The White Political Dudefest

Data analysis reveals a diversity problem with Slate’s flagship podcast

Amelia Showalter

Slate Political Gabfest, I love you. I look forward to Friday morning every week, knowing there will be a new episode I can mainline while commuting or doing chores. I even attended one of the Slate Political Gabfest live shows here in Washington, DC. So, my dear Slate Political Gabfest, I hope you understand that when I criticize, it’s out of love.

But there’s no getting around it. The Slate Political Gabfest has a problem with gender and race. And at this important moment when Slate is handing over the editorial reins from David Plotz to Julia Turner, it seems like a good time to take a hard look at the numbers for its flagship podcast.

As regular listeners of the Political Gabfest know, this news analysis podcast is hosted by three people: Plotz, John Dickerson, and Emily Bazelon. All are white, and obviously two thirds of them are male. This, however, is not actually what I’m going to complain about. Three is far too small a sample size, statistically speaking, from which to draw strong conclusions. Plus, I generally kinda like the hosts, and would hardly advocate that any of them get booted. Plotz, incidentally, has announced he will stay with the podcast even after leaving his role as editor of the magazine.

Sample size is much less problematic, though, when considering the list of substitute hosts that have appeared on the Political Gabfest. When Bazelon, Plotz, and/or Dickerson are absent, the show brings in guests to fulfill hosting duties for that week. On occasion, they’ll even bring in two guest hosts to replace one regular host. I’m sure Slate would agree that diverse perspectives can add texture to news analysis, so guest host slots can be seen as a unique opportunity to enrich the conversation.

I scraped the Political Gabfest archive on Slate’s website and found over 270 regular episodes (not including bonus segments). Of these 270+ episodes, 83% had bylines for all three of the usual hosts; absenteeism is not especially common. Still, I found 48 episodes where at least one of the regular hosts was out, prompting the need for pinch hitters. You can probably see where I’m going with this: the substitutes they brought in for those 48 episodes were overwhelmingly white and male.

Let’s start with gender. By my count, there have been 12 female and 43 male substitute hosts. It is surprising that Slate would consider it acceptable to have nearly 80% of its guest political commentary coming from men. If anything, one might think Slate would use its substitute host slots to invite more women onto the program and balance out its usual baseline of two-thirds male, one-third Bazelon. But Slate has not demonstrated any such inclination. Instead, Slate is sending a message that women are rarely the most qualified to comment on the news of the day. This message is likely unintentional, given that the magazine has now entrusted a woman to lead the whole operation, but intention doesn’t change the numbers.

Gender is even more of a factor when zooming in on Bazelon, Plotz, and Dickerson individually. Emily Bazelon, the show’s lone female host, has been absent twelve times. In five of those instances she was replaced by a woman, in six, a man. In the twelfth case Bazelon was actually replaced by both a man and a woman — there were four total hosts that week. Regardless of how you count that last case, the gender ratio of Bazelon’s substitutes is close to 50:50 — much higher than the 22:78 ratio for the whole guest pool. On the one hand, it’s good that they’re minimizing the number of episodes with zero female voices. But on the other hand, it suggests that opportunities for women journalists to appear on the Gabfest are quite dependent on Emily Bazelon being absent. That Bazelon’s substitute gender ratio is so more female-skewed than her colleagues’ ratios has the effect of tokenizing both Bazelon and her female replacements.

Obviously, the solution is not to reduce the number of women taking Bazelon’s place, but to increase the number of women substituting for Plotz and Dickerson. The gender ratio of their substitutes is dismaying. David Plotz, by my count, has been absent from the podcast eighteen times and was replaced by a woman only three times (17%).

Dickerson, likewise, has had only had three female replacements. But his higher number of absences (24) means that women have substituted for Dickerson only 12.5% of the time. Are we to understand that only under extraordinary circumstances can a woman journalist fill the Dickerson-sized hole left in his absence?

If anyone is fretting that it’s just as important to have male representation as female representation, rest assured, Dickerson and Plotz are rarely gone at the same time. So why are they almost always replaced by men? Would it be so awful to have more than one woman contributing to a conversation about the news? Slate’s own lady-centric Double X Gabfest has brought in male substitute hosts twelve times in the 98 episodes listed on Slate’s website. If Slate thinks it’s important to give men a platform to talk about women’s issues twelve times, then surely Slate can do better than twelve female substitute hosts in 275 episodes of its news analysis podcast.

When it comes to race, the Slate Political Gabfest also fails. Of course, given that its three hosts are all white, literally one single substitute host who is a person of color would improve the long-term diversity of its voices. Yet, it hardly feels like progress that during the 48 episodes in which a regular host was absent, only four times does the guest host byline go to a person of color. (In zero cases was the guest a woman of color.)

What’s especially weird is that in three of the four cases, the host of color shared duties with a another (white) guest host, meaning the podcast had four total hosts those weeks. In only one case did a person of color have sole custody of the guest slot.

This means that 47 out of 48 times (98%), a white regular host was replaced by at least one white guest host. The non-white guests, all black men, were rather transparently brought in to discuss one or more black issues. To be fair, they were allowed to discuss other topics as well (the show usually covers three topics per week). But the presence of white co-substitutes gives the impression that Slate didn’t fully trust its black guest hosts to be able to cover the “non-racial” topics solo.

Bringing in people of color to discuss issues that are important to people of color is hardly a grave crime. When the podcast covers topics like Trayvon Martin, entrenched poverty, and the Congressional Black Caucus, it’s good to hear from people like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jamelle Bouie, and Cord Jefferson. Slate shouldn’t shy away from bringing in relevant voices. The podcast has discussed immigration reform on many occasions, but has never brought in a Latin@ substitute host to speak about it. There are any number of issues important to Asian Americans, Native Americans, Arab Americans, and so forth, where a voice from that community might provide valuable insight.

But, more to the point, there are non-white commentators who are fully qualified to provide analysis on any of the political issues the Gabfest tackles. Foreign policy, LGBT rights, political campaigns, Supreme Court decisions, the debt ceiling — it’s maybe just possible that non-white women and men could provide insights on these topics as well. But the message that Slate is sending with its choice of substitute hosts is that white journalists are preferable when discussing general news.

As with any data research, my numbers could contain errors. I collected my data by looking at bylines in Slate’s archive, and not by listening to all 270+ podcasts on loop. If, say, Slate erroneously listed John Dickerson’s byline on an episode and there was actually a Latina journalist in his place that week, I’d likely have missed it (though as a longtime listener, I don’t recall such a time). And since I only looked at episodes where a substitute host was required, I am ignoring instances where the three regular hosts brought in a fourth person as an interviewee.

But a few data errors will not affect the fundamental trends revealed here. Every time a host is absent from its flagship podcast, Slate has to decide who it trusts to analyze and comment on current political topics. Almost always, Slate chooses white men.

Maybe it’s not malicious. Maybe Slate’s decision-makers have, in each instance, been so focused on their in-the-moment need for a guest host that they’ve failed to notice the aggregate record they have built. But it’s time for them to get wise and take action. Are guest hosts pulled largely from within Slate’s own senior ranks? Perhaps Slate needs to do better recruitment and retention of people who aren’t white men. The newly elevated Julia Turner is a great example, but what about others in the Slate newsroom who could fill in on the podcast? And when looking for guests from outside its own organization, Slate has a whole world of female and non-white news analysts to choose from. Even if the profession itself has its own race and gender problems, surely Slate could find at least one woman of color to invite (for the very first time in its run). And if it does, that woman should not feel tokenized to be asked; hopefully she’ll know she should have been invited a long time ago.

So, my dear Gabfest, I’ll probably keep listening to you every Friday. But I hope the voices I hear become a little more diverse, and the conversation a little richer. You can do better! All it takes is will.

Amelia Showalter is a data expert and political consultant who served as Director of Digital Analytics on the 2012 Obama campaign. She lives in Washington, DC, and tweets at @ameliashowalter. @ Medium

Worth your time.

    Amelia Showalter

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    Numbers! Politics! Former Director of Digital Analytics for #Obama2012, current consultant. I like nerdy things, feminism, pop culture, and food. @ Medium

    Worth your time.