Usual Suspects: On Completing the Washington Post’s Next Great American Pundit Contest
| November 30, 2009
The writer made it to the final stages as a contender for coveted space in the pages of one of the nation’s premier newspapers—and learned just how far we are from gaining equal access in public discourse.
The three of us—Zeba Khan, Kevin Huffman, and me—sat side-by-side on tall chairs, poised to tape the video segment of the Washington Post’s (WaPo) Next Great American Pundit Contest. The shoot was set up on a large vacant floor of the WaPo’s Arlington office, a dusty ping-pong table and cluster of empty cubicles nearby, symbolizing the slow death of newspapers. The contest itself was the most obvious symbol: adapt a reality TV show model—complete with competition, immunity, and callous judging—to the op-ed pages and hope you boost readership among a public more likely to watch has-been Hollywood try to fox trot than they are to subscribe to a newspaper.
You’ve probably already heard the depressing stats about gender disparity in public debate. I’m a big proponent of pragmatic interventions—like The Op-Ed Project (to which both Zeba and I are connected) and the WMC’s own Progressive Women’s Voices Program (of which I am an alumna), both of which spend energy on training women how to enter public debate, not debating why we aren’t already there in equal numbers. They’re proactive. They respect the value of what women have to say. They tackle the supply-side of the problem. But perhaps the most interesting symbol could be found in the body language of the three remaining contestants (winnowed down from 4,800 submissions, then 10 final competitors). Watching the tape of the segment, I saw both Zeba and me perched on the tall chairs, our long legs crossed and hands in our laps. Kevin, in contrast, sat legs wide, hands touching in a presidential gesture, spouting off his recommendations for the GOP in 2012 in his boxy, navy suit.
Being a part of the WaPo’s contest didn’t change how I feel about the value of training women to enter public debate in greater numbers. It did, however, remind me of just how deeply the gender imbalance on op-ed pages is rooted. It’s not all about submission rates or saying yes when producers call; it’s also about old, tired, and stubbornly persistent perceptions of gender and authority. Reading the comments that amassed following my writing throughout the three-week experience and, especially, after my video appearance, was a sobering reality check about how far we still have to go in changing cultural mores on who gets to speak about “political issues” and how they get to speak about them.
I admitted being disappointed in my own level of civic engagement in the year following Obama’s win; one reader responded, “This reads as if written by a teenage beauty queen.” I talked about the importance of the GOP creating a “new story” in order to appeal to the American voters; one listener wrote: “That breathy, nasal girly voice—oh, dear.” And another gem: “Courtney has the visual disadvantages of being not only fairly young and pretty, but—heaven help us—she's PERKY, too.” And it wasn’t just the public. A WaPo staff judge wrote that he “lost all respect” for me when I commented positively on the strengths of each remaining contestant. Apparently authority is still only appropriately conveyed in this country through deep, masculine voices, invulnerable ego, and cutthroat competition.
Personally the WaPo Contest was a great challenge to me; as so many of my female predecessors have done before, I had to weather the criticism of an unfiltered public and stand tall in my own conviction that my unique way of seeing the world and expressing my observations and opinions matters. I may not fit into the old mold of what a pundit sounds like, what a pundit cares about, or how s/he approaches various subjects, but that doesn’t invalidate my presence on the public stage. (Of course I was also challenged, as always, to take in the feedback that will actually make me a better thinker, writer, human being.)
Kevin Huffman won. I believe his success was buoyed technically by a large social network. But his reception by judges and the public alike indicates that he fit right in at WaPo’s op-ed pages; he didn’t challenge the status quo, where serious pundits as a group are still mostly male, white, and seasoned at quippy, little soundbites. Throw in Huffman’s humor, and you’ve got a guy destined to make the old guard commentariat feel as comfortable as a cozie and a cold can of beer on Monday night.
His writing is great—that’s not the point. The point is that his reception confirms that it is the far messier cultural work, not just the supply side, that we must demand when it comes to getting more women in public debate.
I hope that Huffman—a genuinely kind guy and a true expert on education—will do what he can to not be such a familiar face, such a voice in the choir. I hope he will use his platform to write about public education, family-friendly work policy, and the world he hopes his two daughters inherit—one where they might be able to earn a spot on the Post’s pages without weathering sexist critiques.