Three cheers from this corner for Christine Craft, 38, who has just won $500,000 in damages from the owner of a Kansas City television station that ousted her as anchorwoman with the memorable statement that she was "too old, unattractive and not deferential enough to men."
Craft sued, and by the time the verdict was handed down late Wednesday the American public had made some interesting discoveries about television news. It is, for example, obsessed with cosmetics. One of her bosses testified that he would put appearance "right at the top" in choosing an anchor. "A man gets more distinguished," Craft said on ABC's "Nightline" after her victory. "When a woman gets wrinkles it's looked upon negatively."
Craft, who is hardly unattractive, went to the heart of TV news when she raised the issue of whether she was hired for her looks or her journalistic ability. She claimed the station told her she was being hired for the latter and then went through all sort of shenanigans to try to change her appearance. A federal jury found in Craft's favor on that point, and it also recommended that the presiding judge, a Reagan appointee, find the station guilty of sex discrimination.
More important, though, and no doubt more annoying to the stations around the country, is that Craft's case has focused renewed attention on the fact that women are badly underrepresented both on the air and in the power positions in one of the most influential industries in society.
While this is important to women in communications, it is also important in a broader sense for the American public. Television, whatever else it does, is a mirror on society. News executives and anchors daily make decisions about what is a story and how to play it. What is left out of the news remains invisible and what is included becomes important. The Craft case shows that the mirror does not come close to reflecting the presence and interests of half of society: It is as distorted a picture of America as an amusement hall mirror.
While the networks have placed a few women in high-visibility jobs, such as covering the White House, the overall numbers for women in television are appalling. A 1979 study by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that 82.8 percent of network correspondents are white males. They are even more appalling when one looks at the numbers for older women who might, perish the thought, show up on society's mirror with a few friendly wrinkles here and there. Only three percent of the women anchors are over 40 years old, according to a survey of 1,200 anchors done by a Dallas media consulting firm. None of the women anchors were over 50, though 16 percent of the men were.
Three years ago former Federal Communications Commission member Ann Jones, a Republican appointed by President Carter, suggested that the FCC leave equal employment opportunity matters up to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In December 1982, however, she told a conference of broadcasters that she had changed her mind. "The goal of equal participation by women and minorities in broadcasting clearly has not been reached, either in overall employment, or, and perhaps more importantly, in significant job categories."
The generation of women anchors and correspondents we see on the air today has been the pathfinding generation that had to break through unbelievable prejudice: A story in TV guide relates that a male executive told Jessica Savitch only 15 years ago that women's voices weren't "authoritative enough" and women viewers didn't want to watch attractive women broadcasters. The finding in Craft's case should make it easier for this group of newswomen, most of whom are now in their late 30s, to grow older on the air, just as, say Dan Rather, 51, has done.
Beyond that, Craft, at considerable risk of personal embarrassment, has drawn unprecedented attention to the fact that television is still a man's world, with ugly double standards. Her victory serves notice on broadcasters that the drive by women for equal employment opportunities in the industry is far from over.
And with $500,000 judgments, the industry may discover just how costly cosmetics can be.