Saturday, December 10, 2005

Can Mommy Know Best?

Maureen Dowd
By New York Times

Can the network nightly news anchor evolve from the Daddy chair to the Mommy chair?

Will Americans ever trust a petite, pretty woman in jewel tones to deliver the news as much as they trusted tall men with dark suits and deep voices, like Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Tom Brokaw? Can high heels match the venerable trench coat?

The network news anchor career path is laden with the same sort of gender tripwires as the one for the presidency. Who do we want to lead us through a crisis?

“Does Mommy know best?” a longtime TV industry analyst mused. “If there’s a gigantically frightening news event, people want to turn on the TV and see someone guiding them through it. Will they be comfortable with Elizabeth Vargas or even Katie Couric?”

Last summer, when ABC needed a replacement for Peter Jennings, I asked a top network executive whether the 43-year-old Ms. Vargas had a shot to be the first woman to get a solo network anchor gig. Shouldn’t that barrier have been broken long ago? I mean, women can read off a teleprompter as well as men.

At first he sounded optimistic: she is not a news division heavyweight, but she is a lovely, competent Hispanic woman, which could mean a more diverse audience. And she might draw in younger viewers, instead of the dinosaur evening news demographic that mostly attracts sponsors like Viagra and Depends.

Within 30 seconds, though, the executive got jittery. “I know this is going to sound really sexist,” he admitted with breathtaking candor, “but if there were another 9/11, I’m not sure if she has the gravitas to hold that anchor chair. ... Maybe it’s not even sex. Maybe it’s age. I just think we’d need someone with a little gray in their hair.” (The network pushed Ms. Vargas out of the anchor seat in favor of Charlie Gibson when terrorists bombed London twice in July 2005, even though his day job was doing fluff on “Good Morning America.”)

I pointed out that Brian Williams was only three years older than Ms. Vargas, and not noticeably gray. Network executives hire babes, not old ladies with wrinkles. Now that high-definition TV makes faces with plastic surgery look so weird, the women will have to be even younger.

“He’s not 50?” the exec asked about Mr. Williams. “But doesn’t he have some gray? ... Maybe we could let Elizabeth do it Monday through Friday and then someone else could do it if there was a crisis.”

I had to laugh. They’d allow a woman to present the news as long as there wasn’t any news. If serious news breaks out, send for the guy in pants.

So this week, it all came to pass. Despite the track record of the other two women who had to co-anchor the evening news with resentful men – Barbara Walters and Connie Chung – ABC teamed Ms. Vargas with the pretty-boy android Bob Woodruff.

TV and newspaper moguls are trying a less authoritarian news format. Brian Williams, who broke out of android status with his brilliant coverage of the administration’s attention deficit disorder during Katrina, blogs to show he’s a man of the people. Anderson Cooper knocked off Aaron Brown by emoting during Katrina, and being fetching enough to make People’s Sexiest Man Alive list.

Les Moonves, head of CBS, is looking for pizazz. “On the one hand,” he told The Times’s Lynn Hirschberg, “we could have a newscast like ‘The Big Breakfast’ in England, where women give the news in lingerie. Or there’s ‘Naked News,’ which is on cable in England. I saw a clip of it. It’s a woman giving the news as she’s getting undressed. And then, on the other hand, you could have two boring people behind a desk. Our newscast has to be somewhere in between.”

Mr. Moonves has been wooing Katie Couric to succeed Dan Rather – she seems itchy to move on from making eggnog with Martha Stewart. Like Barbara Walters, she’d get withering scrutiny for earning a record-breaking paycheck (even though a man probably wouldn’t).

But even if Katie breaks this barrier, presumably with her clothes on, will it be an important milestone for women? She is already the most important breadwinner for her news division, with morning chat shows outearning nightly newscasts. By the time women get to take over something – like Hollywood or Bush administration diplomacy – the thing is already devalued beyond recognition.

TV evening news is so feminized and soft-focus now – brimming with features on animals, diets and new “age defying” skin treatments – that Katie may forget she’s not still working the sunrise crowd.

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