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What I wish people understood about sexism and TV news

How skewed power dynamics and obsession with appearance put women at a disadvantage.

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Democratic Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton Takes Part In Candidate Forum In New York
Matt Lauer at the NBC News Commander-in-Chief Forum on September 7, 2016, in New York City.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

I’ve sat through unsolicited back rubs. Walked quickly past leering colleagues. Endured demeaning jokes. Once, I was so embarrassed by lewd comments from an Oscar-winning actor on a red carpet that I didn’t do the interview I had been assigned. An older, married male colleague asked me to tell him my sexual fantasies. Fearing for my job, I didn’t respond at all.

These snippets from my experience producing and reporting in television and online news for more than a decade are nothing special. They are the all-too-common drip of indignities women suffer daily and across industries. Far worse occurs too, and in less glamorous-seeming jobs, without celebrities, cameras, and skin-brightening LEDs. But television news’s long hours, low salaries, tight quarters, and coverage of atrocities and tragedies can create a climate where, as one friend in the business put it, “people treat people like shit.”

There is a particular sexism that women in TV news face that is different than in other workplaces. I have witnessed it, experienced it, and likely abetted it with my silence. I may have complained to female colleagues, but never formally. Despite the torrent of #MeToo, I still feel uneasy writing about it. The ground is shifting and once-powerful and trusted news titans are getting fired — Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose — but the power structure that they profited from, and that stifles women throughout the industry, remains firm.

Sexism in TV news hinges on two big traits — aesthetics and power. For women on television, appearance (and colleagues commenting on that appearance) is part of the job. That means it can be difficult to determine when a comment has crossed the line from professional to personal. The strict rules around women’s appearance also make it harder for women to attain power in the industry — they get pushed out for not being young enough or thin enough or otherwise not meeting a particular physical standard. The physical standards for men are nowhere near as strict.

At the same time, television news is centered on celebrity anchors and hosts who wield a disproportionate amount of power. They can get away with tremendous abuses of that power because they are so valuable to the networks. And when those all-powerful hosts are disproportionately men, it’s no surprise that women are vulnerable to abuse — and fear reprisal for speaking out.

Appearance is as important as content, if not more so

Superficiality can be inherent in any visual medium, but it’s television news’s stock in trade. Discussion of appearance is out in the open in television news in a way that it isn’t in other industries like tech, finance, or even other newsrooms, like radio or print. A TV reporter’s appearance is a job credential considered alongside her ability to write, research, or interview. And women must adhere to a particular beauty standard on television that isn’t required of their male counterparts.

Staff routinely comment on a woman’s appearance if she works on camera. Hosts are asked to change clothes, wear a certain hairstyle, or apply more makeup. I’ve seen it done privately, but also publicly, in front of a control room full of people. Regardless of where it occurs, it’s always done under the auspices of bettering the news product.

Different outlets have different aesthetics that they champion. Women reporters on Fox look different from those on Vice. But the beauty standard for women on television has long been designated by men, who continue to run most of the industry and shape what is news and who delivers it.

Appearance matters in the broadcast newsroom because it also matters outside of it. Audiences constantly comment on and degrade the appearance of on-air talent, and women are far more often victims of this than men. Whoever sifts through a station or show’s snail mail or email regularly finds criticisms of an anchor’s face, blazer, or weight gain. Just ask any television newswoman with an inbox of any kind — she undoubtedly gets reams of feedback from viewers about her looks.

A particular appearance is more rigidly enforced for women than men

Unsurprisingly, it’s white, young, and thin.

I remember reporting a story I was proud of and then being yelled at by a superior for not wearing lipstick. Others have endured worse reprimands for their physicality than this, but it underscores the value a particular look holds for women in television news.

I was once in a screening with a high-profile anchor who told the producer to nix a shot that made her butt look big. It was done, no questions asked. Goodbye, shot — but also goodbye, sound bite and piece of the important interview that accompanied it. It’s not that women on television news broadcasts should ignore appearance; rather, the problem is a rigorous, limited standard of beauty that is both prized and reinforced on television. And this anchor knew this all too well. At the time, I thought she was being overly concerned with her image. Now I realize she was merely protecting herself in a business that would dump her the second she violated the code.

The emphasis on women’s appearance creates an environment where mean and sexist comments can fly. Today show staffers once likened anchor Ann Curry to Big Bird, photoshopped her in a yellow dress next to a picture of the Sesame Street character, and asked, “Who wore it best?” This kind of thing is pretty common in the business. TV news loves a good blooper reel — the montage of talents’ on-air mistakes and questionable wardrobe choices — and screens them at staff-wide gatherings. But this well-meaning tradition sanctions public embarrassment. It also reinforces that commentary on looks is just part of the job.

Men can age on television; women can’t

Be it at the news desk or in front of the weather green screen, women age out of television news jobs in a way that men don’t. From the second they set foot in the trade, they are racing the clock, the neck wattle, and the laugh lines. Men age and rise in the ranks, while women are passed over for top posts.

When 46-year-old Joan Lunden departed Good Morning America in 1997, she told viewers it was so she could spend mornings with her kids. The real reason was quite different. “The words are, ‘We’ve decided to make a change on the show,’ and so they found a 30-year-old version of me,” she told Oprah.

Peter Jennings anchored World News Tonight for 22 years; his tenure only came to an end when he died. Dan Rather helmed CBS Evening News for 24 years. Tom Brokaw anchored NBC Nightly News for 22 years. Their female equivalents don’t exist. Katie Couric anchored CBS Evening News for just five years — and she was replaced by a man. Discussion of her tenure often focused on her legs, and whether she was likable.

The producer-anchor relationship is inherently weird, power-wise

The current absence of women at the top creates a vicious cycle that makes it difficult for women to succeed in the future. At the network level, and at talent-driven local shops, the whims and opinions of hosts are prioritized — and those hosts tend to be men. Men like Matt Lauer are godlike figures. They greenlight stories they like, kill ones they don’t, and hold power over their production staffs.

At ABC, NBC, and CBS, men report three times as much news as women do, according to a 2017 Women’s Media Center report, which surveyed on-air appearances by reporters and anchors and producer credits in more than 24,000 news pieces in 2016.

When famous men are the faces and identities of stations and networks, it can be particularly problematic for female producers who are practically invisible to news consumers. Since the talent is the face and voice of a story, the average viewer is apt to assume that he also did all of the legwork, when in fact producers do it. I assumed this myself before working in the field.

This makes it difficult for female producers, editors, and camera operators, who are already less visible in the industry than famous men, to get credit for their work beyond the walls of their own offices. The approval of a male host is not only desirable, but it can be consequential for a woman’s career.

Compounding all this is the chasm of pay between talent and producers, editors, and camera operators who work so closely and symbiotically together. Even generous holiday gifts, like a massage or champagne, can’t remedy this. The average news producer salary is $40,000. Lauer reportedly earned between $20 million and $25 million per year. When women earn so much less than their male bosses, they are at yet another disadvantage when it comes to progressing their ideas and advocating for themselves.

There aren’t nearly enough women making the decisions at the highest levels of television news. That needs to change.

We are in the middle of a powerful reckoning that sexism has shaped how the news is reported and what stories are told. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

There are women fighting the status quo. I’ve worked with female talent who purposely wore certain clothes and minimal makeup to draw attention away from their appearance. Christiane Amanpour is well-known for this. In her book The News Sorority, Sheila Weller reported that Amanpour wore the same parka for three winters. A newsman source told her of Amanpour, “Most men on TV wore more makeup than she did.” Amanpour’s appointment to replace Charlie Rose feels like vindication, but it is only one step when many more are needed.

But these isolated examples aren’t enough. More women are needed throughout television news, but certainly at the highest levels. Women comprise 33 percent of news directors and 44 percent of newsrooms. Men in television news still control the lion’s share of stories that air, the way people look and what they say on television, and the off-camera work environment. And nothing will change until that does.

Allison Yarrow is a journalist, a TED resident, and the author of the forthcoming 90s Bitch: Women, Media, and The Failed Promise of Gender Equality. Find her on Twitter @aliyarrow.

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