Affirmative action, while generally a good and necessary thing, has always been more complicated than its supporters admit. It inspires a backlash; it often promotes people who are underprepared for their assigned tasks; and it attaches a stigma to those who do succeed on their own, often with a crushing psychological burden. Yet another problem is how easily it can be manipulated for nefarious purposes.
Women and minorities have been agitating for greater representation in a largely white, male media structure for decades, making their case by the numbers. According to a recent study published by Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR), women made up just 15 percent of sources appearing on the three major network news programs in 2001, while 92 percent of all US sources for whom race was determinable were white.
Conservatives, meanwhile, have also made a case for greater media representation. They’ve done so by redefining the terms of debate. While most pundits and nearly half the “experts” employed by the media are quite conservative by any reasonable or historical measure of the term, that’s not good enough. They are demanding more. Bernard Goldberg, Nat Hentoff and Reed Irvine are hardly the only conservatives who say they deserve greater representation. Many news producers and editorial page editors apparently concur.
The media’s response to the traditional affirmative-action constituencies and the well-funded propaganda offensive by the conservatives has been to capitulate to both sides at once. Hence the rise of the female and/or minority conservative pundit, often unqualified by any traditional standard and frequently close to the line in terms of sanity but with job security the rest of us can only imagine.
When MSNBC began operations in the summer of 1996 and hired eighteen regular pundits–of whom I was one–the most recognizable type among the mostly unknown cast were the blonde and black fire-breathing right-wingers. Laura Ingraham, Ann Coulter, Jennifer Grossman, Niger Innes, Deroy Murdoch, Brian Jones, Joseph Perkins, Betsy Hart (a brunette, but still…); the list goes on and on. At the time, I used to joke that the producers might wish to inquire about the politics of the black/blonde daughter of Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton. If she liked Star Wars and tax cuts for the rich, they should offer her a lifetime contract.
It didn’t matter to the network executives at the time that women and minorities in real life were far more liberal than most television people, and their gimmick was, in that regard, deceptive. These pundits gave the new network some “pop” in the larger media–or so it was believed. In fact, most of those named above have faded back into the proverbial woodwork. But not all. Laura Ingraham now wears her leopard miniskirts on radio and is apparently a political fashion consultant to CNN’s Reliable Sources. (On Al Gore’s Florida speech: “His perspiration was, I mean…it was quite unpleasant.” On the state of the nightly news: “I think one of the worst things that’s happened to news is this sort of open-collared shirt, no tie, you know, do you take the jacket off? That whole, you know, undress thing on television…”)