Reviewed by Virginia Breen
Published on Jhistory (November, 2008)
Commissioned by Donna Harrington-Lueker
Anchorwomen: The Legend of Katie, Barbara, Diane, and Company
A photo on the cover of Nichola D. Gutgold’s Seen and Heard: Women in Television News shows a circa-1980s photo of Katie Couric and Barbara Walters in shoulder-padded suits, holding hands and beaming in sisterly solidarity. If the photo is a tad dated, the hear-me-roar, cheerleading tone of the book also harkens back to an earlier era. An examination of the career paths and communication styles of a dozen women in broadcast news certainly merits attention, but Gutgold seems intent on portraying all the anchors as trailblazing superwomen. The mold-breaking narrative that guides Gutgold’s analysis, however, ends up reinforcing rather than refuting the idea that television news is a man’s domain.
In fact, television news is increasingly becoming an entertainer’s domain. A New York Times headline recently mused, “Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in America?” based on a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and Press that named The Daily Show host among the nation’s most admired journalists. In the age of the Internet, cell phones, and 24/7 cable news coverage, the concept of the evening news anchor seems as antiquated as analog television.
Amid the upheavals in broadcasting, women are staking a claim to the airwaves in greater numbers than ever. According to the Radio and Television News Directors Association’s 2008 Women and Minorities survey, “among news anchors ... the percentage of women has leveled off at about 57 percent.” With women now filling more than half of all anchor chairs, the situation for women in broadcasting hardly seems dire. Surely, sexism and ageism continue to pose obstacles for women, but the average television viewer may be forgiven for questioning Gutgold’s lament of “the noticeable lack of women in the anchor seat” (p. 10).
Still, as Gutgold stresses, the naming of the first solo woman anchor of an evening network news broadcast was a long time coming. The story of how Couric rose from a lowly desk assistant at ABC News to her current post is certainly of interest to viewers and media scholars alike. Gutgold, an associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Pennsylvania State Lehigh Valley, chronicles Couric’s career path, as well as those of Walters, Connie Chung, Elizabeth Vargas, Christiane Amanpour, Dana Bash, Candy Crowley, Andrea Mitchell, Judy Woodruff, Diane Sawyer, Leslie Stahl, and Paula Zahn. Some may question how the author settled on the featured broadcasters (Why pick relative newcomer Bash? Why focus on so many CNN correspondents?), but each breezy bio is followed by Gutgold’s analysis of each woman’s impact in the industry.
The most compelling aspect of the book comes from Gutgold’s interpretation of the communication styles of each woman broadcaster. We learn, for instance, that Walters often addresses guests by their first names and sits within three feet of them during interviews. To gain her guest’s trust, Walters shares aspects of her own personal life. “This ability to gain the confidence of her subjects by adopting behaviors that promote self-disclosure improved the quality of the interviews that Barbara Walters conducted,” the author concludes (p. 46). Gutgold also notes that Walters’s trademark lisp, lampooned by the late comedian Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live, has improved greatly since her early days on NBC.
CNN political correspondent Crowley “frequently begins her responses to hosts’ questions with a colloquial ‘well,’” and “rarely smiles at the end of her report,” Gutgold writes (p. 125). Crowley breaks down her interviewing process step by step in an e-mail to Gutgold: “Relaxing the interviewee is key. I usually throw soft balls the first couple of questions (unless time is really limited). People come to interviews with something they want to say. I let them say it. Then I ask about what I want to know. I am also unfailingly polite (not to be confused with docile). A rude, snarly interview may be good TV, but it shuts down the interviewee and you get nothing of interest. Tough questions: good. Rudeness: bad” (p. 124).
Gutgold’s interview with CNN’s Bash also offers a behind-camera view of the daily grind of a political correspondent. “For example, today I had a 7 a.m. live shot regarding Alberto Gonzalez and Sununu coming out and saying he should be fired,” Bash tells the author via e-mail. “Then I had ... live shots nine, ten and eleven, then I had to completely shift gears and report on Iraq at 6:00 on Lou Dobbs. A twelve-hour day like this is not unusual” (p. 118).
The author, however, either did not try or was not successful in scoring interviews with her ten other subjects. While she deftly weaves in quotes from secondary sources to flesh out her portraits, in several cases, she offers highly critical interpretations of events without giving her subject a chance to respond. In her profile of Chung, for instance, Gutgold slams the veteran newswoman for being “condescending” in an interview with Roger Clinton, the former president’s brother (p. 73). Later in the book, Gutgold argues that a “patronizing” Chung “revealed a disingenuous nature to viewers” during an interview with figure skater Tonya Harding (p. 78). In response to a Chung quote that CBS “took care of years of discrimination” in the 1970s by hiring “a Chinese woman, a black woman, a nice Jewish girl and a blond shiksa,” Gutgold writes, “it’s unlikely that any of these qualified journalists was hired because she was a certain race, in addition to being female. This quote says more about Connie Chung’s slightly sarcastic sense of humor than it does about hiring practices at CBS” (p. 66). Those who have researched broadcast hiring practices in the early 1970s, however, agree with Chung. Judith Marlane, author of Women in Television News Revisited (2008), noted that equal opportunity revisions enacted by the Federal Communications Commission prompted television stations across America to scramble to hire women and minorities: “Often they would seek out a minority woman and thereby satisfy tokenism in one fell swoop.”
Summarizing Chung’s impact on broadcasting, Gutgold concludes, “in the end, Chung was unable to transcend the complacent news reader position and has all but vanished from television” (p. 72). Ouch! I strongly suspect Chung would provide an alternative view of her communication skills and career trajectory, but she is not given the opportunity to respond.
Most maddening about the book, though, is Gutgold’s reliance on sexist terminology and her inclusion of quotes that reaffirm the Victorian ideal of woman as the “angel of the hearth.” We are told that Woodruff, the former host of CNN’s Inside Politics and special correspondent on PBS’s News Hour, has a “lady-like southern charm” and “sees herself as a mother first” (pp. 140, 136). Gutgold quotes Woodruff’s colleague, NBC correspondent Mitchell, as saying, “family really is the most important thing to her” (p. 135). I would guess family is pretty darn important to Charles Gibson and Brian Williams, too, but I am not sure a book about their careers would mention it. Gutgold points out that “many of the women are deeply patriotic” (p. 196). Must they love apple pie, too?
Linguists and media scholars have long bemoaned the gender bias of language. As media scholar Helen Benedict writes, “men are never described as hysterical, bubbly, pretty, pert, prudish, vivacious or flirtatious." Gutgold undermines her stated support for equity in broadcasting by describing CNN congressional correspondent Bash as a “plucky” reporter who “appears prepared and alert, often batting her eyes repeatedly as she delivers information” (pp. 196, 117). Mitchell’s size merits Gutgold’s attention, too: “Though petite, she has taken on some of the most formidable public officials with grace and humanity” (p. 131). Amanpour has “raven” hair, and Zahn is “statuesque” (pp. 95, 163).
Grammatical and spelling errors sprinkled throughout the text may prompt the reader to invoke the fedora-clad reporter of old who cried, “Sweetheart, get me rewrite!” Gutgold writes that Chung “did not illicit new information from the president’s brother,” and later argues that Chung “faltered as an interviewer because her questions did not illicit the responses that viewers crave” (pp. 73, 77). Such malapropisms will certainly elicit groans from Chung fans and grammarians alike. Elsewhere, the author writes, “Christiane Amanpour tried to describe life for Islams to her American audience” (p. 95). According to Paul Brians’s Common Errors in English Usage (2003), “followers of Islam are called ‘Muslims,’ not ‘Islams.’” Gutgold also uses “demure” for “demur” and “Capital Hill” instead of “Capitol” (pp. 151, 66).
Factual errors also weaken Seen and Heard. Gutgold notes, “Although the jury found O. J. Simpson not guilty, he was found guilty in a civil case and many Americans believe he committed the crimes” (p. 48). A defendant in a civil case may not be found guilty or not guilty, only liable or not liable for damages. Sawyer, we are told, conducted “an exclusive interview with Syrian President Assand” (p. 147). The reader must guess whether the author is referring to Basher al-Assad, the current president, or his father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad. The matter is clarified three pages later, when the author mentions Sawyer’s interview with “Basher al-Assad.”
Considering Gutgold’s role as a communications professor, her repeated reference to “the tenants of journalism” is particularly irksome (pp. 13, 25). Nathaniel Hawthorne once said, “Easy reading is damned hard writing.” As the women broadcasters featured in Seen and Heard surely know, that is one of the tenets of journalism.
. Michiko Kakutani, “Is Jon Stewart the Most Trusted Man in America?” New York Times, August 15, 2008.
. Bob Papper, “2008 Women and Minorities Survey,” RTNDA Communicator (July-August 2008): 10-12.
. Judith Marlane, Women in Television News Revisited (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008), 1.
. Helen Benedict, Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 20.
. Paul Brians, Common Errors in English Usage (Wilsonville: Franklin, Beedle and Associates, 2003), 117.
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Virginia Breen. Review of Gutgold, Nichola D., Seen and Heard: The Women of Television News.
Jhistory, H-Net Reviews.
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