By Michele Weldon
Wednesday, November 24, 2004
A female TV news anchor in Ohio appeared without her clothes on the air last week to cover an arts event. Michele Weldon, who teaches at the same journalism school that trained the anchor, explored why the incident was so regrettable.
(WOMENSENEWS)--This is one angle on a news story we didn't need.
Having a female television anchor cover an arts story while nude is like sending the Blue Man Group to cover the conflict in Fallujah.
You don't need the extra gimmick; just send the serious reporters wearing their clothes. It's a loopy idea that may pop into a news director's head at happy hour during sweeps week, but you don't say it aloud in a news meeting and you sure don't follow through.
But that's what happened in Cleveland. Viewers to the 11 p.m. broadcast on WOIO-TV earlier this month were treated to anchor Sharon Reed on air naked--that's wearing nothing at all--reporting on a nude photo installation that featured nude photos of herself, along with hundreds of others.
More than 130 news Web sites run by newspapers and other news outlets had the titillating story on their Web sites last week, at least one with a pop-up ad for Victoria's Secret showing bra-baring Super Model Tyra Banks. How fitting. Both Reed and Banks are exceptionally attractive black women, though their job descriptions of underwear model and news anchor should be decidedly different.
The goal of the story, according to reports quoting news director Steve Doerr, was to cover the story of Spencer Tunick's photographs in a new way. The story was also aimed, he said, at raising ratings during the November sweeps.
And it reportedly did just that. Reed, on the stations' website, reports that more than 700,000 viewers watched her "Body of Art" report and more than 1 million people visited the website for what she calls "a television news first." The Associated Press reported that the news broadcast received a 17.1 share of the market, another record. And the station received no slap on the wrist from the FCC since it was aired an hour after curfew prohibiting indecent material broadcast from 6-10 p.m.
Naked women and news; it's not such a novel twist.
There are the Czech topless weather girls and a stripping Svetlana Pesotskaya on Moscow's M1 TV reporting stories for the "Naked Truth." There's also the Naked News on Live TV! carrying stripper news and naked weathergirls all over Canada, European mobile phones and in U.S. hotel rooms.
And while CNN's ad a couple of years ago promoting newscaster Paula Zahn didn't involve nudity, it was a nakedly sexist stunt. In the ad, CNN called Zahn a "a little bit sexy" and showed Zahn's profile and lips along with the words "provocative" and "sexy" just as the music stops for what sounds like a zipper. (CNN executives protested and the ad was yanked, but still it was out there long enough to get the message across.)
It all serves to remind us that as women in journalism have not come as far on the equality train as we all hoped. It's a new take on an old fable, except now it is the anchor who has no clothes.
No matter how many countries and stations board the nudity news bus, trading on a woman's dignity should never be the norm.
"I think it was a silly thing to do and I'm curious to know how it came about," said Joe Angotti, chair of the broadcast department at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. The former NBC vice president added, "Why the news director would permit this is beyond me. Did a media consultant come to the station and tell them to try this?"
I bet good money no matter what consultant advised such a stunt, Barbara Walters would refuse to offer a closer view of her naked self on "The View." And though Diane Sawyer has wiggled into a body glove to participate in Cirque due Soleil, I am absolutely certain she wouldn't even remove her wig on camera. It's called exploitation, not experimentation.
This is not about the poor choice of a young television journalist. Reed told the Cleveland Plain Dealer she has no regrets. "I don't do anything I don't want to do for any job, or anything," she reportedly said.
Posing nude, being nude or even getting caught nude on film may even enhance her career, as evidenced by the feedback in viewer mail and national interest in the stunt. Reed is prominently featured on the WOIO Web site where streaming video shows the clip to the point where Reed begins to strip. Then it stops.
Look what nudity did for Vanessa Williams, the first black woman to win the Miss America pageant. The now successful singer and actress was crowned in 1984, but forced to abdicate only 10 months later when sexually explicit photographs of her and another woman were made public. And then her film and music career exploded.
This is not about sexy stunts. This is really about how women are dehumanized, devalued and traded like pork bellies in a bull market.
It's why Nicollette Sheridan was buck naked in a promo for "Desperate Housewives" before ABC-TV's Monday Night Football that same naked night. It's why Anna Nicole Smith's bizarre slur-infested body massage was news last week. The former Playboy model and current spokesperson for Trim Spa diet plan writhed at the podium at the American Music Awards rubbing her chest and waist before getting down to the business of introducing nominee Kanye West. She later blamed her bizarre actions on nearsightedness.
Put simply, naked and nearly-naked women are good for ratings. They may have all done it voluntarily, but I bet very few station managers ask the men in the office to pull a full Monty for ratings.
You could argue it was choice. Surely Reed had a choice. Surely Sheridan, too. And maybe if her eyesight was better, Smith would have felt as if she had a choice. But the choice seems consistently to be to show the raw goods of naked or nearly-naked women as a means to an end. Not naked men.
You don't see any naked men in this country reading sports news or pre-empting "Wife Swap" in a publicity stunt to boost ratings. You don't see Charlie Gibson dropping trousers on "Good Morning America."
A talented, attractive television journalist, and a Medill graduate, Reed did more than she may have intended.
She showed the young women behind her in journalism schools here and across the country that it is OK to compromise, that it is OK to trade on her looks for ratings and to have notoriety for more than the content of her stories. That decision to be beauty rather than brains, whether she initiated it or not, makes a little less out of all of us, it literally strips away our credibility and places us a step below male journalists.
"As an aspiring female journalist, I'm shocked a professional would exploit herself to boost ratings," said 20-year-old Aristea Brady, a junior broadcast journalism major at Medill.
It didn't need to happen and it shouldn't have. That's why they call it covering the news.
Michele Weldon is an assistant professor at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, Evanston, Ill. and author of two books, "I Closed My Eyes: Revelations of a Battered Woman" and "Writing to Save Your Life: How to Honor Your Story Through Journaling."