Some years ago, a group of Boston television news executives went looking for a new anchorman. They found a 23-year-old in Denver, brought him east, gave him a new name, a new hair color, a new age and a new job as anchor and sex symbol. The man didn't last a year. He was "just another pretty face."
Last summer, another group of executives hired a 31-year-old blonde, blue-eyed, exceptionally pretty and professional woman named Robin Young to co-anchor the news here. The ratings collapsed under the twosome, and the rumors all over town predict her graceful exit. She is, some have said, too cute.
Last week, in Kansas City, a 38-year-old television journalist named Christine Craft told a similar tale. She was dropped from her ancho spot in Missouri after eight months because, she says, a viewer survey found her "unattractive, too old and not deferential to men."
There are many differences between these three stories, but the basic one is that Craft told hers to a jury. She has sued her former bosses for sex discrimination.
Anybody who goes into television journalism knows better than to count on the gold watch. The average television journalist learns to live with the insecurity of the business.
They learn to be called "the talent," to become "a television personality." They learn that a piece on nuclear holocaust will elicit two dozen letters on their hairdo. They know that the "vision" in television may come down to their looks.
The question the jury has to decide is whether KMBC treated Chris Craft more shabbily than, say, NBC treated Roger Mudd. They have to decide whether she got the ordinary crummy treatment--the kind awarded to the two Boston anchors--or special, illegal, sex-discrimination treatment.
This isn't an easy question. It never is, when the cases come up one by one.
We all know instinctively that however important appearance is for men, there is still a double standard. If you doubt that the judgments on women's looks are tougher, imagine Charles Kuralt or Irving R. Levine in a wig. If you doubt that it's harder for women to age on the tube, check the statistics: 48 percent of the men who anchor the local news are over 40 years old, but only 3 percent of the women. There isn't a woman over 50 anchoring at any of the country's 1,000 stations.
But the station managers will tell you that they are at the whim of popular opinion. TV, they explain, is a competitive business. The news director told Craft that she was being dropped because "when the people of Kansas City see your face, they turn the dial."
There was a dispute at the trial about the ratings. But assume for the moment that Chris Craft was as unpopular in Kansas City as the videotape of the survey suggested at the trial. Assume that it's the viewers who still find it difficult to accept a woman on television with "a normal face," as she describes herself--"not a monster, not a beauty queen." Assume that people are more critical of women as they age.
Where do we go from here? Over the past decade, a strong group of female journalists has come into its own on television. They now have the experience and the authority of mid-life. It comes with wrinkles and hints of gray hair at the roots.
Are we going to lose their expertise to appearance? Are women always going to be too young or too old, too cute or too ugly, instead of competent and incompetent? If athletes are through when their young legs go, are TV journalists, women especially, through when their young looks go?
Not long ago, the broadcasters were reluctant to put any women on the air. They said viewers couldn't accept news from women. Women's voices had no authority. Women distracted from the story. They had the research to prove it.
But it turned out that the problem only existed when the soprano voice, the dress, the female were exceptions, the sore thumbs of the news. Today's newscasts are full of women nobody notices.
The same thing happened to pregnancy. Until recently, a woman was never allowed to "show" on television. As the months went on, the camera would close in tighter and tighter around her face. Now even pregnancy can go public.
It may be that the only way to make aging acceptable, even ordinary, is also to "show" it. It may be that the only way to change powerful public opinion is to present more, older, plainer journalists on the air.
I'll leave it to the jury to decide whether this was a case of sex discrimination or the arbitrary ruling of a tough, tough business. But it's time the news directors started thinking about a new kind of "show" biz. graphics/illustration: Television