Something was missing on Thursday night in an otherwise substantive and engaging political debate: There were no women asking any questions.
This lack was noticeable – and notable. A majority of the Republican candidates seeking to represent Wyoming in the U.S. House of Representatives are women. Yet among the four other people sharing the stage with them, not a single one of them shared their gender.
There is a name for such a situation. It is called a manel. A panel of men only.
I learned this the hard way. A number of years ago, as part of volunteering with a local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, I organized an event about political news. I invited a number of female journalists. Unfortunately, none of them expressed an interest.
So, for a time, the panel ended up consisting of all men. This situation was fortunately short-lived, because once word reached a large email list of female journalists, I quickly got a volunteer.
The members of this diverse worldwide email list did not know that I had tried to invite, albeit unsuccessfully, many women. So, as you might imagine, there was a substantial amount of outrage directed at me for planning a manel.
While I wish that some of the most vociferous critics might have done a little reporting of their own to find out why there were no women participants, the responsibility was on me to have tried even harder. I was grateful the situation was resolved, and we had a better and more diverse journalism event for it.
I wanted to do my own due diligence on why candidates including U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, Harriet Hageman and Robyn Belinskey were not able to answer any questions at the debate from fellow women who are experts in politics.
It turns out that there originally was to have been a female questioner. She had to pull out, and she named a male colleague/reporter as her replacement.
The first person I saw who raised the issue was herself someone who could have been invited: Maggie Mullen of WyoFile.
In our own newsroom, my colleague Jasmine Hall was covering the debate. I encourage you to read her excellent write-up, produced under deadline pressure in order for it to be published in Friday’s newspaper and posted online the same night as the debate.
Mullen put it well, in her tweet this past Monday:
“One thing I noticed during the 2022 legislature was how many women report on politics and government in Wyoming.
It’s disappointing not one of us will be able to ask questions during the @WyomingPBS US House debate this week. The host and the panelists are all men.”
Initially, there was to have been one female journalist-questioner.
Kristen Czaban, the publisher of the Sheridan Press, was scheduled to appear. She participated in the planning for this debate.
Then, she had to drop out early this week, in order to attend the funeral of a family friend. U.S. Marine Seth Rasmuson of Buffalo was recently killed in an air crash during training.
It is obviously completely understandable that Czaban wanted to attend the funeral. I am sorry for her loss.
I just wish that a woman could have replaced her. Or that an extra panelist could have been added: a female journalist.
Czaban’s explanation for the panelist swap is understandable.
She wanted the person in her newsroom who is most qualified to ask candidates questions to replace her. Stephen Dow, who filled in for her, works for her newspaper and covers politics. The Sheridan Press, along with WyomingPBS and Wyoming Public Media, were the sponsors of this debate.
As Czaban noted on Friday, it was she herself, a woman, who made the decision to swap her male colleague for her. “It was one of those last-minute decisions” and not “a matter of excluding anybody,” she pointed out.
Some of the male journalists on the stage later said similar, as did the boss of WyomingPBS. I credit them with taking my phone calls and fully answering my questions.
“We have always tried very hard to have a woman’s voice on the panel” with such debates, said WyomingPBS General Manager Terry Dugas. “They bring a unique perspective, and I think it’s very important to have that.”
Dugas pointed out that for the next debate, featuring GOP contenders for governor, women are being invited. He anticipates at least one will accept his offer.
“We will have a woman panelist participating in that debate,” he said. Most such past events have had a female, although not always.
Craig Blumenshine, who served as moderator on Thursday night, acknowledged that having gender diversity makes for a better event.
“Our intent was to have diversity on the panel. No question. Period. Circumstances certainly prevented this at this debate,” Blumenshine said. There “are wonderfully qualified women journalists who will appear on our panels on future debates, just like with this one” if all had gone according to the original plan.
With so many other female journalists in the state, many of whom cover politics, I just wish that one of them also could have been added to this past panel. While it would have been an additional logistical challenge, it also would’ve added more diversity.
And it would have been a panel, not a manel.