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In TV Anchor Land, Time Stands Still for Women

Wednesday, December 8, 2004

As Tom Brokaw passes on his anchor duties to Brian Williams, commentator Caryl Rivers asks when a woman will sit in one of the most powerful chairs of TV news.

Subhead: 
As Tom Brokaw passes on his anchor duties to Brian Williams, commentator Caryl Rivers asks when a woman will sit in one of the most powerful chairs of TV news.
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Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)--The anchor chair is Mt. Olympus, declared Fox News Chair Roger Ailes, as Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw departed, leaving Peter Jennings as the sole long-time network anchor.

Maybe that's why there won't be a woman in the chair that once made CBS newsman Walter Cronkite "the most trusted man in America." Zeus was the guy throwing thunderbolts from that storied Greek mountain. Guy is the operative word.

Or, as New York Times TV reporter Bill Carter told columnist Maureen Dowd, "We want a daddy in that chair."

But why not a Mommy anchoring the nightly news?

A very long time has passed since women were absent from TV news because those in charge believed their voices weren't authoritative and you couldn't trust them not to break down in tears in the middle of a murder story. Today, women are embedded with the troops as they go into nasty street fighting in Fallujah. Women cover the world, and they slog through the snows of New Hampshire reporting on the presidential candidates. They go every damn place men do.

Except to the network anchor chair. Who on earth thinks that, oh, Christiane Amanpour, Judy Woodruff, Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Lesley Stahl and a host of other bright, talented women could not bring the combination of star quality and authority that the anchor chair demands?

TV executives, that's who.

"It's astonishing how little has changed at the networks," says Marlene Sanders, herself a former network reporter and anchor and the author of "Waiting for Prime Time: The Women of Television News."

Sanders, the founding chair of Women's eNews, notes that in the 1970s there were one or two female vice presidents of news. Today the picture is about the same. "It's still an old boy's game," she notes. And the boys want somebody in the chair who looks just like them.

Statistics across the communications industry back up Sanders' impression. The Women in Cable and Telecommunications Foundation reported on Nov. 1 that the representation of women at the senior level of management stayed nearly level over the past year: 27 percent in 2003; 26.6 percent in 2004. If women aren't actually going backward, they are at best treading water.


Mommies Shouldn't Age

It's also too often true that daddies can age but mommies can't. Jennings, Rather and Brokaw are considered very handsome men, despite their gray hair and wrinkles. But take a glance at anchor desks across the country, where the older guy sits next to a young woman. They look, respectively, like ads for Geritol and Cosmo.

Indeed, you do have to be somewhat comely to appear on television, but do viewers really want eye candy telling them about the complexities of global warming? There are so many cute young women giving me the news these days (especially on Fox) that I think I'm at a frat party.

Unfortunately, some of these young anchors--male and female--mispronounce the names of entire countries, not to mention the names of Middle East prime ministers. My favorite was one very young, eager CNN reporter who was doing a location piece on a New York street about the upsurge in the sale of American flags after 9/11. He held the flag up to the camera and said it was "the good old Stars and Bars."

Not exactly. That was the confederate flag. The union flew the stars and stripes.

As a news consumer, I like a few signs of aging on both men and women. It gives me comfort that they might actually remember Ronald Reagan or Desert Storm, not just have read about them in a history book.

Another problem that women on TV face is their greater risk of getting stuck in the quicksand of "soft news." If a man goes on a morning show for a while, he seems able to climb back out. But let a woman set foot on one of the morning shows and it is assumed that her brain cells instantly rot. Tom Brokaw did a stint on "Today" and it didn't bar his ascension to anchor. Diane Sawyer used to be mentioned as a possible future anchor, but such talk has cooled since she's been interviewing Michael Jackson and cooing over sextuplets.

Bill Carter, the Times TV reporter, agrees: "Katie Couric may be a much bigger star and even more experienced than Brian Williams. But when the next 9/11 happens, it'll be Brian, not Katie, in the central role."

Maybe some women don't want the anchor job, because, as Sanders notes, it's much less interesting than reporting. Basically you're an announcer, albeit a well-paid one.

But the symbolism of the anchor chair is important because it is so visible and because its occupant becomes so famous.

The stories about the departure of Rather and Brokaw gobbled up more ink and airtime than the possible retirement of Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Once, covering a New Hampshire primary, I saw a crowd rush away from presidential candidate John Glenn to cluster around Dan Rather when he entered the room. Glenn--the first man to orbit the earth, the astronaut who had the Right Stuff--stood virtually alone in the room as people gazed star-struck at an anchorman.


What's to Be Done?

So what's to be done? It would be nice to think that women in TV would sue for sex discrimination, but that's a dangerous path. Female print journalists who have brought suit against their employers have indeed smashed open the doors, but often at the cost of their own careers. Sanders remembers that in the 1970s, women in the news division at NBC protested, but harmed their prospects. Of that group of women, "there's only one left," Sanders says. "They destroyed themselves."

Getting more women into higher levels of management--at more than token numbers--is the real solution. A mommy who is the head of the news division won't have any problem putting a mommy in the anchor chair.

Some say that as news and information migrates to the Web and cable TV, network news is a dinosaur on its last legs, so it really doesn't matter who is in the chair. But wading through all the bloggers, Web sites and cable channels that multiply like bunnies can eat up your entire day. There will always be a market for a nightly news show that is reported, edited and adheres most of the time to a standard of fairness.

That being so, it's high time a woman got to throw the thunderbolts from Mt. Olympus.

Caryl Rivers is an award-winning journalist, novelist and media critic, and is also a professor of journalism at Boston University. A former Washington correspondent, she has covered American life and politics for more than three decades.

For more information:

Women in Cable and Telecommunications Foundation:
http://www.wict.org/WICT/default.htm

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