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From AJR,   October/November 2007  issue

Not So Pretty   

TV’s emphasis on how female anchors look is an anachronism that needs to be scrapped.

By Deborah Potter
Deborah Potter (potter@newslab.org) is executive director of NewsLab, a broadcast training and research center, and a former network correspondent.     

Dressed in a short red skirt and a tight leopard-print top, the new TV news anchor poses on the set. She's not behind the desk at the small-market station where she'll deliver the news; she's reclining on top of it. The promotional photo of 25-year-old Lauren Jones doesn't hint at her journalism credentials — because she has none. She's a swimsuit model and former "diva" on the professional wrestling circuit.

Is this what local TV news has come to?

The question is only slightly facetious. Jones was on the air this summer at the CBS affiliate in Tyler, Texas, but only for 30 days while she taped the reality show "Anchorwoman," which recently aired on Fox. But the general manager who hired her and put her to work alongside the rest of the KYTX news staff insisted it wasn't just a stunt. "Give the lady a chance," Phil Hurley told viewers during a call-in segment on his station's morning news program. "She looks real good on the air."

It's one thing for a woman playing the role of a TV anchor to get the job just because she's attractive, but what are we to think when that same standard is applied to the real deal? Just listen to the way CNN President Jon Klein explained the choice of new coanchors for the network's struggling morning news program this spring. John Roberts, he said, is "a kick-ass reporter." And Kiran Chetry? "One look at her tells you why she deserves the slot," he said on a conference call with reporters. "She's a fantastic anchor. She lights up the screen."

I'll grant you that communication skills and looks matter in television news — for men as well as women. But why are they the first things male managers mention about the women they choose to put on the air but not the men? And what are the consequences of promoting people to some of the highest profile jobs in television news just because they look good on TV?

Consider the case of Mirthala Salinas, the anchor at the Univision station in Los Angeles who was suspended this summer for having an affair with the city's mayor while covering him as a political reporter. Salinas got her start in TV news in Phoenix. She was going to school and working part-time at the Telemundo station when News Director Carlos Jurado decided to name her coanchor of the station's main local newscasts. Why? "She just projected really well in front of the camera," Jurado told the Los Angeles Times. "She was young but she didn't look like a rookie." Fourteen years later, Salinas certainly behaved like one. Maybe she moved up so quickly she didn't have time for basic journalism ethics.

TV newsrooms have changed dramatically in the 35 years since Jean Enersen became the first permanent female anchor of a flagship local TV newscast at KING5 in Seattle. You'd be hard-pressed to find a station today that doesn't have at least one female anchor. "I think we've made a lot of progress," Enersen says. When she joined the station as a reporter, there was only one other woman in the newsroom — and they were both assigned the same typewriter.

But some things haven't changed enough. Local TV news staffs today are 40 percent women, but men still make most of the decisions about who gets on the air. Male news directors outnumber women three to one. At the networks, only a handful of women hold senior positions in news. Marlene Sanders, who became the first female vice president of a network news division at ABC in 1976, says management looks about the same as it did then. "It's a boys' club," she says. "They still look at women as sex objects. There's no getting away from it."

The emphasis on looks is one reason so few women stay on the air as long as their male colleagues. While some prominent female journalists like CBS' Lesley Stahl have lasted into their 60s, "if they looked their age they wouldn't be there," says Sanders.

That's a textbook definition of sexism, an illegal practice that should be as outdated in newsrooms as using carbon paper or smoking on the job. But instead of confronting the problem, the latest management tactic is to shift the blame to the audience. "It's going to take time for people to adjust," CBS President Les Moonves told a public forum in June, explaining Katie Couric's lackluster ratings. "There's an automatic assumption on the part of certain people that they would rather get news from a man."

Tell that to people in Boston who watched Natalie Jacobson anchor the news on top-rated WCVB-TV for three decades until she retired this summer. Like Enersen in Seattle, Jacobson was a reporter first, and the station never touted her sex appeal. How sad that in the 21st century we still have so few female anchors like them. How depressing that only three women anchor cable news programs in prime time. And how infuriating that so many managers see nothing wrong with putting women on the air only because they look good. That's a disservice to them and to the viewers. And it's long past time for a change.