Television is nervously democratic. It surveys constantly, asking via Nielsens and Arbitrons the question posed by Mayor Koch of New York: How am I doing?
In Kansas City, the response KMBC got about its anchor, Christine Craft, was not very well. The viewers said she was too old. And so at 37, she was replaced.
It's always a lot of fun to take a couple of whacks at television--often more fun than television itself. But the fact of the matter is that Craft found out the hard way what most Americans already know: Men grow older; women get old.
Craft sued. But not before KMBC did what it could for her.
According to the Wall Street Journal, the station virtually urban-renewed her. With makeup, it "minimized" her chin and "enlarged" an eye. It redid her hair, clothed her and baubled her but like Pygmalion, the legendary king of Cyprus who fell in love with the statue he created, only KMBC was pleased with its creation. The viewers of Kansas City were unmoved and so KMBC pulled anchor.
Such are the pitfalls of television journalism, a term that is often a contradiction in terms. What happened to Craft could have happened to a man and sometimes does. But the medium is a lot harder on women then it is on men--especially when it comes to age. The Journal reports that a survey of 1,200 news anchors found that 48 percent of the men--but only three percent of the women--were over the age of 40.
There are several possible explanations for this but one is so obvious it would be pure sophistry to look further. Of all the areas in which men and women are still not equal, aging is probably the foremost--and, in some ways, the most unfair.
Our culture has it that aging makes men attractive, women unattractive. This not only has got to be bruising to the feminine ego, but financially devastating as well. As Christine Craft can tell you, more is involved here than self-image.
But the television industry will tell you that it is not setting the rules. It says it would prefer matters to be otherwise, but that it is dealing with a viewing audience that likes its women young and which, at the suggestion of a feminine wrinkle, will switch the channel, setting off alarm bells at the headquarters of the A.C. Nielsen Co.
There are two issues here.
The first is the unequal way the sexes are perceived to age. Possibly there is some Darwinian explanation for this, but more likely it comes down to mere fashion--a cultural bias based on sexism. After all, what is true for men should be true for women. Women, too, get wiser with age. Women, too, are more interesting as they get older. And maybe as more and more women have careers like men, they will be judged like men. If that is the case, older anchorwomen on television will accelerate the process.
The second issue has to do with fairness.
Assuming that television audiences prefer younger women, does that mean that a station has to give it what it wants? Would a station do the same, for instance, if the audience said it disapproved of blacks? Would it then revert to the days when, in fact, it did not have blacks on the air--and excused it all by saying it was only doing what its audience wanted?
The point is that by letting the audience's sexism dictate its on-air personnel policy, the television industry is indulging in journalistic cheesecake. Women--and not men--are chosen and discarded for the same reason women have always been chosen and discarded--for their looks.
In that sense, television journalism is no different than a chorus line or, until the courts moved in, stewardesses in the airline industry.
But the courts came to the rescue of stewardesses and they might do the same for anchorwomen. It would be better if the industry did it on its own, if it had either the guts or the values to do what is right instead of kowtowing to the prejudices of its audience. But in the absence of that, Christine Craft has done the right thing. If her allegations are true, she has been treated unfairly and her suit is in the best tradition of journalism. She is simply telling it like it is.