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Women in Television News Revisited

[ Film and Media Studies ]

Women in Television News Revisited

Into the Twenty-first Century

By Judith Marlane

Foreword by Howard Rosenberg

Seventy of the foremost women in television news reflect on their professional successes, the personal and professional sacrifices that often bought those successes, and the barriers that still confront women in the news business.

1999

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Paperback

6 x 9 | 288 pp. | 31 b&w photos

ISBN: 978-0-292-75228-3

Women in television news have made great strides in the past twenty-five years. No longer limited to being the token pretty face on the nightly newscast, women have taken their places as working journalists in newsrooms, on the campaign trail, in war zones, and in the highest echelons of network news management. Barbara Walters and Connie Chung have even occupied the coveted network anchor's chair, if only briefly.

In this book, 70 of the foremost women in television news reflect on their professional successes, the personal and professional sacrifices that often bought those successes, and the barriers that still confront women in the news business. Weaving their interviews into a compelling text, Judith Marlane covers a wide range of issues, including looks versus ability and experience, sexual harassment, the resistance to women news anchors, the difficulties of balancing work and family life, women's and men's salaries, and the willingness of women to help other women in the business.

This book builds from Marlane's 1976 work, Women in Television News. Interviews with many of the same women highlight the gains that women have made in broadcast journalism. Simultaneously, Marlane has expanded her range of informants to include fifteen of America's most famous male anchors and correspondents to gather their assessments of the role of women in broadcasting today.

  • List of Illustrations
  • Foreword
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Design and Detail
  • 2. Paradox and Perception
  • 3. Looks and Longevity
  • 4. Aptitude and Attitude
  • 5. Sex and Sensibility
  • 6. Anchors Away
  • 7. Minorities and Mandates
  • 8. Datelines and Deadlines
  • 9. Sisterhood and Support
  • 10. Marriage and Motherhood
  • 11. Salary and Status
  • 12. Mentors and Mission
  • 13. Milestones and Millstones
  • 14. Advice and Admonition
  • 15. Wishes and Whispers
  • 16. Legends and Legacy
  • 17. Epilogue: Notable and Quotable
  • Interview Schedule
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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Being a woman is a terribly difficult task since it consists principally in dealing with men.
—Joseph Conrad (1857-1924)

Over a quarter of a century has passed since the Federal Communications Commission added women to its equal opportunity ruling that originally applied only to social and ethnic minorities. Television stations grudgingly learned to reach out and hire women in a mandated attempt to implement affirmative action policies and to end the discrimination against women in broadcasting.

Every television station in America felt the need to hire one female newscaster. Often they would seek out a minority woman and thereby satisfy tokenism in one fell swoop. A small but growing number of women began to appear in positions equal with those held by men on local and national newscasts around the country. They became known as "the class of '72."

It was at this point that I first began to document the background, contributions, and struggles of women in television news. Thirty women reporters and correspondents working in New York and Washington, D.C., on network and local news formed the sample for my first study. This pioneering effort provided an inside look at how women were then entering and working successfully in the male-dominated profession of television news.

Twenty-five years later, I became ready to reexamine and revisit the world of television news and the role that women were playing. I was eager to learn what changes had occurred in the personal and professional lives of women who were now working in television news broadcasting-those who were part of my original study and others who were not.

Over a period of nine months I conducted in-depth interviews with eighty-five of the leading women and men who are working as anchors, correspondents, and bureau chiefs, as well as many who hold key management positions in the network news divisions. Seventy women and fifteen men make up the basic sample and provide the research material for this book. Interviews were held in person and by telephone in New York City, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Connecticut, New Mexico, Florida, New Jersey, Toronto, London, Paris, and Jerusalem.

The volatile nature of the news business made the task of speaking to these broadcasters challenging, exciting, and frenetic. The number of letters, faxes, and telephone calls necessary to secure a definite date and time were prodigious. The vast majority of those interviewed were cooperative and pleased to be part of this effort. A few were not.

It was especially meaningful to meet with those women with whom I had not spoken for over a quarter of a century. It was a time of introspection and discovery for all of us. The physical changes were present—added pounds on some, fewer pounds on others, and the remarkable evolution of those who appeared even more attractive in their mature years than when they were younger. The experiences of illness, even death, marriage, and divorce that are part of the passage of years and the stages of one's life became documented, discussed, and digested. As we shared and explored events, there emerged a special bond of understanding and friendship—one that does not require constant contact or renewal, but rather remains as a feeling of warmth and mutual respect that is a thermal layer on the fabric of a life.

Each interview lasted between thirty minutes and three hours, based upon the availability of the person and the current demands of their work schedule. Several interviews were interrupted only to be completed at a later date. Interviews were conducted in offices, private houses, apartments, restaurants, hotel lobbies, studios, and running down the streets of New York and Washington, D.C. Times, dates, and locations were often changed to fit deadline pressures. I spoke to people at all hours of the day and night, seven days a week; whenever they were available, so was I. It often became a logistics nightmare to locate and speak to a correspondent stationed half-way around the world, busy on assignment covering a war zone.

Once I was caught in rush-hour traffic on the busiest freeway in Los Angeles when the call came in from Christiane Amanpour, in Paris, that she was ready to do her interview with me. Never before or since have I driven so recklessly to get to a destination. On another occasion, I missed a reunion dinner in New York with two lifelong friends who live in different parts of the United States in order to accommodate Barbara Walters who was forced to change her interview time with me. She was completing the editing necessary on her television interview with Lyle and Erik Menendez. As she got up from her desk to show me out at the end of my evening interview with her in her 20/20 office, she apologized for being so difficult to see. She said she regularly receives at least two requests each day from people who are writing books. She went on to say how pleased she was that I was so persistent. Her comments hold special meaning for me. She was the pinnacle of the television news world twenty-three years ago when we first spoke; she remains one of the most respected and revered women in broadcasting.

While on this same trip to New York City, I met with and interviewed both Tom Brokaw at NBC and Dan Rather at CBS. Dan Rather was especially gracious with his time and spent almost ninety minutes with me. However, when I arrived at ABC for a scheduled appointment with Peter Jennings, his press representative, the late Arnot Walker, greeted me and told me how sorry he was but that I was "blown off" Peter's schedule due to a tobacco special that he was writing. As I was about to begin my interview with Kathy Christensen, then executive producer of ABC World News Tonight, Peter Jennings walked in, shirt sleeves rolled up, and declared he was about to close himself in his office for the next hour and a half to write. I was briefly introduced and while we shook hands, there was no indication that he realized who I was, why I was there, or that he had just canceled a confirmed interview that I had traveled three thousand miles to obtain—certainly, no apology was ever forthcoming. A telephone interview was promised by Walker as a backup, but it was never arranged despite my persistent follow-up calls.

The most uncooperative person I attempted to interview was Lesley Stahl. She was part of my first study and I was eager to meet with her again. When I first attempted to contact her, I met with the understandable unpredictability of her hectic schedule. I continued to call; after six months she did call my office, without warning, ready to be interviewed. I was not there. This missed opportunity prompted me to begin checking in with her office on a daily basis to determine if she would be available. I did not want to miss this opportunity a second time. Her secretary repeatedly told me she never is aware of her schedule in advance. I kept calling.

On November 14, 1996, in Los Angeles, Lesley Stahl was the keynote speaker at Governor Pete Wilson's Conference for Women in Long Beach, California. I decided to attend. Just before her speech while she was seated alone at the dais I went up to introduce myself. Without a greeting, acknowledgment, or any other comment, she looked at me and said, "Don't call my office. Please, don't call my office." I was stunned. No other words were exchanged. I left her seated and walked away. It was firm, it was final, it was rude, and it hurt. I never did call her office again. I never tried to speak with her again. No interview ever took place.

During the course of this extensive interview process, I gained renewed respect for the profession of journalism and for the women and men who are working so effectively in it. They are an intelligent, articulate, caring, committed, and diligent group, who have achieved prominence in a career that is uncompromising and relentless in its demands.

Television remains the most powerful and persuasive medium of communication yet devised. Most Americans rely on television as their primary source of news and information. In a functioning democracy information is crucial for survival. This places an awesome responsibility on those individuals who choose to work in this profession. The aggregate skills of men and women working together are necessary to meet this challenge. Only through a broad range of expertise and opinion can television news expand its intellectual horizons and effectiveness.

The sample for this study consists of network women correspondents who, because of their on-air work and visibility, are able to serve as role models for women everywhere. Women in top management positions in network news divisions are able to influence the corporate culture and challenge the invisible barriers that keep women from obtaining responsible jobs that lead to substantial power in the executive suite. The men interviewed for this study all started working in journalism when women were a relative rarity. Their perspectives on the changes and gains made by women in journalism over the last twenty-five years provide important insights.

The network television news programs have always symbolized the pinnacle of the broadcasting profession. Only one woman of eminence appeared with regularity on network news before the 1960s. Pauline Frederick, NBC's United Nations correspondent beginning in 1953, was the exception, the first woman in television news. For much of her career, Frederick was the only woman broadcast correspondent present at news events. Her professionalism and success opened the doors for the acceptance of women in television and radio journalism. She was the first woman to win the Paul White Award of the Radio-Television News Directors Association and the George Foster Peabody Award. In 1976, Pauline Frederick became the first woman to moderate a presidential debate—the one between Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter in San Francisco.

When I first interviewed Frederick in February 1973, it was shortly before her mandatory retirement from NBC in 1974 at the age of sixty-five. "If a man is old, he's called interesting," she said. "When a woman is old and shows wrinkles, it's terrible. She's finished. It's a double standard." She worked diligently to insure that her male colleagues treated her with respect and equality. She acknowledged the difficulty and discrimination she continually faced as a woman doing hard news. Much of the difficulty she blamed on the problem that people, even women, were said to prefer a male voice on the air. This is the voice "representing authority which is the male voice, the father, the husband, the lover, they prefer that to the female voice on the air."

Pauline Frederick died in 1990 of a heart attack at the age of eighty-four. Her pioneering efforts remain a distinctive legacy for so many of us. She will always be considered the first lady of television news.

With the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which makes job discrimination for reasons of sex illegal, a growing number of broadcasters were encouraged to hire women. When Marya McLaughlin joined CBS News and Liz Trotta and Nancy Dickerson joined NBC news in New York, the New York Times headline read "Nylons Enter the Newsroom." When I first interviewed Marya McLaughlin in March 1973 she was a general assignment correspondent in CBS's Washington bureau, mainly covering the Hill and the Senate. She told me then that it was a very bad thing to have people say that women have made great strides when in fact "it's the other way around—it's the industry that has made great strides. I think they realize they have a resource they should be taking advantage of."

Marya McLaughlin left the CBS Washington Bureau in 1988 when her contract was not renewed. Many believe she fell victim to advancing years and the unforgiving gaze of the camera lens. She is now retired and still living in the Washington, D.C., area. When I contacted her for an interview for this book she was adamant about not wanting to talk to me. Sadly, she seemed quite angry and unwilling to discuss her former career.

At the time I was doing the research for this book, Nancy Dickerson was recuperating from a serious illness in a New York hospital. Liz Trotta has recently written her own hard-hitting memoir of her career as a reporter and war correspondent, the first woman war correspondent stationed in Vietnam. An irreverent and sexist New York news director told me in 1973 that women like Liz Trotta were being put on stories that were unsuitable for their sex. As a result, "they became masculinized. They lower their voices and try to imitate David Brinkley. You get these female-men on the air trying to look cool, look hard, and look knowing and do the thing that men have done." This was the same news director who, when I appeared for a job interview in his newsroom in 1968, told me that if I were a black woman I would have a job. When I asked him recently if he remembered that, he went on to explain that, "if you are a white male news executive and you have to hire minorities, a male minority is a threat. A female minority is much less a threat, they're more controllable than a man."

Sex-role distinctions continue to plague the role of women in broadcasting. Ingrained attitudes and opinions about sexual role behavior is continually being reinforced by our society and reflected daily in the media. A survey of the top sixty-five prime-time situation comedies and dramatic series in 1995-1996 conducted by Dr. Martha Lauzen at San Diego State University shows that women remain underrepresented in these prime-time series. These are her findings: 63 percent of all on-screen characters in this time period were male; female characters tended to be defined by their marital status while male characters were defined by their occupation; female characters were seen doing "women's work," such as being a teacher or homemaker, while male characters did "power work," including being a professor, business manager, landlord, or an athlete. The majority of female characters portrayed were in their twenties or thirties. Female characters were rarely seen on the screen after the age of fifty. Dr. Lauzen also examined behind-the-scenes representation in the 1995-1996 prime-time season. She found that women made up only 28 percent of all behind-the-scenes workers; 16 percent of executive producers were women, while 68 percent had no female executive producers; 18 percent of producers were women while 68 percent had no female producers; 11 percent of the directors were women, and 2 percent of the writers were women. The study also reveals that when one or more women worked on a program as executive producer, producer, director, or writer, the female characters were more frequently seen speaking, introducing topics of conversation, and providing the last word in conversations. There is compelling evidence to suggest that more powerful female characters are visible on the screen when there are powerful women working behind the scenes to create them.

Other statistics confirm the gender disparity in the media. The Directors Guild of America (DGA) has reported that the number of women directing films has risen from 3 percent to 9 percent between 1983 and 1996. But in 1996, DGA reported a slight percentage decrease in the total number of days worked by women members (from 22.76% to 22.63 %). Women working as DGA film directors make up 9 percent of the total membership. Martha Coolidge, first vice president of the Director's Guild, called the statistics "an embarrassment to our industry." Within this same period of time, the Writers' Guild of America (WGA) stated that the number of women who received screen credit increased from 9 percent to 11 percent. WGA statistics for the period between October 1996 through September 1997 show that 26 percent of all working television members were women and only 23 percent of all working screen members were women. On screen, the world of women is not doing very well either. In a 1995 survey of distributors and executives conducted by the Hollywood Reporter, the global bankability of female stars was found to be at its weakest in the last five years while the survey named more than a dozen male stars capable of opening films worldwide on the power of their name alone; only three women made this "A" list.

The division between "A-Team" players and "B-Team" players is of major significance in broadcasting and in the struggle to reduce the obstacles that women face in the field. While the number of women correspondents expanded at the networks in the 1970s and 1980s, many experienced major frustrations and believed their ability to advance was effectively being blocked.

The network evening news has long been acknowledged as the flagship broadcast. A-Team correspondents would receive the major important beats and have regular visibility on the newscasts. Women found themselves relegated to the second-string, B-Team. This frustration and claim of second-class status was verified by research studies that began to appear.

For example, Joe S. Foote, a professor and dean of Southern Illinois University's College of Mass Media and Media Arts, discovered that between 1983 and 1984 women news correspondents composed 30 percent of the bottom thirty correspondents and only 10 percent of the top thirty correspondents. The existence of a "women's ghetto" was further documented in 1990 when a three-week sample of the network evening newscasts showed that women correspondents reported only 12 percent of the stories.

In a more comprehensive study of the visibility of women correspondents on network evening news, Foote conducted a seven-year analysis between January 1983 and December 1989.$ The findings show a static level of exposure for women correspondents throughout this period of time. There were 275 correspondents under review; 83.6 percent were men and 16.4 percent were women. In every year women registered high only in the lowest exposure category while the men were dominant in the highest exposure category. Overall, 27 percent of the women and 14 percent of the men placed in the lowest exposure category. Of the top fifty most visible correspondents, there were only four women who made the list from 1983 through 1989. All of these women were based in Washington, D.C. There was never more than one woman among the top ten correspondents until 1989 when there were three: Lesley Stahl at CBS, Andrea Mitchell at NBC, and Rita Braver at CBS. The study further documents that in none of the years analyzed were the majority of women correspondents among the top one hundred most visible correspondents. Overall, only 2 percent of the female correspondents numbered in the top ten. In 1997, Foote's annual media analysis revealed that for the first time in a decade there were no women in the top-ten tier of nightly news correspondents. Lisa Myers, NBC's chief congressional correspondent made the best showing for a woman with a twelfth-place finish. The conclusion is obvious: in the B-Team of correspondents who receive less-favorable assignments and little airtime, women are clearly overrepresented.

The television medium has a profound impact on the images and perceptions of women in our society. The network correspondent stands as the most visible symbol of the working woman in America. Only through effective representation of women in television news will it be possible to adequately address the wide spectrum of political, economic, and social issues that impact women's lives. Indeed, without the ability of women to share an equal voice in the news media, the freedom and future strength of our country is at risk.

Women are changing the face of America. Since 1962, more than one million women have joined the workforce each year. With 58.9 percent of women in the workforce in 1996, significant ground is being gained. More women than ever before are working in the news programs at the major networks. In 1997, of the 167 correspondents who worked on the ABC, CBS, and NBC nightly newscasts, 29 percent were women. Never before have women played such a prominent role in the shaping and reporting of network and local news. In addition to the on-air positions, women are in jobs at all production levels: executive producers, producing editors, bureau chiefs, assistant bureau chiefs, even network vice-presidents. Yet, the growing numbers do not reflect a substantial shift in power. Clearly there is a dearth of women in the decision-making positions of the network news divisions. The news media elite is still composed mainly of white males. This situation parallels the role of women in American society at large.

In the United States no woman is president, vice president, or leader of either congressional chamber. In 1996, the number of women in Congress was at a record level—eight women served in the Senate (8% of the 100 seats available) and forty-eight served in the House of Representatives (11% of the 435 available seats). In all, women held a total of 10.5 percent of the 535 seats in both houses of the 104th U.S. Congress.

For the first time, the wives of both the 1996 Republican and Democratic party candidates were women with independent career accomplishments. Elizabeth Dole and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton each earned an Ivy League law degree. Yet the first lady was subject to loathing and even vilification by some members of the press and the public. Women of strength and achievement, for many, continue to represent an unwelcome threat. A measure of discrimination against women still exists in every newsroom in the world. This is merely reflective of the deep-rooted sexism that is pervasive in every country and stands as a barrier to the realization of women's equality everywhere.

Judith Marlane is Professor and Chair of the Radio-Television-Film Department at California State University, Northridge. An experienced television writer-producer-broadcaster, she heads her own media consulting firm in Los Angeles.