Are Our Critics and Commentators too White?
Should the pundit class look more like America?
Rebecca Traister, a columnist for The Cut, generated quite a bit of social media buzz with her essay, “Politics Is Changing; Why Aren’t the Pundits Who Cover It?”
She hooked me right away with the subhed, “The Donny Deutsch problem in media.” While “Morning Joe” hasn’t been part of my routine for a while, every time he appeared on the screen I wondered Why?
In past weeks, the curtain has officially been raised on the vast and diverse field of candidates for the Democratic nomination, many of them politicians who would not have been seen on a presidential debate stage — and never in these numbers — even a decade ago. Six of the 25 declared candidates are not men; six of them are not white; there is one openly gay man and one Jew who’s also a democratic socialist. During the first round of debates, several candidates made efforts to speak Spanish that, while performative, reflected an overdue acknowledgment that they were speaking to a broader swath of the country than the moderate white men in diners to whom so much Democratic messaging has been directed for decades. Beyond their representational expansion, many of the candidates are offering up compelling, progressive policy ideas: pushing the party into fights for single-payer health care, subsidized child care, free college, a Green New Deal, a stronger commitment to reproductive justice and a push for more humane immigration policies.
Meh. Three cycles—and thus more than a decade—ago, the contest featured a woman as front-runner and she was defeated by a black man with a funny name. That same woman came back and won last cycle—holding off the Jew who’s also a democratic socialist. And the same woman was pushing for single-payer healthcare more than a quarter-century ago.
And, hell, Jimmy Carter was speaking Spanish on the campaign trail in 1976 and several Republicans have done so over the past two decades—George W. Bush, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz come to mind. So, it’s not that novel.
All of which is a digression from the actual point, so let’s move on to that.
But we’re also getting our first real taste of the punditry that will frame this next year and a half, and so far, it is the opposite of fresh, diverse, or forward-thinking. Rather, the analysis coughed up by some of the nation’s loudest and most prominent talking heads sounds familiar and stale. The dispiriting truth is that many of those tasked with interpreting our politics are — in addition to being extremely freaked out by the race they’re covering — totally ill-equipped for the historic task ahead of them.
So, what else is new? Pundits have an incredibly long shelf life and most of them are reporters with no special training in politics, economics, business, statistical analysis, or anything else that would be useful.
Where many Americans have seen the emergence of compelling and charismatic candidates who don’t look like those who’ve preceded them (but do look more like the country they want to lead), some prominent pundits seem to be looking at a field of people they simply can’t recognize as presidential. Where many hear Democratic politicians arguing vigorously on behalf of more justice and access to resources for people who have historically been kept at the margins of power, some prominent columnists are hearing a scary call to destabilization and chaos, imagining themselves on the outside of politics they’ve long assumed should be centered around them.
Altogether, what’s emerging is a view of a presidential commentariat that — in terms of both ideas and diversity — is embarrassingly outpaced by the candidates, many of whom appear smarter, more thoughtful, and to have a nimbler grasp of American history and structural inequities than the television journalists being paid to cover them.
I’m not sure that’s all that new, either.
The day after the first pair of debates, Morning Joe host Joe Scarborough declared them “a disaster for the Democratic Party,” and hoped that no one had been watching (in fact, they had been watching; ratings were startlingly robust). Scarborough particularly bemoaned candidates’ opinions on immigration — namely that crossing the border should be reclassified as a federal misdemeanor, not a crime; and that immigrants should be entitled to health care — chiding that these ideas “may make Democrats feel really good about themselves,” but would lose them the election. This week, Scarborough went on a Twitter tear, venting against “woke Democrats” and their drive left, later deleting his thread.
Meanwhile, the Washington Post‘s Robert J. Samuelson asserted that the Democratic candidates resemble “a gaggle of graduate students.” At the debates, all of them, he conceded, “seemed articulate and intelligent … None, however, seemed ‘presidential.'” At the New York Times, Never Trump conservative Bret Stephens was worse, arguing that if Democrats continue to do things like speak Spanish and argue for universal health care, they’ll not only “lose the elections,” they’ll “deserve it,” and suggesting that the candidates’ fights on behalf of immigrants, workers, the uninsured, and the economically struggling shows that Democrats are more invested “in them instead of us,” a formulation in which “us” seems clearly to stand for the white and the well-off, and “them” is … everyone else.
In particular, Stephens criticized Kamala Harris’s “scurrilous attack” on Joe Biden during the second debate, in which she confronted the former vice-president over his praise for segregationists he’d boasted of working alongside in his Senate career and pointed out that the very busing measures he’d sided with Republicans to oppose had been what enabled her to attend an integrated elementary school. Stephens compared Harris critically to Barack Obama, writing of the former president’s ability to “[make] you feel comfortable no matter the color of your skin,” and argued that Harris, by contrast, made “white Americans feel racially on trial.”
Stephens is a hack. Otherwise, though, this is all perfectly reasonable–if overwrought—analysis. The combination of our zeitgeist and system gave us Donald Trump last cycle. To the extent that the objective is to oust Trump, it behooves the Democrats to nominate someone who won’t alienate swing voters in places like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
And, as much as I hate to admit it, even Donny Deutsch may be right:
Cable news analysis hit another low when Donny Deutsch, an advertising and branding executive who for years had his own CNBC show and was recently hired by MSNBC to host a weekly political talk show, said of Elizabeth Warren, whom he has predicted will lose 48 states should she become the nominee: “I think she’s delightful, I think she’s wonderful, I’m a big fan, I just don’t think she has what it takes to beat this president the same way … an idealized version of Joe Biden [does].” When challenged by MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell, Deutsch got defensive: “I am understanding Donald Trump, the way he connects with this country, and the strength he exudes. We need to exude a stronger strength.” Deutsch exuded his own stronger strength by affirming that he is “a guy who’s done this for 30 years and watched human behavior.”
Traister points to some creepy things Deutsch has said and written about women over the years, none of which I’m going to defend. But I’m not sure he’s wrong about Warren. While I don’t share her politics, I find her likeable and admirable. But I’m not sure a wonky Massachusetts liberal is going to win back Obama voters than went for Trump last cycle.
Still, Traister makes a strong point when she observes,
This is the suffocatingly grim reality: Even after the peeling off of a layer of the political media’s most prominent interlocutors during #MeToo — including Charlie Rose, Mark Halperin, Bill O’Reilly and Matt Lauer —television coverage of the 2020 election is still being led by men who have sketchy histories around gender and power. Even after a midterm season in which women — many of them women of color, some of them very progressive — won elections in historic numbers; even in the midst of a presidential crisis during which poor, black, brown, and immigrant communities have been made more vulnerable than ever, and have been brought closer to the center — finally — of left political engagement and activism; even given all of this, so many of the voices interpreting the events around us still belong to the guys who’ve been clumsily telling us what to think about politics for ages.
But I think she’s engaging in wishful thinking here:
Of course, it’s the swiftness of the political current that is making so many long-entrenched pundits so uncomfortable. They feel left behind and are convinced that the electorate reflects their own perspectives — as Donny Deutsch said last week to O’Donnell, “I guarantee you 90 percent of our audience agrees with me.” These analysts feel that a Democratic Party that’s moving left is ditching not just them, but their platonic ideal of a Democratic voter — concocted in the same spirit that Deutsch may imagine an “idealized version of Joe Biden”: a white centrist they are sure not only represents the average American, but the Democratic base. But in all of their hand-wringing, they seem not to have noticed that, in fact, assumptions about a safe center are crumbling in the hands of a new generation of political leaders willing to make a stirring case for radical ideas.
Support for the Green New Deal, a policy proposal which was treated as a joke not just by Republicans but by many in the Democratic Party and the press upon its inception, appears to have risen precipitously; a majority of voters support Medicare for All (even as many don’t totally understand what it entails). The majority of Americans support the kind of wealth tax that Elizabeth Warren is proposing, even as some economists criticize it as unrealistic. In fact, in this period during which mainstream political analysts talk so much about the perils of Democrats getting ever more progressive, a study released by the University of North Carolina last month showed American support for left-wing policy to be at a 60-year high, suggesting that perhaps the prescription being offered by these men — which if I’m piecing it all together correctly would be a moderate show of masculine prowess and deficit-wary conservatism that makes white people feel good about themselves — might be the very thing that has kept many voters from investing energetically in the Democratic Party until now. And the thing they fear most — these women and nonwhite guys with their angry voices and memories of being discriminated against who are not tall enough to debate Trump — may be what galvanizes the party.
There’s something to be said for energizing the base. While Trump drove old-style conservatives like myself from the party, he mobilized the populists in the base and even some of the Bernie Bros. Meanwhile, lots of Obama supporters stayed home for whatever reason despite the threat Trump represented.
It’s true that there’s strong support for a theoretical single-payer system. Hell, I support it. But Sanders, Warren, and Harris are running on the opposite of Obama’s unfortunate “If you like your healthcare plan, you can keep it.” Eliminating private insurance may make economic sense but it’s wildly unpopular.
Similarly, a massive program to stave off the worst aspects of climate change sounds good. But the devil is in the details. Americans aren’t going to vote themselves a major lifestyle sacrifice today in exchange for a theoretical improvement in the environment generations from now.
Still, Traister could well be right here:
And in this small but serious way, some of these pundits do reflect one angle of what’s been happening in the primary field: the front-runner status of Joe Biden, a man who has flamed out of two previous presidential primary campaigns — one in which he was caught plagiarizing, one in which he spoke in affably racist terms about his competitor, Barack Obama, then won less than one percent of the Iowa caucus vote — yet has nonetheless continued to wield political power, and to lead this year’s presidential pack in terms of fundraising, polling, and press coverage.
Biden, like many of the most prominent men covering him, was born into a world in which every system was set up to help him build and preserve his own power, even — in fact by definition — at the expense of others. These guys are on some level unprepared for a universe in which others, people whose childhoods were shaped by the busing policies they were creating, might one day stand up and challenge them; in which a woman whose family once teetered on the brink of home foreclosure might fight them tooth and nail on bankruptcy reform, or in which they would be forced to reckon with a debate stage filled with those who felt it important to speak Spanish.
Now, I reject the notion that Biden’s “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man” was racist. Or that losing a race you were hardly in constitutes “flaming out.” But Biden’s ability to win a national race is indeed not only theoretical but against all evidence.
It’s based, presumably, on our backward analysis of 2016. Clinton won the national popular vote by nearly three million but failed to appeal to disaffected blue-collar voters in a handful of Rust Belt states. Pundits have been saying “Biden woulda won” and even “Bernie woulda won” ever since.
I tend to think that’s true. But we don’t know that. It’s possible that the gains in white males in those three states would have been offset by lower turnout among women and minority voters.
Regardless, 2020 isn’t 2016 and Trump’s popularity is historically low. It may well be that energizing Democratic base will be more important than catering to swing voters. Or that literally any Democrat is going to have an easy victory, so they may as well shoot for the moon.
Aside from lamenting the same old white dudes, Traister doesn’t really offer a solution. Presumably, she just wants more women and persons of color on her TV screen. Or maybe she just wants MSNBC to get rid of Donny Deutsch and Chris Matthews.
Over at the New York Times, Elizabeth Méndez Berry and Chi-hui Yang lament “The Dominance of the White Male Critic.” The bulk of the essay is about those who get paid to offer their opinions on the fine arts, a subject in which I have little interest and less expertise. It’s something of a mess, particularly since some of the ire is directed at white women.
But Berry and Yang ultimately get to the value of diverse viewpoints that Traister merely implies.
[T]hose who have for decades been given the biggest platforms to interpret culture are white men. This means that the spaces in media where national mythologies are articulated, debated and affirmed are still largely segregated. The conversation about our collective imagination has the same blind spots as our political discourse.
Reviews create momentum that shape economic and intellectual marketplaces.
Consider how this played out around the movie “Green Book.” When it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September, most of the reviewers heralded it as a heartwarming triumph over racism.
But two months later, when it started screening in movie theaters across America, black writers saw it as another trite example of the country’s insatiable appetite for white-savior narratives.
The initial positive buzz set such a strong tone that its best-picture win at the Academy Awards seemed a foregone conclusion. But that didn’t stop the white filmmakers from going after black reviewers like K. Austin Collins of Vanity Fair who found it problematic.
“What the makers of this movie are missing is just that many black critics didn’t get to see this movie until it came out,” during Oscar season, well after early screenings for critics, Mr. Collins said during a panel at the Sundance Film Festival.
“When black critics do finally get to see this movie, it is seen as disrupting the Oscar campaign,” Mr. Collins said. “I don’t think any of us really care about that. We care about representation.”
The example of “Green Book” shows how uncritical affection for superficially benevolent stories can actually reinforce the racial hierarchies this country is built on. We need culture writers who see and think from places of difference and who are willing to take unpopular positions so that ideas can evolve or die.
Artists and institutions should demand that diverse writers have access to screenings, shows and red carpets . . .
Much of the rest is bizarre and fanciful (We must pay art critics way more even though they generate little interest! Entrenched critics must step aside!) but really beyond this discussion. But the central point about viewpoint diversity is valuable.
I’m aware of the “Green Book” controversy only because it was the subject of an episode of the New York Times’ “The Daily” podcast (“What Hollywood Keeps Getting Wrong About Race“) a while back. It’s a reverse “Driving Miss Daisy” but with the same plot conceit: a racist white gets transformed through a personal relationship with a black man. It’s a surefire hit with white, liberal movie critics and a shopworn trope many African-Americans find offensive because it implies that it’s somehow their duty to fix white racism.
Correcting the blind spots Traister, Berry, and Yang point to isn’t that easy.
Major networks, magazines, and newspapers have been working to diversify their commentariat for at least as long as I’ve been paying attention to such things—going back over four decades. I literally can’t remember a time when there weren’t women (Cokie Roberts, Eleanor Clift, Gloria Borger, Judy Woodruff, etc.) and African-Americans (Clarence Page, Juan Williams, Tony Brown, etc.) doing political commentary. And the diversification net has widened over the years to include Latino, gay, and lesbian voices. Indeed, Rachel Maddow, a lesbian, is almost certainly the main face of MSNBC at this point.
Still, there’s no doubt that white guys continue to be disproportionately featured. There’s tremendous inertia in the business, so many faces from twenty, thirty, and even forty years ago are still around. It took a major scandal to get Charlie Rose to go away and Chris Matthews doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. But the same inertia keeps Cokie Roberts around, too, so it’s not just the men.
In the days when I was an avid watcher of the talking heads, I found comfort in the banal familiarity. While a handful of the regular pundits (George Will, Michael Kinsley, and Charles Krauthammer come to mind) were genuinely brilliant or had unique perspectives, most of them offered variations of the same, bland, mildly elitist ideas. Or played their roles as representatives of the left-right dichotomy dutifully.
In areas where I had some expertise, such as defense and foreign affairs, they were almost always underwhelming in their knowledge. But I tuned in, anyway, because they were the only game in town. I only drifted away because I started blogging and found engaging with other bloggers and commenters more intellectually stimulating than watching talking heads.
Having watched only rarely over the last decade and a half, I’m only casually familiar with the current state of play. There certainly seem to be plenty of women, persons of color, and young people on the shows. Are they not being given adequate airtime? Being crowded out by the oldsters?
For that matter, considering that we tend to pick from the same feeder systems (Columbia’s journalism school, the NYT, WaPo, and WSJ) as before, it’s not obvious that the women or minority pundits are even all that different from the white guys.