"News coming from a woman's mouth sounds like gossip."
Renee Poussaint grins when she says that, remembering the time she heard it. "At one stage when I was still at the Chicago station WBBM-TV, a CBS affiliate , there was a group of women employes who went to a station news executive and asked why there were no women anchoring at that station. One of the quotes from that meeting I'll never forget was, he said, 'News coming from a woman's mouth sounds like gossip. And that's why there are no women anchors at this station.' "
Poussaint grins a lot. Maybe because she is an anchor, in the eighth largest market in the country, and because at 37, she's part of a generation of women who have had to fight for their place on the air. Maybe because she knows she didn't win two Emmys for gossip. Or maybe because as a black woman, she's defied a double stereotype.
But that's ancient history in the half-life perspective of broadcasting. Though she boldly attributes getting the position of anchor at WJLA because of those qualities -- "I know damn good and well I wouldn't be here if it weren't for the women's revolution and the civil rights revolution. I'm a direct product of that" -- getting and holding are two different things.
Poussaint's co-anchor, David Schoumacher, a man with a reputation for being a demanding professional, says, "There was only one requirement we had when Renee was hired: That it be somebody that I could respect as an equal. Renee fulfilled that requirement better than anybody else -- male, female, black or white . . .
"She's an extremely intelligent and bright person with extremely high standards, maybe even higher than my standards," Schoumacher continues. "She's a heavyweight -- and that is irrespective of any question of race and sex -- which is what makes us work well together."
She came to WJLA in 1978 after Dolores Handy was fired. That incident -- the result of a bitter, widely publicized battle between Handy and her managers at the station -- attracted the attention of the D.C. City Council, and a resolution was passed that suggested WJLA's minority employment practices were amiss. Channel 7 hired Poussaint, then a reporter for CBS News-Washington.Trial by Fire
Poussaint's move into television reporting came in 1974 while she was a newswriter for WBBM in Chicago. She was in the newsroom when a call came in about a suburban fire. All the reporters were out on assignment; the editor sent her out to radio information back to the station. "When they put the fire out they discovered that this very nice valedictorian high school son had murdered his mother, his father, his sister and brother and committed suicide. It obviously became the page one story of the day.
"At that point it was late . . . the executive producer got on and said 'Guess what? In about 15 minutes you're going to do a live stand-up,' and I said 'You must be joking . . .'
"I did it and I was terrible. I stumbled and hemmed and hawed and carried on and figured that the only redeeming feature of the whole thing was my mother in New York couldn't see me make a fool of myself. But it was pretty bad.
"Anyway, I survived the experience." She did several follow-ups in the next few days because the station had a policy of keeping a reporter on a story for its duration. When it was over, she was offered a reporting job and accepted it.
"I think probably because my debut into television work was so unexpected and precipitous I didn't have time to worry about it. I mean I just did it and doing it was what was worrying me the most so there was not any concern about me as a personality. There wasn't time or energy for that."
Anyway, Poussaint is much too smart for anything like that.
"My feeling is the most important thing I do is convey information and if there's anything to distract from that then I ought to change it."
Though she is known to favor floppy hats and boas in her private life, on this particular winter day Poussaint is dressed in on-the-air conservative: black slacks and boots, a beige cowl-neck sweater, tweed jacket and a necklace of glass beads.
"I realized that there are certain physical things that get in the way of people hearing me because they fixate on them," she says. "The only conscious thing that I've ever done in that regard is I stopped wearing glasses. I used to, when I was a reporter, and what I found was whenever I changed my glasses I would get calls from viewers who would be telling me that they like my other glass frames and why didn't I wear those?
"I am not an all-American type at all," she says of her disregard for image. "I never have been and I never will be. So I don't worry about that."Cotton and Billiards
She grew up in Spanish Harlem, the daughter of a printer for The New York Times, "a union man," and a welfare administrator. Her ancestors are from Martinique: "That's where I got my French-sounding name. When I visited there, everyone resembled my relatives."
She has a strong sense of irony and of adventure. Between her freshman and sophomore years at Sarah Lawrence College, at age 18, she lived with a sharecropping family in Tennessee and picked cotton. "I wanted to broaden my understanding of all levels of black life, especially having grown up in the North. Even though I had relatives in the South, they weren't chopping cotton.
"My grandfather was a Baptist minister. At first he was dismayed when I chose to do that; he had worked so none of his grandchildren would ever have to do that. But it was one of the best experiences I ever had. I slept on the floor and worked literally from dawn until dusk and ate rice three times a day for my meals."
During her sophomore year she taught billiards to earn extra money. "Since I couldn't afford any other recreation that became my recreation, and I became very good at it. I worked out an arrangement with the phys. ed. department to instruct other students in pool for a stipend."
The next years brought wide travel, impetuous romance and more odd jobs. Her junior year was spent in Paris at the Sorbonne. Young adulthood flourished in Europe, the Caribbean and East Africa, where she worked at a radio station. She completed a master's in African studies in Los Angeles, then stayed to work for an arts magazine.
Poussaint met her future husband, attorney Henry Richardson, at Yale, where she attended one year of law school. For 13 years before their marriage in 1977 they courted, "became engaged and subsequently broke up on three different continents."
Now, after finally buying a home in Northwest Washington, they're working out a commuter marriage -- Richardson teaches at Temple University in Philadelphia. "He's in on Thursday nights and out on Monday mornings," says Poussaint. "I try to get up there one weekend per month and he comes down the other times." They speak twice a day by phone, cautiously guard their time together on weekends and like to dance.
"I think it gets down to qualitative and quantitative time," Poussaint says about the arrangement. "If you're both really happy with what you're doing, even though you have less time together, it's better than more time, with one of you miserable with your professional time."
Richardson calls his wife subtle "but also very direct," and he thinks TV ruins her voice. "The first time I heard her I just couldn't believe it was the same person . . . The melodies of her voice are largely lost, though she still comes across as a remarkably expressive woman."
She also comes across as extremely straightforward and serious. The professional concerns stem from her classical training in French and African literature, and run almost counter to successful television.TV Teaching
"Painful" is the word Poussaint uses to describe her previous work as a newswriter, when she distilled volumes of information to several seconds of television reporting. "And I still feel it," she says. "Frustration.
"You know, television is a headline service. That's really what it is."
But she chose the frustrations of television over those of academe. She made the career change after teaching "functionally illiterate" students while doing graduate work at Indiana University. Her freshman and sophomore students told her they got all the information they wanted from television and didn't need to perfect their reading skills.
"I went through a kind of identity crisis I guess, because my own doctoral studies were becoming more and more esoteric," Poussaint says. "I was sitting there translating parts of the Bible into Swahili and I felt that it was not really preparing me to communicate with these kids. So I decided that I should learn something about television."
So she sat down with a copy of Broadcasters' Yearbook, picked out "50 cities where I thought I could bear to live" and sent out re'sume's and letters that "basically said 'I am a woman with a great deal of education and a lot of work experience, none of which is directly related to broadcasting, but I am willing to start at the bottom.'
"I think I got three replies."
One of them was from the manager of WBBM.
Ultimately, she agreed to enroll in the Michele Clarke Program for Minority Journalists at Columbia University and went to work for the station in September 1973 as a newswriter. After she began reporting for WBBM, CBS network offered her a reporting job, which she turned down.
"I didn't think I was ready for it. I hadn't, in my opinion, chased enough fire engines, paid my dues. I wanted to be good and I didn't feel I was good enough so I turned it down, which I discovered later was simply unheard of."
A year later, in 1976, she accepted CBS' second offer.
She remembers when she was sent to cover a union meeting of Chicago firefighters where the only thing on the agenda was how to keep blacks and women out of the union. "It was me in a union hall with 400 firemen, all them white males, and my white male camera crew. It was not one of the more pleasant experiences in my life . . . and it was very difficult to keep a passive, professional stance under those circumstances.
"What almost broke me up though, was at the end I was leaving to rush back to the station and get the story on the 11 o'clock news and one of the firemen ran up to me and said, 'Renee, we don't want you leaving, thinking that all the Chicago firefighters are racist and sexist.
" 'It's just we're afraid that the broads and the niggers are taking over the world.' "
Friends who admire her calm like to tell about the time she was host on "Good Morning Washington" and received an obscene phone call during a program on sexuality with viewer call-in. The caller said, "Where can I get a ---- this weekend?" "Not here," she answered, continuing as though nothing had happened.
Dow Smith, vice president and news director at WJLA, says Poussaint is known to the producers and writers as a tough judge of "what's happening. She's not one of those people who walks in the door, picks up her script and reads it . . . Bad writing bothers her. She goes crazy if it's not well written. She normally comes back to our meeting and has the offending piece of script in her hand . . . But she doesn't make a cheap shot; it's constructive criticism."
Eventually Poussaint says she wants to move into management. "My basic feeling," she says, "is that those things that disturb me about the industry will not change until there are more blacks and women in decision-making positions, and most of us are clustered in on-air positions."
Poussaint still recalls what another executive once told her: that she would never be a successful anchor because she appeared too intelligent on the air, that viewers resent intelligence.
And that's why she relishes a recent encounter with two women on the street:
" 'We watch you every night and we just love you,' " she recalled one of them saying, " 'and we talked about this and we've come to the conclusion that you must have gotten your job because you're intelligent.'
"The more I thought about that," she says, "the more I felt good about it."
And the grin begins to spread.