Comments Welcome, but They Should Be about What Matters

November 11, 2009

When I first started following the Washington Post’s America’s Next Great Pundit competition, the field had been narrowed down to 10 contestants from the original 4,800 competitors. The winner of the ANGP contest will have the opportunity to write 13 weekly columns for the Post, an experience offering great media exposure. Yet the 1-1 ratio of male to female contestants at that stage in the game in no way reflects the world of pundits, where 85 percent of opinion writers and 84 percent of television pundits are male.

I read the two columns each contestant had written, and I also reviewed the first 15 to 20 comments that followed each column. Although every article had an overwhelming number of readers who had no qualms about posting their dislikes, I was shocked by some of responses people had left on the articles written by the women.

After reading Courtney Martin’s piece about work-life balance, one commenter told her to take off her “feminist blinders.” Martin’s second column, about measuring her community involvement since President Obama’s election, drew a critique that she wrote her article like a “teen age beauty queen.” Neither comment provided helpful suggestions or concerns about the points Martin made or her writing style.

Another finalist, Lydia Khalil, wrote about an unlikely viewing constituency of Fox News — older Arab Americans. One person referred to Khalil as a “pretty, Christian, Arab-American.” What does being pretty have to do with the quality of her article? While many people made it clear that they strongly disliked the topic, style, and opinions of all 20 articles posted, not a single comment following a male contestant’s column said, “Well, I don’t agree with him at all, but he sure is handsome.”

Mara Gay also attracted some feedback that was unlike any comments left for the men. In response to “Questioning the Mom in Chief,” one reader noted that her “feminist sensitivities regarding the ‘weaker sex’ need to be turned down a notch or two.”

Attacking personal comments are, of course, not limited to these five would-be female pundits. Even women who have found great success in the media, such as Katie Couric, tend to be subject to endless discussions; they are too mean when they ask tough questions, too soft when they relate to an interviewee. I wonder if the ratio of male to female pundits would be more balanced if they were both judged on the same criteria — the quality of their analysis and, when appropriate, writing style.

It’s been more than four years since New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote, “This job has not come easily to me. But I have no doubt there are plenty of brilliant women who would bring grace and guts to our nation’s op-ed pages. … We just need to find and nurture them.” Women’s presence in the media has not changed much since that column was printed, and there can be no doubt that women continue to be held to an inappropriate and unequal standard.

Today there are five contestants remaining in the ANGP competition — three women and two men. I hope that a woman wins this competition and, more important, inspires others to make their voices heard. It is time to focus on the quality of a woman’s knowledge, not her hair cut.

This post was written by guest contributor Annie Hunt.

By:   |   November 11, 2009

1 Comment

  1. Kate Farrar says:

    85% of op-ed writers are male and 84% of TV pundits are male. Those stats were shared with me at the latest training I attended by the Op-Ed Project.

    The Op-Ed Project started with the simple mission of getting more women to write op-eds. Similar to the lack of women in the pipeline to run for office, there just are not enough women submitting op-eds.

    I’ve committed to writing my first op-eds to submit…and I can’t be alone!

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