Gender Imbalance on the Campaign Trail

Voters skew female; reporters still do not

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.”

Henneberger was hired by AOL in 2009 to launch a website, Politics Daily, and she put together a predominantly female staff (my husband, Walter Shapiro, was one of the exceptions). “I wasn’t trying to even the score,” insists Henneberger. “But I saw great women writers all around. I think these male-created and male-run outfits tend to come up with a product that is a lot like them. I did the same thing.”

Her tactic did seem to open up the political conversation: Politics Daily’s readership skewed more than 50 percent female. The site closed last year as part of the AOL-HuffPost merger, and Henneberger recently launched a blog, “She The People,” staffed by twenty female contributors, for The Washington Post. “We were the best-read blog on the Post in the first three days right after the Iowa caucus.” says Henneberger. She argues that women writers add something unique to the dialogue. “It’s a different angle of entry. It’s not that the subject matter is any different. We’re not writing about makeup tips; we’re writing the same thing but with a different pair of eyes. It’s not even story choice, it’s just what we bring to it.”

But it’s not easy. Covering a presidential campaign has always been a prestigious and career-making assignment, but the lifestyle has never been for the faint of heart. Think of it as a sleep-deprivation experiment, amplified by bad road food and weeks away from home. Maggie Haberman, of Politico, was spending the last few minutes before the New Hampshire debate calling her husband, New York Post reporter Dareh Gregorian. “He’s been home taking care of our two kids,” she noted. For working women, these situations always involve delicate negotiations. Alice Stewart, the press secretary for Michelle Bachmann and a former local TV anchor, says that she wasn’t surprised to see fewer women in the press corps. “The reality is that many of the women can’t afford to take the time away from their families,” she says. “The men are in a position where they can do that a little easier.”

Do some women opt out of this grueling assignment and is that why news organizations have such lopsided campaign teams? Just ask the question and you get heated answers. “I don’t believe that for a second,” says Henneberger. “When I was at the Times, people were killing each other to get on the road. It’s not reporters self-selecting out. People love it. It’s a great job.” Yet Seema Mehta, of the Los Angeles Times, says she and her friends do worry about their futures. “We talk about it all the time,” she says. “We’re married and we don’t have children yet. We can do it now. But once you reach a certain age and have kids, it’s hard to travel.”

Watching the press corps cover Michelle Bachmann, Alice Stewart says she didn’t think there was any difference between how men and women reporters wrote about the candidate—on substantive issues. “Not if we were covering the news of the day, issues and Michelle’s values, it didn’t matter,” she says. “But when there were stories being done about her as a person or a mother, you could sense the connection in a different way if it was a female reporter than with a man.” Bachmann was comfortable and opened up a little more.

For Bachmann, and Hillary Clinton before her, the quest to become the first female president leads to a level of personal scrutiny that bordered on sexist. Stewart says that she was infuriated by the questions that both male and female reporters asked after the presidential debates. “I’d get calls from reporters wanting to know the maker of her suit, what style or brand. I asked whether they were doing the same with the other candidates and they said no,” Stewart says. “She delivered knock-out performances and they’re talking about the makeup and the clothes she’s wearing. It’s insulting.” With Bachmann out of the race, those kinds of questions are off the table for this presidential cycle.

On the night of the New Hampshire debate, there was one hopeful sign that the future may not resemble the past. In one row in the midst of the press room, a cluster of young women were busily blogging away. Dotty Lynch, formerly political director for CBS, and now a professor of political communication at American University, had brought up a group of her students. “This is a field that women are intrigued by and seem to want to be involved with,” she says, although she cautions, “The people at the top doing the hiring are still mostly white men.“

At many journalism programs—such as American University and New York University, where I teach—applications from women now far outstrip those from men. Maybe four years from now, or eight years from now, and, God forbid, well before another forty years from now—life will look very different out on the campaign trail. Even now, it’s less lonely for women out there on the hustings. As Lynch puts it, “It’s no longer weird to be a girl on the bus anymore.”

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Meryl Gordon is the Director of Magazine Writing at New York University's Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She has been a magazine writer for 25 years and is the author of Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach. Tags: , ,