Thursday, September 10, 2009

Making the headlines

by Kaite Welsh

I
n preparation for the return of the Sawyer-Couric partnership on the evening news, the New York Times ran a piece on Diane Sawyer last weekend. A catchy summary of Sawyer's career to date and on-camera style, it illuminates the problems faced by female news anchors but does not fully explore them.

The role of the news anchor - in particular the female news anchor - is something that constantly occupies the press, and therefore becomes part of the viewing experience. In 2007, the BBC came under fire after they sacked Moira Stuart, a fifty-something presenter who in the 1980s became the first Afro-Caribbean female newsreader. The public outcry that followed in the British press is telling – even tabloids known for spouting racist, sexist opinions demanded her reinstatement. One, the Daily Mail, singled out US television for the prominence of its older women and expressed concern that younger, more "glamorous" presenters lack the authority of their older counterparts:

"If we viewers are to worry about serving British officers held at gunpoint in Iran, we like to think the latest update is brought to us by somebody who could point to it on a map; if global warming is up for discussion, it is comforting to believe that the person saying "atmospheric" can also spell it."

Particularly singled out was Natasha Kaplinsky, a presenter who had worked on news programmes since the late 1990s, and who holds a degree from Oxford. The paper condemned her for lacking the gravitas necessary for a primetime newsanchor, citing the “sexual tittle-tattle” – much of it published by themselves - that had followed her over the past few years.

Divisionary tactics such as these, where one woman’s rise to power must inevitably involve another’s fall, is something that the New York Times article also mentions, but fails to criticize in any real depth - the assumption that the off-camera relationship between Sawyer and Couric will be a new take on that old standard, the female power struggle. It is one perhaps best encapsulated by "Murphy Brown", the 1990s sitcom that frequently pitted Murphy, a hard-bitten serious journalist, against her colleague Corky, a perky, peppy former beauty queen. Beauty versus brains, and there can be no common ground between the two.

The crux of the issue is the fundamental problem still seen in perceptions of powerful women - in order to carry authority, does one need to be sexless? Does that addition of glossier lips detract from the importance of the words coming out of them? Or are we obsessing over the superficial in order to subtly denigrate the women who let us know what is going on in the world?

In addition, the concept that two dissimilar women have to be enemies rather than allies is not a new one, and the blame rests less on women themselves and more on a patriarchal society that places limits on how many successful women can inhabit the spotlight at any one time. As Virginia Woolf said, “Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women.”

As well as reporting the state of the world, it is important that news programmes also reflect it, rather than having “the white male anchorman” of whose demise the Times speaks, pontificating on the actions of people in powerful positions – an increasing number of whom are women.

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