. Most of the women I know who've been in Ottawa a couple of decades, like yours truly, are still reporters -- meaning that we still are required to go to the scrums, file the news stories, feed the insatiable beast of breaking news. In the print world, that means filing stories for a roughly 6 p.m. deadline.
Most of the men who have been here that long usually are columnists, meaning that they don't cover the news: they analyze or opine on events from a distance and they're not filing at the whim of news events. There is only one woman columnist for the mainstream media among the parliamentary press gallery -- the formidable Chantal Hebert, my colleague. Yes, I did say one. There are at least half a dozen men, scattered among the Ottawa print bureaus.
** Update: David Akin reminds me that we're about to get one new, Ottawa-based female columnist at SunMedia, Mercedes Stephenson, and that Manon Cornellier also columnizes for Le Devoir. ***
The other female columnists, at my own and other papers, work out of Toronto or other major cities. (Susan Riley, retired, has one column in the Citizen a week, I should say, which I look forward to every week, but she's not employed as a columnist.) The rest of us are reporters, meaning that we don't have the luxury of promising to down tools at 5 p.m. on a regular basis to be on TV. Usually, there are stories to file at that hour. This is a logistics problem, first and foremost.
But let's go back to the "manly" thing too and why Flanagan thought that was a good argument for spouting nonsense on TV.
I don't believe that politics is sports or war. That may make me too feminine. Those metaphors leave me cold, frankly, as do all the barking dogs and bells and staged arguments of the TV panels. When Sun TV started up in its early days this year, the motto was "join the fight." I loved it when one of my female colleagues in the press gallery put on Twitter: "I ain't fighting anybody." Well, I ain't either, and when I watch these efforts to turn politics into a battle to kill someone, metaphorically, or literally, as is the case with Flanagan's ill-considered remarks, I just tune out.
I like TV political panels that have give-and-take -- the At Issue panel on CBC's The National being the best of the lot. I don't like seeing a conversation that amounts to the host asking for provocative or "manly" talking points, and the guests obliging. If I wanted to watch people barking at each other in my living room, I'd put on All in the Family reruns, and watch Archie call his son-in-law names.
This very lengthy post (I realize now) is really just an attempt to start conversation. Those numbers from Informed Opinions are worth some real thought. It's not a coincidence that women's representation in the media is as bleak as it is in the elected world, or in the backrooms. I'd be curious to hear other explanations -- and if you offer them, I promise I won't say I'm going to kill you.