MANCHESTER, NH — The sea-green and white concrete gymnasium at Saint Anselm College was transformed this past Saturday night into a temporary state-of-the-art filing center for the GOP presidential debate, with big screen TVs, Wi-Fi, and nearly 700 journalists seated at black tablecloth-covered plastic tables, tapping away at keyboards. Yet there was a strangely old-fashioned Front Page element to this press scene—the dominance of men.
“It’s always been lopsided,” says Katharine Seelye of The New York Times, standing in one of the front rows, against the backdrop of virtual sea of blazers, beards, and balding pates. The numbers became especially striking when I walked the room and informally counted heads, coming up with a ratio of nearly four men to every woman. (I wasn’t that far off. The actual count, I would learn later from ABC, was 174 reporters with women’s names out of 675 credentialed for the debate). That said, Seelye, who began covering presidential politics in 1992 for The Philadelphia Inquirer, added that she thinks the situation has improved in the past two decades. “My first year on the bus, I did initially think, ‘there are no women.’”
Indeed. Back in 1972, covering my own first presidential campaign for my college newspaper, The Michigan Daily, there seemed to be a good reason that Timothy Crouse titled his book on that campaign season The Boys on the Bus. While there were a handful of women journalists, I was such a novelty that George McGovern’s press aides invited me onto the candidate’s campaign plane to ride around for a day, to fulfill my request to interview Eleanor McGovern, who hoped to become the First Lady.
Since then, in writing periodically about presidential politics, I’ve certainly run into many more women on the road, such as Karen Tumulty, now of The Washington Post, Times columnists Gail Collins and Maureen Dowd, Susan Page of USA Today, Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun-Times, and Margaret Carlson of Bloomberg News, all of whom were in New Hampshire this cycle. Yet the gender gap remains quite large, even as traditional newspapers shrink their staff and a new crop of online journalists joins the fray.
That is glaringly apparent from a list of journalists covering the campaign compiled by Joe Pompeo of Capital New York, who called news organizations to request their line-ups. While The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, and the New York Daily News have close to male-female parity, many other organizations tilt toward testosterone. Just consider the glossy magazines: Time magazine has nine men and only one woman, Newsweek/The Daily Beast has six men and three women, The Atlantic has seven men and two women, New York magazine has six men and one woman, and The Economist went for broke, with an all-male team of five. At The Boston Globe (seven men, three women) and Reuters (eight men, three women), the ratio is more than two to one.
You would think that things would look better on the web, a young and more democratic medium, but women political reporters are virtually MIA. The Huffington Post has eleven men and only two women; Politico has twelve male reporters and six women on the campaign trail, Talking Points Memo has five men and one woman, and Slate and The Daily both have all-male teams.
Does this gender disparity matter? Does having a predominantly male press corps affect news coverage and the media’s ability to connect with readers? Some women journalists argue that it does, but often in subtle, nuanced ways that are hard to articulate or prove. “Stories tend to be better when people come to them from different perspectives,” says Seema Mehta, a Los Angeles Times reporter, who was at the New Hampshire presidential debate.
At the polling booths, women outnumbered men 53 percent to 47 percent in the 2008 presidential election, according to exit polls. Yet on a day-to-day basis, women are not major consumers of political news. Taegan Goddard, who created and runs the popular ten-year-old website Political Wire, says that he finds the numbers disheartening. “From what I know of my site and other political websites, 65 to 70 percent of readers are men,” he says. “It’s been perplexing, no matter what you do to rope in female readers, it doesn’t seem to stick.”
Perhaps the problem is the tenor of the coverage. Veteran journalist Melinda Henneberger interviewed women in twenty states for her 2007 book If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear. She says, “The thing I heard from everyone, whether liberal or conservative, was how put off a lot of them were by the whole political culture, whole toxic conversation—the screaming candidates and talking heads talking about politics.”