In her book "All Things at Once," Mika Brzezinski recalls fondly
that getting her gig on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" was like being "back at the Brzezinski family dinner table, fighting to make myself heard." We all know families where everyone must fight to have their voice register above the mealtime din. While news talk shows aren't the on-air equivalent of that family dinner table, two high-profile newswomen may as well be kids eating meals in their parents' homes again, because they're having a hard time getting a word in edgewise as they co-host shows.
On "Morning Joe," the show's namesake, Joe Scarborough, speaks five times more than co-host Brzezinski, according to an article in The New Republic
titled "The Sexism of Morning Joe." Neither the theme of the article nor the statistic surprises me. Aside from the fact that Mika gets in fewer words, Scarborough never hesitates to interrupt her when she's speaking and, based on my morning ritual of watching a few minutes of the show while making my own morning joe, he often throws in some mocking condescension for good measure if he doesn't agree with her, especially if she's talking about unhealthy food and childhood obesity
I've long found Scarborough's dismissiveness extremely annoying, and I have no doubt there's an element of sexism in his actions. But Scarborough's attitude is only one leg of a three-pronged problem when it comes to the low volume of women's voices in the world of cable news punditry.
Brzezinski is no timid twenty-something, no newly minted J school graduate. She's been a journalist for two decades and has had some impressive stints in the mainstream media, not to mention her bold, now famous Paris Hilton script burning/shredding episode.
So it's fair to expect Brzezinski, the author of a new book titled "Knowing Your Value
," to know her own value, and be less of a sidekick and more of a conversation driver. The show's producers play a role in this scenario, as well. After all, they're the ones who plan the program and have the final say in who plays what role with which guests.
At least Brzezinski has Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker to commiserate with about the clear imbalance.
Disgraced former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer has been maximizing his airtime on CNN's
"Parker/Spitzer," continually cutting off his co-host, who just happens to be the one with top billing. Parker has made no secret
of the fact that she's not too happy
about the continual interruptions and Spitzer's apparent attempts to edge her out with his nightly monologues, leading some to speculate that she is ready to walk away from the prestigious gig unless something changes.
So is The New Republic right? Is sexism at work when it comes to Brzezinski and Parker being marginalized on their own shows or is it part of a long-entrenched male/female social dynamic, one marked by girlish deference, and heightened by network laziness?
In examining gender conversational dynamics, Deborah Tannen says in her book "You Just Don't Understand
" that constant interruption is normal for men because they view conversation as a contest. Women, on the other hand, generally are socialized to speak collaboratively and one at a time, and have little experience in "grab[bing] the conversational wheel" in the way that most men do. In other words -- if we don't use it, we'll lose it.
Even if Scarborough and Spitzer are engaging in sexist behavior by excluding their female co-hosts and are monopolizing their shows' conversations because they like to hear themselves talk, Parker and Brzezinski need to take charge and channel their inner Howard Beales
by getting mad as hell and not taking it anymore. That's their job -- to make sure that the conversation is lively, that differing viewpoints are exchanged and that they aren't pushed to the side by the boys club of television punditry.
Parker and Brzezinski are no shrinking violets. A Pulitzer Prize winner and a veteran network journalist clearly have the bona fides to take back what their television husbands are trying to keep for themselves.