Diversity Mongers Target the Web
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Bad move, guys. The diversity mongers have just brought up the one thing that they should have stayed far far away from: the web. Newsweek’s technology columnist Steven Levy has declared that the lack of diversity among the web’s most popular blogs requires corrective action. The goal? A blogosphere whose elite tier reflects the actual population—i.e., where female- and minority-written blogs are found among the top 100 blogs in the same proportion as females and minorities are found in the general population.
Levy’s complaint comes on the heels of Susan Estrich’s campaign against the Los Angeles Times for allegedly refusing to publish female op-ed writers, a campaign that has caused widespread wringing of editorial hands about male-dominated op-ed pages. For Levy to have mentioned the web at this moment is about as smart as inviting Stephen Hawking to an astrologers’ convention: The web demolishes the assumptions behind any possible quota crusade.
A Harvard conference on bloggers and the media triggered Levy’s concerns. Keith Jenkins, a Washington Post photo editor, had warned during the conference, via e-mail, that the growth of blogging threatened minority gains in journalism. Whereas the mainstream media have gotten to the point of inclusion, Jenkins wrote, the overwhelmingly white and male American blogosphere [might] return us to a day where the dialogue about issues was a predominantly white-only one.
Who would’ve guessed it? The mainstream media, Jenkins admits, has gotten to the point of inclusion. You’d never know it from the ongoing agitation for more race- and gender-conscious hiring and publishing. Just this December, the National Association of Black Journalists wrung from the president of NBC News a promise to hire more black journalists at the highest levels of the newsroom. At an NABJ conference last April, a Denver Post editor accused newspapers and broadcast outlets of refusing to hire blacks and called on NABJ members to denounce such alleged discriminators. The Association tallies and publicizes black representation in newsrooms to the minutest detail, including the ratio of black supervisors to black reporters. Susan Estrich, meanwhile, has had her female law students at USC logging daily ratios of female- to male-penned op-eds in the Los Angeles Times for the last three years—numbers that she has used to try to bludgeon editor Michael Kinsley into instituting female quotas. The Media Report to Women, cited by the New York Times’s Joyce Purnick, pumps out statistics on the percentage of female interviewees on network-news shows and of female news directors in radio, among other crucial discoveries. Female book reviewers in The New York Times Book Review are weekly stacked up against male reviewers at Edward Champion’s Return of the Reluctant.
These diversity grievances follow the usual logic: Victim-group X is not proportionally represented in some field; therefore the field’s gatekeepers are discriminating against X’s members. The argument presumes that there are large numbers of qualified Xs out there who, absent discrimination, would be proportionally represented in the challenged field.
If the quota mongers really believed these claims, they should welcome the web enthusiastically, since it is a world without gatekeepers and with no other significant barriers to entry. Imagine someone coping with real discrimination—a black tanner, say, in 1897 Alabama. To expand his business, he needs capital and access to markets beyond the black business corridors in the south. Every white lender has turned him down, however, and no white merchant will carry his leather goods, even though they are superior to what is currently on the market. Tell that leather maker that an alternative universe exists, where he can obtain credit based solely on his financial history and sell his product based solely on its quality—a universe where race is so irrelevant that no one will even know his own—and he would think he had died and gone to heaven.
For allegedly discriminated-against minority and female writers, the web is just that heaven. They can get their product directly out to readers with no bigoted editors to turn them away. As Steven Levy himself conceded in a column last December, there are virtually no start-up costs to launching a weblog: All you need, he explained, is some cheap software tools and something to say. In case reader prejudice is a problem, web writers can conceal their identity and simply present their ideas. And there is no established hierarchy to placate on the way to the top. As Levy wrote: Out of the inchoate chatter of the Web, the sharpest voices simply emerge.
So here is the perfect medium for liberating all those qualified minority and female voices that are being silenced by the mainstream media’s gatekeepers. According to diversity theory, they should be far more heavily represented in the blogosphere’s upper reaches than they are in traditional journalism. In fact, the opposite is the case, as the Washington Post’s Keith Jenkins pointed out. The elite blogging world is far less diverse than the mainstream media.
Why? Could it be that the premise of the diversity crusade is wrong—that there are not in fact hordes of unknown, competitively talented non-white-male journalists held back by prejudice? Don’t even entertain the thought. Steven Levy certainly doesn’t. After fleetingly rehearsing his own previous analysis of the web as a pure meritocracy, he dismisses the argument without explanation and trots out the hoariest trope in the diversity lexicon: the old boy’s club. Why is the top rung of the blogosphere so homogeneous? Levy asks. He answers: It appears that some clubbiness is involved—that is, that white male bloggers only link to other white male bloggers. (Susan Estrich likewise accused the Los Angeles Times’s Michael Kinsley of favoring writers in his old boy’s club.)
Appears to whom? Where does this alleged club meet? In fact, the web is the antithesis of a closed, exclusive society. Levy offers no evidence for a white male bloggers club beyond the phenomenon he is trying to explain: the popularity of certain blogs. If the top blogs link to other top blogs, Levy assumes that they are doing so out of race and gender solidarity. Levy is suggesting that if an Alpha blogger comes across a dazzling blog, he will link to it once he confirms that a white male writes it but pass it up if he discovers, for instance, that a Latino woman is behind its sharp and clever observations on current events. The charge is preposterous. Moreover, as Buzz Machine notes, bloggers don’t know the race and gender of many of their colleagues.
Here’s a different explanation for why the blogosphere is dominated by white males: because they’re the ones producing the best product. Sorry, ladies, but there aren’t as many of us engaged in aggressive, competitive opinionizing and nonstop consumption of politics as our male tormentors. In 2001, the Hartford Courant, desperate to promote women on its pages, analyzed its letters to the editor, expecting to find bias in letter selection. It turned out that women write only one third of the letters that the paper receives, exactly the percentage published, incidentally. Even Gail Collins, editor of the New York Times’s editorial page, admitted through clenched teeth to the Washington Post in the wake of the Estrich blitz: There are probably fewer women, in the great cosmic scheme of things, who feel comfortable writing very straight opinion stuff.
As for minorities, the skills gap in reading and writing means that, at the moment, a lower percentage of blacks and Hispanics possess the verbal acumen to produce a cutting-edge blog. For decades, blacks and Hispanics have scored 200 points below whites on the SATs’ verbal section. Black high-school seniors on average read less competently than white 8th graders; Hispanic 12th graders read only slightly better than white 8th graders. And those are just the ones who are graduating. In the Los Angeles school system, which is typical of other large urban districts, 53 percent of black students and 61 percent of Hispanic students drop out before graduating from high school; most of the dropouts exit in the 9th grade. Assuming, generously, that those dropouts have 5th-grade skills, they are unlikely candidates for power blogging.
Here’s Steven Levy’s minimum prescription for joining the ranks of Alpha blogging: You have to post frequently … link prodigiously, and, like one technology guru he describes, spend two hours daily writing your weblog and three more hours reading hundreds of other blogs. If you have difficulty reading, you’re probably not going to find that regime attractive. Obviously, many individual blacks and Hispanics possess more than the necessary skills to power their way into the top 100 blogs. But diversity zealots don’t look at individuals, they look at aggregates. And in the aggregate, blacks and Hispanics lag so far behind whites in literacy skills that it is absurd to blame racial exclusion for the absence of racial proportionality on the web. Junking progressive pedagogy, with its absurd hostility to drilling and memorization, is the only solution to the education lag; diversity bean-counting is window-dressing.
No one has succeeded in closing the skills gap yet, but over the years we’ve developed numerous bureaucratic devices to paper it over. These devices will undoubtedly prove highly useful in addressing what Levy calls the web’s diversity problem. Levy proposes, as an initial matter, that the power-bloggers voluntarily link to some as yet unspecified number of non-male, non-white writers. The history of ‘voluntary’ affirmative action efforts need not be rehearsed here; suffice it to say, once ‘voluntary’ race- and gender-conscious policies are proposed, mandates are not far behind.
But even Levy’s voluntary regime calls out for regulation. How will the diversity-minded linker know the identity of a potential linkee? To be workable, a diversity-linkage program needs some sort of gatekeeper—precisely what the web has heretofore lacked. One can imagine something like a federal Digital Diversity Agency that would assign a diversity tattoo to each blog: a lavender pig, for example, signifying a white male blogger with an alternative sexual orientation. A mismatch between the diversity tattoo on a site and its content could trigger a federal audit to track down identity fraud. Let’s say an allegedly black female site (tattooed with a black halo) canvassed technologies for sending humans to Mars. Regulators might find such content highly suspicious, since everyone knows that black females are supposed to write about black females.
As absurd as such a regulatory regime would have to be, it still would not be enough to make a properly diverse blogosphere, for the web’s real diversity flaw is the role of readers. It is readers who determine which blogs zoom up to Alpha orbit, and until now they have been frustratingly outside any sort of regulatory reach. Only when Internet users are required to open up a representative sample of sites can we be confident that the web’s diversity problem will be solved.
The diversity blogging debate has just begun, and it has already descended into self-parody. Still, it has produced one invaluable admission: The gatekeepers in the mainstream media—supposedly bigots who deny opportunity to members of various groups unless shamed or bullied into overcoming their prejudice—are not the problem, they are the solution! Far from being bigots, they are, in fact, obsessed with diversity. As Levy puts it, they have found the will and the means to administer [the] extra care … required to make sure public discussion reflects the actual population. Diversity utopias, it turns out, require top-down management; open-ended democracies like the web are less certain propositions.
The next time someone charges a gatekeeper with racism or sexism—the next time, say, Jesse Jackson pickets a corporation—remember Levy’s admission. It could save a lot of hot air.
(Posted on March 30, 2005)