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Dead Tree Alert: The Unbearable White-Maleness of News Anchoring

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In the current issue of the magazine, my column is about the contrast pointed up by the current election, and by Katie Couric’s reportedly impending departure from CBS News: the presidential field is more diverse than the people—or at least the marquee news anchors and primetime cable hosts—covering it and asking the questions at the debates:

Is it the year 2060 in America, or 1960? Jon Stewart at the Oscars and voters in the street have noted there’s something sci-fi about an election in which two leading candidates are a woman and a black man. “By the time this came,” a Pennsylvanian told the New York Times Magazine, regarding Barack Obama’s run, “I thought I’d be flying around in a spaceship or driving in some kind of Jetsons vehicle.”

If one side of the debate stage is Star Trek, however, the question-asking side looks like Dragnet. In the Democratic debates, Obama and Hillary Clinton have taken questions from Charles Gibson, Brian Williams, Tim Russert, Wolf Blitzer–white guy, white guy, white guy, white guy.

Now the white-male preserve of TV anchoring may get yet white-maler.

After the jump, a couple more points that I either didn’t have room to elaborate on or had to cut to get the column to fit:

* I mentioned, but wish I had more room to explain, that I don’t think Katie Couric failed in the ratings because she’s a woman—or, at least, not mainly because she’s a woman. (There’s some circumstantial evidence that women in TV news are viewed more harshly by the audience, but it’s not conclusive—largely because not enough women have gotten high-profile solo anchoring gigs.) To say that her experience proves people won’t accept women heading the 6:30 news would be ridiculous. The problem is, that’s what CBS has been, if not saying straight out, at least implying, with several public comments that execs think Couric’s gender hurt her.

CBS’s failing wasn’t picking a woman. It was picking this particular woman, or the fault was with the kind of newscast they gave her to head up, or both. But to say that would be for the network to admit it screwed up. Better from a PR standpoint to say they were just tripped up by latent sexism. They were just too idealistic! The fallout from that is that it becomes much harder for CBS to replace Couric with a female anchor, because it would repudiate this explanation, which they’re now heavily invested in. And it may make it harder for other big networks to make the same decision in the future.

* That said, it is true that the evening news audience is old, getting older, and therefore, more televisually conservative than other TV audiences. To extend the politics metaphor, it’s the TV-demographic equivalent of Pennsylvania, an elderly state. (Of course, Pennsylvania went for Hillary, so the metaphor breaks down eventually—but then again, maybe that’s circumstantial evidence that an older demo can see a woman as having “gravitas” overall.)

* And speaking of gravitas, it’s worth pointing out—though I had to cut this at the last minute—that for some reason, the cable networks have plenty of female and minority anchors in the daytime whom they evidently feel have enough gravitas to present the news. Why should their gravitas suddenly be insufficient after 6:30? Is there some kind of reverse vampiire effect?

* Finally, I do acknowledge this in the column but: yes, I am a white dude myself. You caught me. Which is a fair enough thing to point out, and maybe it makes me a hypocrite to criticize. On the one hand magazines like Time do still have far too few female and minority editors—Time’s top African-American woman editor just left the magazine a few weeks ago. On the other hand, at least gender-wise, TV criticism at big national media outlets is a good sight more mixed than evening-news anchoring, with female critics at the New York Times (both critics), the L.A. Times, the New Yorker, the Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal and Entertainment Weekly, among others. (The racial diversity—at least judging from what I’ve seen at TCA meetings—is much worse.)

But, what can you do? Maybe a white guy with a media job shouldn’t be complaining that white guys have too many media jobs—but, by definition, everybody, of any color or chromosome, who has or wants a job in the media is implicated in media diversity. If you recuse yourself from commenting on that basis, it becomes a big mutual conspiracy of silence, in which everybody in the media keeps quiet about everybody else’s diversity record.

* All of which is to say, it’s not like I begrudge talented white-male anchors their jobs, or their potential future jobs. Anderson Cooper, for instance, would make a great hire for anyone’s newscast. (But note: If Katie has too frothy an image because she hosted a morning show, why doesn’t he, having hosted a morning show plus The freaking Mole?) I’m just saying that there are other qualified hires out there too: Diane Sawyer, Lara Logan, Gwen Ifill…

In any case, the white man’s talked long enough here, so I’m curious what you think.