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The Fluff Factor

In the view of columnists Maureen Dowd and Margaret Carlson, having
good-looking white guy Brian Williams and another member of that fraternity
replace Tom Brokaw and Dan Rather would serve as a disheartening referendum on
women's progress.

Yet to truly appreciate the state of broadcast news, it's time to move
beyond such symbolic concerns to a better understanding of the current reality.
Women have indeed taken strides forward, only to be obscured by the entire
industry's stumble backward.

The anchor, of course, is the ultimate symbol of hard news—the
stern-jawed figure who appears when the going gets tough. The problem is that
broadcast news has relatively little patience with that approach, creating a
few lonely islands of such sobriety surrounded by a turbulent tabloid sea.

There are women in prominent roles across the TV- news landscape. It's
just that they're as apt to be fretting about the Scott Peterson, Robert
Blake and Michael Jackson trials, or perhaps discussing Britney Spears' love
life, as they are to be reporting on anything truly substantial. These fluffier
pieces are otherwise known as the stuff that pays the bills.

Nightline anchor Ted Koppel has
frequently conceded that his program isn't above doing the occasional story
calculated to boost ratings—a trade-off to allow for more-serious journalism.
And while everyone undergoes some version of that balancing act, even in the
wake of 9/11, the scales keep tipping into the fluff column.

Based on that formulation, it's no wonder Today host Katie Couric commands a salary that
eclipses virtually any other in the news space, even though part of her morning
routine involves bantering with celebrities and yukking it up with her NBC

For that reason, Couric will never be held in the same esteem as Brokaw,
Rather, Peter Jennings and their eventual successors, including the polished
Brian Williams.

The bottom line is that the modern TV newsstand comes with a built-in
candy store, and plenty of female stars man that counter. Diane Sawyer (how
'bout them sextuplets?), Nancy Grace of Court TV, Greta Van Susteren of Fox
News Channel and the peerless Barbara Walters all qualify, with Walters
parlaying her clout into a daytime chat show that provides women with fashion
advice and cooking tips. Jane Pauley was also fluff news royalty before seeking
to reinvent herself (poorly, it turns out) as a latter-day Oprah.

The prominence of these women is only one reason the emphasis on the
evening-news chair seems misguided. With the power of those newscasts clearly
diminished by the explosion of alternatives, dwelling on three jobs—as
opposed to the total spectrum—is shortsighted.

In addition, too many younger women have become accomplices in
undermining their hard-news credibility—particularly in local news, where
flashy outfits and sexual come-ons mirror the poor
sexuality-as-career-advancement judgment consistently exhibited by female
contestants on The Apprentice. The recent
hubbub about a Cleveland TV reporter posing nude as part of a sweeps stunt is
simply the most overt example.

As a corollary, let's not forget that qualities associated with
anchoring discriminate against men as well as women. Many talented male
reporters who are lacking a perfect profile are also dismissed out of hand as
candidates for front-and-center assignments, much like the Albert Brooks
character in Broadcast News.

Finally, it's worth noting that the aforementioned Dowd—a Pulitzer
Prize-winning New York Times columnist,
about as high on the print totem pole as it reaches —is herself indicative of
the strides women have made. In the last few months, she has been seen on
everything from Meet the Press to
Late Show With David Letterman. Apparently,
she shed some of her misgivings about TV once she had a book to sell.

Interestingly, the recent movie Anchorman focused on a woman invading the male
sanctuary of local news in the 1970s. Although obviously a parody, there were
some inherent truths in the clubby sports guy/weather guy/brain-dead anchor
triumvirate: all white, male and decked out in bad jackets.

Thanks to what has transpired in the decades since, TV news can no
longer be narrowly judged by who occupies the evening-news throne. No matter
who reigns supreme, it doesn't change the sad fact that much of the court,
both male and female, has been turned into jesters.