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Who Controls the News?

For the third time in history, a woman has been hired as a nightly news executive. That's a sorry commentary in 2007 considering the first network newscast aired sometime just after Adam and Eve.
 
 
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When NBC nightly news execs got the ratings for February and could sense ABC nosing ahead, they decided to do something drastic. They hired a woman.

"Nightly News with Brian Williams" had maintained a comfortable position as number one since Tom Brokaw left in December 2004. But during the last week in February, ABC's Charles Gibson pulled about 9.4 million viewers to NBC's 9.1 million, with CBS at 6.9 million.

Almost as quickly as Nielsen popped out those ratings, NBC executives tossed out John Reiss, Williams' executive producer for almost two years, and hired Alexandra Wallace, a vice president of the network's news division, for the job. Now, the pressure is on Wallace, 41, to put the newscast into overdrive and move it once again past ABC. She is only the third female executive producer for a nightly newscast in the history of network news in the U.S. That's a sorry commentary in 2007 considering the first network newscast aired sometime just after Adam and Eve.

Progress has to start somewhere. Let's just hope three is the charm and she has better luck than her two female predecessors in one of the toughest jobs in the news business. Emily Rooney and Kathryn Christensen, both executive producers for "World News Tonight with Peter Jennings," didn't last long. Rooney held the spot for only nine months in the early 1990s while Christensen worked for Jennings in the mid l990s for just under two years.

Rooney, who had a small child at the time, and whose husband commuted to New York to see her in the first few months, said she "didn't think too much" about the announcement of Wallace's appointment. "There are pitfalls for any executive producer," she said. Rooney's reign was apparently harsh. After three weeks on the job, an ABC executive pulled her aside. Maybe she shouldn't move to New York from Boston where she had been living, he suggested. "They told me this after I had sold my house," said Rooney, who now hosts WGBH's "Greater Boston." Overall, Rooney says she was not valued, and that her advice about stories was often "dismissed."

Christensen talked about her somewhat longer tenure. "Emily was different from me. She came from outside and wasn't familiar with the players. I was at ABC for more than ten years and had worked as a senior broadcast producer." Christensen discussed the challenges facing anyone in network news. "I don't think this is a gender issue. The challenges are the same for men and women." She said it "really is no different in the TV area than in the business world. I'm sure there are men out there who felt they were very deserving of the job and did not get it. The ratings are always an issue, but today it is more intense with the Internet, the declining audience." In her case, there was a management change after two years. "The job shifted for me. Everyone took a step down, and I was given the title of managing editor." Asked about her feelings when she heard a third woman would "rule" a newscast, Christensen was enthusiastic. "I think she will do a great job."

Why did it take nearly ten years for another women to get the job? The networks have given a few women, present and past, opportunities as executive producers, including Phyllis McGrady (ABC's "Prime Time Live"), Susan Zirinsky (CBS's "48 Hours"), Shelley Ross (ABC's "Good Morning America"), and Betsey Fischer (NBC's "Meet the Press"). That doesn't include senior producers of the nightly world who served as acting exec producers for one reason or another-like NBC's Cheryl Gould back in the l980s. Rooney mentioned one important item in the equation: the position "does have a lot to do with the chemistry of an anchor and the exec producer." The camaraderie can go way beyond meetings or traveling on remotes. Getting together to play tennis becomes an opportunity to discuss the program, or just bonding in time spent outside the newsroom is a factor.

Chemistry or not, can a woman executive in the network newsroom bring her own perspective to the job? Quoted in a recent article, Wallace mentioned that as a mother of two, she would no doubt have "a different perspective" but that that she hasn't planned major changes. Christensen agreed. "I'm sure I brought some perspective because I am a woman, " she said, "but I couldn't define what that was. I wanted to make the right choices. So much comes into play, so I don't recall any examples that were different from my male colleagues. I'm sure I had some ideas of optional stories we should cover. Years ago, women's issues weren't covered as they are today."

But that was then, this is now. And at the School of Communication at American University where I work, the total number of graduate and undergraduate majors in journalism and public communication may tell a new story: 797 women and 332 men. If that trend continues, who will fill these future seats in the newsroom? Measuring the situation in those newsrooms today is tricky. The Annual Report of American Journalism , released recently by the Project for Excellence in Journalism along with Pew Research, was able to "look at on-air correspondents who appear in stories" but could not "account for the many . . . producers and assistants who make up so much of television news." Why? Simply because the "networks do not like to release personnel information." The little that is released, according to the report, appears in such directories as the News Media Yellow Book , which tracks leading news organizations.

The media loves giving us the news a lot more than making the news. There is so much written about CBS's Katie Couric and her ratings, but the fact that she was ranked "one of the most admired journalists" by Pew didn't really get that much airplay. Wallace's appointment may herald another breakthrough. Years ago, many women in the network newsroom were not married, and very few had children. Wallace is married. Her children, a daughter and son, are five and three years old.

As we watch Wallace make three the charm, keep in mind all the people behind the scenes who work hard to give you 22 minutes of the world. It's not just your average Joe anymore. It's Joanne.

Gemma Puglisi worked at NBC "Nightly" from l985-l99l. She is an assistant professor in the School of Communication at American University.

 
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