Anne Morrissy Merick is pictured while covering the 1964 presidential primary election for ABC News. (Courtesy of Katherine Anne Engelke)[/caption]
From the beginning of her 40-year career in journalism — interviewing athletes in locker rooms — to chronicling the front lines of one of the most important stories of her generation, Anne Morrissy Merick shattered the professional barriers of an industry dominated by men.
Merick, an ABC News producer who fought to retain women’s rights to battlefield access during the Vietnam War, died May 2 in Naples, Fla., of complications from dementia, her daughter Katherine Anne Engleke told the Associated Press.
When Merick was first sent to cover the Vietnam War in 1967, she was ABCs first female television field producer, and one of the few female network producers covering the war, she said in the book she wrote with eight colleagues, “War Torn: Stories of War From the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam.” The sometimes soft-spoken journalist went because, as she said, she “wanted to cover the biggest story going on at the time,” to be there “on the spot as history was being made.”
“Women really weren’t tolerated in a lot of journalist jobs,” Merick said, speaking on a panel in 2000. “You wanted to get ahead, and that’s what you did. You went and covered a story like Vietnam.”
And indeed, for many female journalists, Vietnam was a tremendous milestone — never before had women documented a war to such lengths. In total, 467 female correspondents — including 267 Americans — were accredited to cover the conflict. But only a fraction of those women were dedicated to long-term, significant reporting during the war. Merick and her fellow female reporters in Vietnam would pave the way for women journalists of the 1980s and 1990s, who covered conflicts such as the Gulf War and Bosnia and would inspire generations of female war correspondents.
But, as Merick said on the panel, female journalists’ desire to cover the war required them to fight their own “battles.” And by the time she made it to Vietnam, such barrier-breaking roles were not new to Merick. “I was used to being a woman pioneer,” she said.
While studying at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., in 1954, “when the Ivy League was still predominantly male,” Merick rose to the position of sports editor of the college newspaper, the first female student to do so, she said in her book. The role required her to conduct interviews in men’s locker rooms, and to sit in the “previously sacrosanct press box at Yale,” and drew national attention.
Sportswriter Red Smith wrote in his column that, “This sportswriting doll breached the last bastion of masculinity left standing this side of the shower room.” The position also helped her land a job as sports editor of the International Edition of the New York Herald Tribune, better known as the Paris Herald.
In her seven years working at ABC before going to Vietnam, Merick covered “many of the events that changed America,” including the civil rights movement from Selma, Ala., to Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington, the early space program, the Kennedy years and the era’s rash of assassinations. Still, it took a fair amount of lobbying to persuade her superiors to let her cover Vietnam.
They agreed to let her embark on a three-month tour. Those three months would turn into nine, “the most exciting nine months that I had ever spent in my entire life.” Ultimately, Merick would spend seven years in Vietnam, even marrying her first husband, U.S. News and World Report reporter Wendell “Bud” Merick, who died in 1988. She would give birth to and raise her daughter while living in the war zone.
During her time in Vietnam, Merick would join with a group of other female journalists to overcome what they called the “Westmoreland Edict.” On an impromptu visit to Vietnam, U.S. commander Gen. William Westmoreland had been “horrified” to find a young woman in the field with his troops, documenting combat. Back at his Saigon headquarters, he issued an order banning female reporters from accompanying troops to front lines.
“But in Vietnam it was impossible to determine just where the front lines were,” Merick wrote in her book. “The war was everywhere. An edict like Westmoreland’s would prohibit women from covering the war.”
“It was a knockout blow to our careers,” she added. “We had to fight!”
Along with Ann Bryan Mariano of the Overseas Weekly, Merick lobbied the Pentagon and requested a meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to overturn this ban.
“As the only woman TV correspondent in Saigon, I was asked to be the spokeswoman for the group,” Merick wrote. They met instead with McNamara’s deputy assistant, Phil Goulding, who gave only vague responses. But after the meeting, Merick would invite Goulding out for drinks, listening to his take on the war and stories of his six children, she recounted.
“When he said good night, he added that Westmoreland’s edict would be lifted and we could go back out in the field,” Merick wrote. “And, if you are wondering if I slept with him, the answer is no!”
Throughout her years in Vietnam, Merick tried to focus on the “stories behind the story,” about nurses, locals, and noncombat aspects of the war, providing viewers with context to the fighting. But these features were rarely showcased on ABCs evening news report. Instead, dinner television entertainment often focused around the “bang bang part of the war,” footage of the front lines.
“The guys were not going to go out and cover that story,” Merick said of her feature pieces. But she said, these stories were crucial, especially at that time of the war.
“I thought I was doing an important part, even if they were soft stories,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story published a photo that misidentified an individual as Merick.
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