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Top Jobs Elude Women in Broadcast News

Women are in TV newsrooms in record numbers -- as reporters and directors -- yet networks continue to pick middle-aged white males to anchor their news programs.
 
 
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The waiting game continues for women broadcast journalists. Their shot at least one network anchor job was eliminated this past summer when MSNBC anchor Brian Williams was anointed the successor to NBC veteran anchor Tom Brokaw. We can assume that CBS and ABC also eventually will tap attractive white males to succeed Dan Rather and Peter Jennings; The New York Times reported in June that Scott Pelley, 44, or John Roberts, 45 were likely replacements for Dan Rather. Experienced women network correspondents will continue to cover the weekend and warm the seat for the lead anchor on his days off.

It's a disappointment to many women with thousands of hours of TV news reporting to their credit. Their dismay was articulated by Fox anchor Greta Van Susteren, who was quoted as saying: "There are 280 million people in this country. Surely they can find one smart woman to deliver the news."

When Brokaw, Rather and Jennings were laying the groundwork for ascendancy to their thrones through high-profile assignments such as the White House and overseas reporting, only a handful of women were on the scene competing with them. But today women are covering the same prestigious beats that Brokaw, Rather and Jennings cut their teeth on. Lisa Myers, Anne Thompson and Andrea Mitchell are just a few of the names that come to mind.

However, statistics indicate that the industry has failed to provide adequate opportunity for women. According to figures released this summer by the Radio-Television News Directors Association and Foundation, there are more women television news directors than ever--but that's still only 26 percent, one woman for every three men. The numbers should be better: Women constitute 39 percent of the television news work force.

So should the numbers for women in the national reporting slots, which are the pipeline to network anchor assignments. The Center for Media and Public Affairs analyzes who reports what on the national newscasts, and 75 percent of the stories were reported by men in 2001.

Decisions Still Made by Small Group of Men

Changing the pattern, and persuading people that it is wise to do so, will take more effort than we've seen to date. In her book, "Invisible Stars: A Social History of Women in Broadcasting," Donna Halper says:

"As I write this, the president of the N.A.B. [National Association of Broadcasters], the presidents of all the major networks, and the owners of the five biggest broadcast groups, in other words, all the important decision-makers in broadcasting, are still men, just as they were in the 1930s . . . The conventions of broadcasting are still overwhelmingly male and the decisions that are made that affect women are still made by a very small group of men who have that influence and power."

Marci Burdick, the first woman to chair the Radio-Television News Director Association, says she's "heartened by the fact that there's marked progress" in the numbers of women directing newsrooms. But she also said, "I think family issues are still as big as anything and women are more often than men the ones who are likely to cut back on a career to raise children." Burdick herself started out as a television reporter, rose to television group manager for Schurz Communications and is now slated to become senior vice president of Schurz's entire broadcast group, which includes television, radio and cable.

During her years as news director in Springfield, Mo., the bulk of the hires in reporter and producer ranks were women, Burdick said. They're coming through the door and getting jobs; keeping them is the challenge.

"A lot of women I've attempted to recruit over the years have gotten out," she said, "and I think the figures are somewhat skewed by that. They opt for more controlled lives when they become parents. I can't tell you how many times I saw that happen and couldn't convince future great managers to stay in the field and move up."

Once again, women confront possible gender bias compounded by desire and obligation to meet family commitments.

Change, said Judith Marlane, professor of cinema and television arts at California State University, Northridge, and a 20-year broadcast veteran, will take "a lot of inroads into the managerial and upper echelons. Individually, there are many women who help other women," she said, "but it requires the capacity to work in an environment in which you are reporting, by and large, to men who are reporting to other men, and who are in a position to hire and fire you."

Marlane, who has studied the role of women in TV news since the first flood of women in the class of 1972, says that television, because it is a reflective medium, mirrors rather than leads society. Newsroom assignments for women and broadcast depiction of women will shift significantly only after women rise much higher in the managerial side of broadcasting, in business in general and in the public sphere, she said. Asked to predict when this might be, Marlane said, "When we have, perhaps, a woman president; when we have women elected in larger numbers in government; when we have more women running Fortune 500 companies; when we have women who are heads of networks; and when we see changes in society on every level. I'm not terribly optimistic."

Making these changes matters. Television is, after all, the medium from which most people obtain their news and their ideas about the world. When the workforce numbers in TV news plateau with just one out of four national stories reported by women, with just one of four news directors a woman, and with talent heading for the exits because of burnout over work-life conflicts, we're clearly far from the ideal--farther away than we thought we'd be by now.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly newsletter of news, research and commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of Taking Their Place: A Documentary History of Women and Journalism (Second Edition), published this summer by Strata Publishing, Inc.