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Women Surge to Top of TV News in Face of Sexism

Variety logo Variety 4/18/2017 Cynthia Littleton

From 2-4 p.m. every weekday, Brooke Baldwin is the captain of CNN.

As the solo anchor of the afternoon edition of “CNN Newsroom,” she charts the course for the topics discussed and the guests who flow through her fast-paced two-hour show.

Baldwin’s spare desk-and-chair set sits in the center of an expansive newsroom on the fifth floor of Time Warner Center in Manhattan. She’s surrounded by dozens of reporters, producers, editors, researchers, and technicians clackity-clacking away on computers. CNN Worldwide president Jeff Zucker’s office is just steps away. Baldwin’s colleagues make no particular effort to keep quiet while she’s on the air. The ambient noise of journalists at work is part of the “CNN Newsroom” soundtrack.

Baldwin also is knee-deep in the hunt for stories. She spends the first part of her day working with exec producer Eric Hall to assemble a solid lineup of “Newsroom” segments. She researches and takes copious notes on a host of the morning’s timely subjects and headlines. More often than not, most of the advance planning goes out the window because of news that breaks while she’s on the air. Which is just fine by the captain.

“It’s a crazy thing to hold down two hours of live television every day,” Baldwin says. “You’re flying down this highway with objects being thrown at you and obstacles in the way. It’s a matter of getting through those two hours and telling stories in an appropriate way to really make [viewers] feel and think and be smarter and more engaged.”

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Veronica Cerri for Variety

Baldwin is representative of a younger generation of women in TV news who have walked confidently through the doors opened by their predecessors in the 1970s and ’80s. Across the major news networks, the prominence of women in top-level on-air and behind the scenes roles was unmistakable during the elongated and eventful 2016 presidential election cycle. Among the correspondents who gained air time and recognition for dogged work during the grueling campaign were CNN’s Dana Bash, Brianna Keilar, and Sara Murray; NBC News and MSNBC’s Katy Tur, Kristen Welker, and Hallie Jackson; CBS News’ Nancy Cordes; Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin; and ABC News’ Cecilia Vega.

Among cable opinion hosts, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has been riding a post-election ratings surge. Maddow’s audience in March exceeded even that of longtime cable news kingpin Bill O’Reilly in the adults 25-54 demographic, pulling MSNBC out of the ratings cellar. Moreover, her influence has grown as the media has emerged from its post-election daze. Maddow has become the preeminent voice of liberal outrage at the Trump administration’s policy agenda.

Industry veterans say the fact that the field of Republican candidates was wide open for so long helped create opportunities for experienced political reporters — and plenty of those happened to be women.

“That demand resulted in more women being in a position to report in front of the camera and to be on the ground in a decision-making capacity,” says Yvette Miley, a 25-year news pro who is senior VP of NBC News and MSNBC.

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The prevalence of female journalists on the campaign trail didn’t happen overnight — it reflects the steady progress of women taking on beats that had been previously reserved for men, from the White House and Congress to the Pentagon and the Supreme Court to the front lines of global conflicts.

The expansion of women in high-visibility roles was fitting for a year in which Hillary Clinton made history as the first female presidential nominee of a major party.

“It’s very gratifying to see the culmination of all the years that people worked to get to a place where they got the assignment of covering a presidential campaign and were able to make an impact,” says Amy Entelis, CNN’s exec VP for talent and content development. “I think it was a very significant moment for women this time around.”

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Source: RTDNA/Hofstra University Annual Survey

CBS News’ Cordes and others say there was a feeling of sisterhood that developed during their endless traveling with the campaigns; the notion of political campaign coverage being a job for the “boys on the bus” has forever changed.

“We were working 19 hours a day slogging through five different cities a day sometimes,” Cordes says. “It was nice to have the camaraderie with intelligent, high-powered, energetic women. … There’s a special bond that comes from having spent that much time together in such close quarters.”

Mary Hager, executive producer of CBS’ “Face the Nation,” says political reporting is a great platform for a young correspondent. “It’s the best way to get to know all the broadcasts because you are inevitably exposed to all of them,” Hager says. “Covering a campaign you have to multitask and you gain experience in many areas.”

But for all the hard-won advancements, there were also stark reminders of the hurdles women still face in the workplace — broadcast news being no exception. As much as news pros sought to take a gender-blind approach to covering the campaign, questions about gender bias among voters, sexual harassment, and Donald Trump’s treatment of women were unavoidable.

Former Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly endured months of public bashing from Trump. His anger was stirred when Kelly, during a Fox News-hosted Republican primary debate, questioned him about disparaging statements made in the past about women.

Last summer, the issue of workplace sexual harassment was shoved back onto the national radar again when the once-invincible Fox News chairman-CEO Roger Ailes was forced out of the formidable news organization he built from the ground up. Ailes’ downfall came just weeks after former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against him, accusing him of axing her after she refused his sexual overtures. (See story, page 62.) Ailes has denied any wrongdoing.

There is renewed uproar about the culture at Fox News for female employees amid a New York Times exposé that star primetime host O’Reilly and the network have paid out at least $13 million to settle a number of sexual harassment claims. He’s now on vacation through April 24.

The fact that sexism and sexual harassment became such headline issues during the campaign was maddening, but not entirely surprising, to many women covering the campaign.

Judy Woodruff, anchor of PBS’ “The NewsHour,” says the younger journalists she encounters are often shocked that women still face bias on the job, particularly in the rough-and-tumble world of politics.

“There’s still a good-ol’-boys network out there,” Woodruff says. “Some younger women are surprised when they bump into this. The reaction is ‘Gee, I thought we were past this.’”

Woodruff often recounts her introduction to the TV world when she landed a job as a secretary in the 1970s at an Atlanta TV station. After a long interview, the general manager said, “‘How could I not hire somebody with legs like yours,’ ” Woodruff says. “I would love to tell you I had some brilliant comeback but I didn’t. I shrank to half my size, and meekly turned around. It just hit me like a ton of bricks.”

Lesley Stahl, the “60 Minutes” correspondent who has been working for CBS News since 1972, says the most encouraging sign of change is that victims of harassment like Carlson are refusing to keep quiet.

“When I first came along, women would never have complained out loud. They’d maybe whisper to each other, ‘The Senator chased me around the desk three times.’ But women didn’t speak up,” Stahl says.

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Source: Women’s Media Center, “The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2017”

“I’m really shocked it’s still going on. I’m proud of the women who are standing up to it and going public. That’s painful. They know they’re going to be denigrated. But women aren’t going to take it any more. People are going to fight back,” Stahl says.

***

“Why not?” … “What’s going on here?” … “Is that semantics?”

Fox News anchor Martha MacCallum excels at positing sharp questions to guests on her nightly program “The First 100 Days.” On a recent Thursday evening, MacCallum powered through around half a dozen headline issues on her       7 p.m. hour that scrutinizes the formative months of the Trump administration.

From her perch on the upper level of Fox News’ two-story set overlooking Sixth Avenue, MacCallum had her head down in every commercial break, making notes and tweaks to the hourlong program. On this night, she made sure to save a few moments at the end for a tribute to legendary comedian Don Rickles.

MacCallum was pulled into the primetime-adjacent hour in January after Kelly surprised her bosses by decamping Fox News for a deal at NBC News. MacCallum was a logical choice for the job: The seasoned political and business reporter had spent six years co-anchoring the 9-11 a.m. “America’s Newsroom” block and was a regular fill-in for Kelly.

The demands of crafting a daily news analysis program bring MacCallum back to her roots as a print journalist for Corporate Finance magazine and as a field producer for the Wall Street Journal’s television operation.

“In my head I still think of myself as a producer and a reporter,” MacCallum says. “Most nights I rewrite the whole open to the show and all the teases to string it together in an editorial way that feels like it’s in my voice.”

Like so many of her peers, MacCallum says her career trajectory, which took her from the Journal TV gig to on-air at CNBC to Fox News, has been unencumbered by bias or gender-related obstacles, in part because there have been so many women in the workplace. “From the days when I was rolling a teleprompter I was working for a woman,” MacCallum says.

The famously hard-driving culture of Fox News has been in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons during the past year, given the sexual harassment lawsuit that took down Ailes, the more recent O’Reilly headlines, and a racial discrimination suit filed by three female African-American employees. MacCallum declined to comment on the sexual harassment allegations that have rocked Fox News.

Sharri Berg is a 30-year Fox veteran who was promoted last year, in the wake of Ailes’ ouster, to chief operating officer of news and operations for Fox Television Stations, on top of her senior VP role at Fox News. She emphasizes that in her three decades at the company, she’s never felt constrained by gender bias — far from it.

“It is demoralizing to some degree,” she acknowledges of the recent scandals. “But at the same time, we’re in a new place with new leadership and there are exciting things happening. Women are a big part of it.”

Experts say the single most effective way to combat harassment and discrimination in the workplace is to foster greater diversity in management ranks. There’s no shortage of women in journalism with the training to achieve such top positions.

In the largest local markets, women are closing in on gaining parity with men in the top position of TV-station news director. That’s a key measure because news director is often a stop on the way to becoming station general manager, or advancing to network-level producing and management.

The spike over the past two decades in the number of women working as news directors correlates with the fact that there are more women than men graduating with degrees in journalism and communications, according to Bob Papper, professor of journalism emeritus at Hofstra University, who directs the annual employment survey for the Radio Television Digital News Assn.

“The trend is clear,” Papper says. “Women are probably the majority of white-collar positions in local news.”

The experience of working with limited resources in local TV, even in small markets, is good training for the nonstop world of cable news.

“I started out in Charlottesville, Virginia where I was going to work at 2:30 in the morning, writing my hour show and line-producing it from the anchor desk while rolling the prompter with my foot,” CNN’s Baldwin says. “I always tell young women to learn how to do everything so you can understand how the whole thing works.”

But one area in which progress remains stubbornly slow is on-air work for women of color. Indira Somani, assistant professor in the Media Dept. at Howard University, is in the midst of a study of the working environment for African-American anchors in network and cable news. For women and men, she notes, there’s still enormous pressure to straighten their hair and to de-emphasize their racial background.

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Source: Women’s Media Center, “The Status of Women in the U.S. Media 2017”

“There’s a culture within newsrooms that has not changed, and it’s a problem,” Somani says. “Women tell me they’re always working to make sure they don’t come off as an ‘angry black woman.’ They don’t want to be seen as too strong or too brash.”

But attitudes are changing with an influx of millennial-generation talent that has no shortage of ambition. “This is an empowered generation that knows the law, knows their rights, and knows how hard the previous generation worked to open those doors,” Somani says.

Then and now, having mentors and role models for women who aspire to management positions is crucial.

Barbara Fedida, ABC News’ senior VP of talent and business, is among those who give credit to the late ABC News chief Roone Arledge for responding to pressure from within to make the division more welcoming to women at all levels. CNN’s Entelis was working as a producer for the late ABC News anchor Peter Jennings when Arledge tapped her to serve as a talent-development executive specifically to nurture women and minorities.

Says Fedida, “There was, and still is, a great sorority inside ABC, on air and off air, of the influential women who had made it. They told us, ‘Don’t do it the way we did it; do it your own way.’”

Fox News’ Berg emphasizes that women have prospered in TV news as the job market opened up when Fox News, MSNBC and others joined the Big Three networks and CNN in the 1990s. But success, regardless of gender, is built on a foundation of hard work.

“Building your career is intentional. It doesn’t just happen, you have to do it with intention,” Berg says. “You have to be one of those people that your boss goes to to get things done.”

The last bastion of male dominance remains at the level of news-division president.

NBCUniversal broke ground by naming Pat Fili-Krushel head of its NBCUniversal News Group in 2012, and by bringing in British exec Deborah Turness as president of NBC News the next year. Fili-Krushel left in 2015 after a rocky tenure that included the Brian Williams exaggeration scandal and the Ann Curry upheaval at “Today.” Turness, in February, shifted to a new role overseeing NBC News Intl. Both Fili-Krushel and Turness were succeeded by men.

“Why are there no women at the tippy-top of network news organizations?” Entelis posits. “For one thing, we’re talking about five jobs. It takes a while to get there. I think that’s going to be the last barrier to crack.”

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