By Nichola D. Gutgold
Diane Sawyer has tipped the scales for women anchors of the evening news. Now there are two—Sawyer at ABC and Katie Couric at CBS-- while Brian Williams is the sole male, anchoring the evening news for NBC. That is progress, no doubt, but consider that Diane Sawyer is only two years younger than the man she replaced, the retiring Charlie Gibson.
Recently Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman blasted the BBC and other broadcasters for bypassing older women broadcasters. In the United States, ageism and the anchorwoman has been a problem for as long as women have worked in television news. The issue of anchorwomen being discriminated against based on their age was addressed in 1970 when the FCC promulgated a series of regulations prohibiting discrimination against women. One of the regulations prohibited discriminating against women who are over forty years old. This issue is especially important to women in television since advancing age is more obvious in the visual medium of television than perhaps in any other occupation. The recent advances in high definition television have made aging even more obvious.
Between 1983 and 2002, men’s tenure as correspondents on network news averaged eight years, versus five for women, according to a study conducted by Joe Foote, dean of the University of Oklahoma’s Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communications. Of the thirty correspondents who reported during each of those twenty years –a measure of longevity—twenty-eight were male. The lack of women decision makers, women overseas, pay equities, focus on women’s appearance, and insensitivity to women are issues addressed in this research.
Many newswomen have asserted that their careers have been cut short because of their advancing age. Most famously Christine Craft sued Metromedia, Inc. in the 1980s for demoting her from anchor to reporter at the age of thirty-six after the station manager dubbed her “too old, too ugly and not sufficiently deferential enough to men.” Now a lawyer and a radio talk show host in Sacramento, California, Craft told me that although she wasn’t successful in her lawsuit, “newsmen and newswomen all over the country have gone out of their way to tell me that my battle made a positive difference for them.”
Of course, in the United States there are many women on television who are above forty. Barbara Walters, Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer, and Lesley Stahl, as well as others remain fixtures on the national news scene and none of them is younger than forty. That they appear much younger than they are is significant.
Bottom line: we have a long way to go. When male anchors are more than a decade older than their female counterparts, such as John Roberts and Kiran Chetry on CNN’s morning show, ageism and women in broadcasting is a problem that is still very much alive. While male news anchors have gone gray or have lost their hair, and have gotten wrinkled, women broadcasters have remained blond or brunette (mostly blond) with relatively smooth skin, regardless of their age. Even the women who have been in television for more than thirty years do not appear old. And the “ideal” television anchor-couple is still the older man with the much younger woman. There has been progress, no doubt, but when women age more naturally on television and anchor teams have less of an age gap between them that will truly be a breaking story.
Nichola D. Gutgold is associate professor of communication at Penn State Lehigh Valley campaus and author of several books about women in male dominated fields including Seen and Heard: The Women of Television News and her most recent: Almost Madam President: Why Hillary Clinton ‘Won’ in 2009.