When Rugged Individualism is Not Enough

By: Jonah Griego

I recently discovered David Axelrod’s podcast, entitled “The Axe Files.” Particularly, the episode where Jon Stewart was a guest. What caught my attention was the two were deliberating what institutional systemic change in hiring practices looks like.

  The main theme of Jon Stewart’s analysis of “The Daily Show’s” failures in diversity stems from the unquestioning “of the tributaries feeding the pond.” The show’s process for joining the writing staff included submitting a sample publication for reviewers to evaluate. Additionally, to ensure anonymous peer review, all submitted sample publications are reformatted, including removing the name of the author. Using this anonymous peer review method was believed to be fairer in that everyone was afforded the same opportunity to have their work reviewed by unbiased reviewers. 

However, despite using the “fair,” anonymous peer review method for selecting new writers, Jon Stewart continued to have inadvertently continued to hire mostly white males for his writing staff. Perplexed by these results, despite taking extra measures, Jon and his team began examining the “tributaries,” that lead to these hiring outcomes.  The first issue Jon noticed was the show recruited from talent agencies. These agencies provided the show with unpaid interns. These interns were then used to hire new writers. 

After peeling back the layers and exposing the nuances of the show’s hiring practice, it revealed that the agencies themselves were staffed primarily by white, educated men of privilege. This perceived privilege was only exacerbated by the fact that the intern pool was likely composed of individuals who could afford to work as an unpaid intern. Furthermore, when the show asked the agencies to include more women and people of color in the candidates they sent over, there was a miraculous plethora of funny talent that would have not been included otherwise. Jon and the show’s ability to accept the problems and work toward a solution, which is outside the box of America’s idea of affirmative action, is what deserves highlighting. 

In today’s climate, simply chalking the lack of diversity on the writing staff up to the idea that marginalized groups are not as funny as the white men is not an option. Moreover, this simple situation speaks to a larger issue. The issue being that marginalized groups often find themselves having to work two times harder than white men for the same recognition. 

I question that, if a system was not built for you to exist, then how can it assist you in succeeding? The rugged individualism that insists people should pull themselves up by their “bootstraps” and forge on into the sunset is not a dream for those that do not own boots. Thus, for systemic change to occur in America, and not just cheap talk, the people in the positions of power must be willing to address the “pollution in the pond” that is the result of the tainted tributaries of American society.

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