Washington Post "staff writer" Sally Quinn -- better known as the wife of the retired longtime WashPost Executive Editor Ben Bradlee -- lamented on the front of Tuesday's Style section that Katie Couric is battling sexism in the media culture: "The buzz about Katie Couric has an oddly familiar ring to me. And to Barbara Walters, Connie Chung, Lynn Sherr and Judy Woodruff -- all of us women who have sat in a news anchor chair." It doesn't seem to matter that Couric makes more money and drew way more promotion from the CBS brass. She's still oppressed somehow.
What followed was a chorus of laments from these pioneering TV news women that nothing has changed in 30 years. Some of these laments suffer when compared to the facts. For example, Quinn wrote:
Brian Williams and Charlie Gibson, recent successors to the anchor chairs on NBC and ABC, didn't have anywhere near the same buildup or scrutiny. Nobody mentioned their clothes or hair, and nobody made anything of the fact that Gibson had been on a morning show, but Couric was criticized for not coming from prime-time news. Nobody mentioned the word gravitas. (Couric was accused of not having it.) Nobody made a fuss about Williams and Gibson's salaries, but much was made of Couric's $15 million.
This misses several points: neither of these anchormen had the same buildup because their networks didn't GIVE them the same buildup. (You could argue that Gibson's debut was so low key it was almost invisible compared to Katie's -- not to mention the vast differential between Katie's drama-queen weeks of farewell on NBC compared to Charlie leaving the morning show at ABC. On the sexism beat, the differential could be because they kicked Elizabeth Vargas to the curb on the evening show.) Neither anchor man had a series of town meetings around the country to promote themselves. Neither anchor did weeks of publicity, with publicists like Howard Kurtz pretending they were inventing new features like network-news commentaries. And as TVNewser noted today, on the salary front, Katie makes more than Gibson and Williams put together. But Quinn pressed forward for the sisterhood:
Walters, who is writing her memoirs and has been reliving her TV news days, remembers that when she left NBC in 1976 for the co-anchor evening news job at ABC, she was offered half a million dollars for the anchor job and half a million for four specials a year. She was roundly criticized for making so much money. "I was vilified," said Walters.
At a time of turmoil in the Middle East, she landed interviews with Anwar Sadat and Golda Meir. It was a big coup. "I was killed for it," she said. People asked, "Why is she doing interviews on the evening news?"
Woodruff, who anchored the news on CNN with Bernard Shaw, recalls interviewing the mayor of Atlanta when she was a local anchor there, only to be told her skirt was too short.
"It hasn't changed that much," says Woodruff. "It does represent society to some degree. You try to take on the serious professional news and you're still female. And you can't look too good. When I was in Atlanta they told me to cut my hair. And I did. It comes with the turf. You know you will be judged by your appearance if you're a woman. I've lived it so long it's funny. But if you don't like to worry about hair and makeup and clothes, you should go into radio or print. "
Quinn then lapses into her own supposedly historic post as a co-anchor of the "CBS Morning News" in 1973, which even then was a ratings loser. (She's just fact-sensitive enough to explain that Barbara Walters was hosting at NBC's Today at the time, but wasn't seen as an "anchor." Some difference. Plus she noted: "I was a disaster. I lasted four months.") Then the chorus of cheerleaders really began:
Her predecessors are rooting for her.
"I felt proud of her," said Walters. "I thought she was charming, relaxed and professional." The managing editor title, she added, "is a big thing."
Said Woodruff: "She's off to a great start. I just hope the critics will apply the exact same standards to her and ask the same questions they do to Brian Williams and Charlie Gibson."
Connie Chung, who anchored "The CBS Evening News" with Dan Rather from 1993 to 1995, said with frustration, "People are still asking if she's got the right stuff. She was on the morning show for 15 years. She's a good reporter, a good interviewer, she knows what she is doing. You don't hear the word 'gravitas' used about men. With them, it's a given."
Quinn also added Lynn Sherr of ABC, then concluded: "The interesting thing here is this: Not one of the women quoted above is still an anchor. Will Couric make it? Can she?"
Quinn omits the fact that Connie Chung just ended a rather undistinguished weekend hosting gig at MSNBC (complete with embarrassing piano-perched farewell.) Quinn was wrong about Judy Woodruff, who's now doing some anchoring on her old home at the "NewsHour" on PBS.