Women Lend Their Voices, Expertise To TV's Political Round Tables

GROWING PUNDIT INDUSTRY

When journalism historians of the future chart 20th-century achievements of women in the media, 1996 may go down as a benchmark year.

Not because of the jobs women held behind the scenes - for the first time all three directors of political coverage at the major networks were women, for example - but because of the role women played in front of the cameras.

In 1996, women-as-pundits was a growth industry. The hiring by CNN of two twenty-something women, Farai Chideya and Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, to offer nightly political analysis was a first for the network. Last summer, the launch of MSNBC marked the debut of daily appearances from the new cable channel's 27 resident pundits - 10 of whom are women. On PBS and CNN, all-women round tables debated everything from Richard Jewell's privacy to Ross Perot's politics.

True, women have yet to be fully welcomed in the networks' executive board rooms and anchor booths. But in the world of network talk shows and panel discussions, women are finding more opportunities to offer their own take on issues of the day.

"Women bring a different perspective to the issues, especially when they have a personal stake in them," says Gloria Borger, political columnist at U.S. News and World Report and a panelist on "Washington Week in Review." "[Women are] the ones who worry the most about Medicare and Social Security."

Even before family values and soccer moms became the focus of Sunday-morning talk shows, women pundits "were more attuned to issues like family leave, childcare, and education, issues which now loom high on the national political agenda," says Howard Kurtz, media critic for The Washington Post.

"Women do provide a different take on politics and policy in a world that has long been dominated by middle-aged white guys in suits," he says.

On the Nov. 17 edition of "The McLaughlin Group," for example, the discussion turned to US Army officers charged with rape and sexual harassment at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes said the issue was "whether women in the military should be fully integrated" into the US Army. Newsweek columnist Eleanor Clift ridiculed Mr. Barnes's framing of the question, countering, "The last time I checked, rape and assault have been criminal acts for hundreds of years, and fraternization in the Army has been illegal ever since George Washington was at Valley Forge."

Women pundits, like men, got their start in opinionmaking from the perches of newspaper pages. Columns by Dorothy Thompson and Eleanor Roosevelt in the 1930s, Hedda Hopper in the 1950s, and Mary McGrory in the 1970s were widely read. But with the explosion of new cable channels in the 1980s came many more programming platforms for pundits of all persuasions.

The rise of women pundits on the networks follows the wave of women who worked their way up the broadcasting ladder in the 1970s and '80s. Cokie Roberts, arguably television's most visible woman pundit, joined ABC News in 1988 as a special correspondent while also serving as a news analyst for National Public Radio.

Of particular interest to women columnists during this year's presidential campaign was covering "character." Ms. Borger believes, "The day women came into the newsroom is the day the press started covering character."

After presidential adviser Dick Morris resigned in the face of accusations he consorted with a call girl, for example, Borger wrote about what she saw as gender favoritism by the White House. "If it were a female aide who was in Dick Morris's situation, she wouldn't have received apologies from [President] Clinton and a multimillion dollar book deal," she says.

But in the world of muzzle-velocity opinion, not everyone is convinced that a difference in gender brings a difference in discourse. Some analysts believe that television's growing punditocracy is undermining the very conversations it conducts, and that pundits of both genders are to blame.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, herself an oft-quoted expert on the press, says that public-policy debates among television pundits focus too often on strategy and too little on substance.

Punditry, or what Ms. Jamieson terms "creeping expertise," is too often couched with a "lack of respect for evidence and the lack of a civil tone." It's a trap Steve Lewis, the senior producer at MSNBC who hired all 27 of the new network's on-air contributors, seeks to avoid.

The women hired by Mr. Lewis are part of MSNBC's quest to find "a new generation of voices and faces," he says. At the same time, "We don't do shouting matches. We won't allow them."

Throughout each day MSNBC hosts three consecutive on-air round tables - an average of nine different analysts chewing over the day's news - which means that a woman commentator is almost always at the table. Among MSNBC's female contributors are E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist; Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation; and Laura Ingraham, an attorney and conservative commentator.

Whether or not women pundits bring talk television back to a pre-"McLaughlin Group" age, producers and pundits themselves believe that closing the TV gender gap will bring new sensibilities to a medium increasingly known more for its heat than its light.

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