The historic and long-running presidential campaigns of Senator Barack Obama and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton have injected issues of race and gender into politics as never before. With campaign coverage center stage on the cable channels, producers and critics are again assessing the diversity among pundits, who talk (and talk) about things like Mr. Obama’s pastor, the Hispanic vote, Iraq and the economy.
Both MSNBC and CNN this election season have given new prominence to a handful of contributing commentators from varied backgrounds and perspectives: blacks, Hispanics and women. Whether such moves signal real progress in diversifying the punditocracy or merely reflect the needs of a particular news cycle is the question, some media experts say. The most prominent positions on television remain overwhelmingly with those who are white and male, and some critics note how striking that non-inclusion can seem during this election year.
“Whatever progress has been made with contributors and commentators as of late, the cable networks have a long way to go before they look like the American people,” said Karl Frisch, the spokesman for Media Matters for America, a liberal television watchdog group. He added that white men were the hosts of all the major Sunday morning talk shows, the major prime-time cable news programs and – except for Katie Couric, a relative newcomer – the network evening news broadcasts.
But incremental gains should not be dismissed even if more change is needed, said Pamela Newkirk, an associate professor of journalism at New York University and author of “Within the Veil: Black Journalists, White Media” (New York University Press, 2000).
Black commentators under 40 at CNN, like the journalist and radio host Roland S. Martin; Amy Holmes, a conservative strategist and a former senior speechwriter for Bill Frist, Republican of Tennessee, the former Senate majority leader; and Jamal Simmons, a Democratic strategist, Obama supporter and veteran press spokesman with international experience, have been “breakout stars” this election, Professor Newkirk said.
“They bring such a fresh perspective that we are unaccustomed to hearing in the mainstream media,” she said. “Hopefully, the value of having different perspectives will be appreciated beyond this historic campaign.”
The 2008 lineup at CNN also includes Alex Castellanos, a Cuban-born Republican strategist, and Leslie Sanchez, a Mexican-American Republican strategist who has also appeared on Fox News.
Donna Brazile, who is black and a well-known Democratic strategist, is also a regular CNN contributor who was part of the team in 2004.
Their counterparts at MSNBC include Michelle Bernard, a lawyer by training, who is black and conservative; Rachel Maddow, who is white and has a show on the liberal Air America Radio; Eugene H. Robinson, a black columnist for The Washington Post; and Joe Watkins, a Republican strategist who is also black. Last week Harold Ford Jr., a former congressman from Tennessee, made his MSNBC debut as a political analyst. Mr. Ford, a black Democrat, had been an analyst at Fox News.
Juan Williams, who is black and a National Public Radio correspondent, is a longtime regular on “Fox News Sunday,” which also uses minority female analysts like Angela McGlowan, a Republican strategist who is black; Michelle Malkin, a conservative Filipino-American journalist; and Linda Chavez, who is Hispanic and held positions in the Reagan administration. A recent addition is Laura Ingraham, a syndicated radio host who is white.
All the commentators appear when the networks need them, but are on television more than guest pundits from the outside. While a few are unknown to general audiences, they all come with extensive résumés that mostly include backgrounds in journalism, politics, academe, nonprofit organizations or business.
“We’re trying to attract a new audience drawn to the broad interest in this campaign,” said Phil Griffin, senior vice president of NBC News and the executive in charge of MSNBC.
When asked how the network finds its commentators, Mr. Griffin said, “It’s word of mouth – someone says, ‘Let’s use this person.’ ” He added, “After the Don Imus situation, we had to reflect and say we’ve got to make a bigger commitment” to diversity.
Jon Klein, the president of CNN’s domestic networks, said he believed that the same historical forces that put Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton on the cusp of the Democratic nomination also meant that more people of color and more women were available as talking heads. The channel did not round them up just because of this election, he said, adding that CNN has a commitment to reflect the country.
“With the advent of the Internet, consumers realized that there are a lot of other voices,” he said. “There are an awful lot of people writing, at think tanks, advising campaigns.”
Barbara Ciara, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, said that all the election coverage on television left “a lot to be desired” when it comes to her members. The black pundits often disappear as quickly as they arrive, she said, and too often talk only about race.
A more saladlike pundit mix has been front and center in the last couple of weeks, she said, because of news developments: Mr. Obama’s speech on race, prompted by the controversy over the remarks of his former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.; and Geraldine Ferraro‘s assertion that Mr. Obama’s race was a reason for his political success.
Diversity is not just good journalism but also good business, Ms. Ciara and others said.
“It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to understand that a large number of the audience is black, Hispanic and women,” said Al Primo, a television news executive who invented the “Eyewitness News” format decades ago and helped give many black and Hispanic journalists their first breaks. He added, “If you’re a Hispanic-American or an African-American, you don’t want to get a sense that they don’t understand your perspective.”
With hours to fill, political coverage consumes the cable channels. During the week that included Feb. 5 (the day of coast-to-coast nominating contests) CNN’s ratings among viewers 18 to 34 were up 232 percent over the corresponding week in the 2004 election, and, CNN officials said, its audience on that date was 36 percent black and Hispanic. Fox attracted 78 percent more young viewers, and MSNBC was up 400 percent (although from a much smaller base) from the same week during the 2004 election.
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, said that cable programs relied more and more on people who can analyze campaign developments, rather than just report them. So television needs more pundits and more kinds of pundits, he said.
“In the past week we have seen a distinct difference in commentary on Rev. Wright from people who have spent time in black churches and those who have not,” said Gwen Ifill, a senior correspondent for “The Newshour With Jim Lehrer” on PBS and moderator of “Washington Week.”
Recently, on CNN, when Mr. Martin butted heads with a guest, Tony Beam, a host of “Christian Worldview Today,” he was able to say that his listeners at his radio station back in Chicago understood why Mr. Obama stood by Mr. Wright.
“In any other year, when Geraldine Ferraro said what she did, it would have been people saying, ‘Oh, no, she didn’t mean anything,’ ” added Mr. Martin, a nationally syndicated columnist and author. He predicted a growing appetite for more multidimensional analysis.
Indeed, Ms. Sanchez indicated that she had plenty of television suitors. “I’m everywhere,” she said, adding that in addition to her work for CNN, she had recently been on “Studio B With Shepherd Smith” on Fox discussing the controversy over Mr. Obama’s former pastor, as well as the fight over the primaries in Michigan and Florida.
She and Ms. Bernard of MSNBC, like the other analysts, said they were not confined to speaking about race and gender but did not shy away from them, either.
Ms. Bernard, the president of the Independent Women’s Forum, a right-of-center research and education institution in Washington, recalled chiding Patrick J. Buchanan, the conservative commentator, for calling Mr. Obama “articulate,” saying the term, when used to describe an accomplished black person, often carries the connotation of being unexpected.
Those different voices have injected some new life into the world of talking heads, some critics said.
“We haven’t ever had as much talk about women as voters, except as soccer moms,” said Marie C. Wilson, president of the White House Project, which seeks to advance women in business, politics and media. “Now there’s talk about white women, African-American women, women over 60, and what about Latinos?”
Mark Anthony Neal, who is black and teaches black popular culture at Duke University, said: “There is suddenly a demand for smart Negroes. You’re seeing a lot less of the Jesse Jacksons and the Al Sharptons and more academics and thought-leaders. This is expressly in response to Barack Obama, less so Hillary. Because of the combination of Hillary and Barack, you’re seeing more black women.”
The shift to more interpretation and less reporting calls for greater transparency about who is talking, said Mr. Rosenstiel of the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Often the channels put labels like “Clinton supporter” or “Republican strategist” on the screen.
“If these are people you don’t know well, that’s an issue,” Mr. Rosenstiel said. “Just because people aren’t aligned officially, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have allegiances.”
Many of the pundits said they had received an overwhelmingly positive response from viewers. Mr. Martin described getting e-mail messages from junior high school students and being hailed by men who shine shoes.
“Even in this day and age, people have not been exposed to a lot of different kinds of people,” Ms. Bernard said, “so it’s important for us to all be here on TV together, talking about these things that really matter.”