Beauty and the Tube
TV news anchors: How important is their appearance to their jobs?
By Alice Feinstein
Is a television news anchor a pretty journalist or a news professional who happens to be pretty?
For that matter, is television news actually journalism with an entertainment icing or is it mostly show business?
The questions are old ones, and television professionals have honed the answers until they roll off the tongue.
Appearance may be important, they say, but the primary qualification in a news anchor is journalistic ability.
When Kansas City news anchor Christine Craft, 38, was awarded $500,000 in a discrimination suit earlier this month, she reopened the can of worms.
Craft won her suit against a Kansas City station that had demoted her for being “too old, unattractive and not deferential enough to men” – after reportedly telling her she had been hired for her journalistic abilities.
So the same old questions are being asked again, but the answers are not necessarily the same old answers.
The Craft decision will have a big impact on the television industry nationwide, but just exactly what that impact will be remains to be seen.
KXLY station manager Stephen Herling termed the decision “monumental,” but when asked what it would mean specifically, he added, “I don’t think anybody knows that yet.”
If television news is indeed show business, then the physical appearance of the news anchor undoubtedly is important.
But is it show business?
Spokane television management steadfastly maintains that journalism ability is still the No. 1 factor in hiring an anchor.
“We don’t hire people simply as anchors. We hire reporters,” KHQ news director Dean Mell said.
The Craft decision, KREM news anchor Beverly Carr, 29, said, will intensify a trend that already has started in television “towards less of the pretty face and more of the journalistically backgrounded person, women in particular, but men and women…”
Not everyone, however, agrees that there is such a trend.
The New York Times News Service reported shortly after the Craft decision that many television news professionals deplore the influence of such shows as “Entertainment Tonight” and “PM Magazine” on television news programs.
Such magazine-type shows, they said, influence smaller station management to ask: “Why isn’t our news anchor as attractive as the host of ‘Entertainment Tonight’?”
Former KHQ news anchor Ed Sharman said he left television news because of a trend toward show business.
Sharman said he went to work for KHQ right out of college as a radio announcer and worked for that station for 22 years. He now works for the Spokane Chamber of Commerce.
He left television, he said, “because of the approach that became prevalent a few years ago toward local news, away from journalism and more emphasizing the show-business aspects.”
The appearance of the news – the pictures and the setting – started becoming more important than the content, he said.
There never was a prevailing feeling that one had to be beautiful to be on the air back when he was working in the news department, Sharman said.
But when one watches television news now, he said, it is obvious that “the journalism abilities of the reporters are not what they were hired for.”
A lack of understanding by young broadcast journalists is revealed by their inability to read stories properly, Sharman said. They emphasize the wrong words in the story, and one sentence doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the next.
Sharman said he has taught courses on how to read stories on the air for meaning and content – and “to do that, naturally, you need to understand what the story’s about.”
“All broadcast journalists live or die by the ratings just like ‘Hill Street Blues’ does,” Sharman said. “In that sense, it is show business.”
KREM’s Beverly Carr agreed there are aspects of entertainment in the news and defended the need for some “levity.”
Television news needs these elements in the same way newspapers do, she said.
“You have a comics section. People won’t take it if it’s straight news.
“People are more likely to stay tuned if you’re not so somber and straight all the time. They need a little bit of levity.
“When you’re dishing out hard news, it’s tough for people to accept, in the first place, and if you can make it easier for them to listen to and accept, so much the better.”
Christine Craft won her suit partly because her station management judged her as not being attractive enough.
The importance of physical appearance on the air is debatable.
Television management talks about “credibility” when describing the ideal anchor. But how much of that credibility has to do with being attractive?
KHQ anchor Nancy Goodspeed, 34, in an interview earlier this year, said the audience does notice and react to appearance. One can turn out the best story of one’s career and get letters from the audience commenting on the color of one’s jacket, she said.
Jane Crawford was the first female anchor in Spokane.
She went to work from KREM in 1976 and left in 1976 to take over the anchor chair at Philadelphia’s KYW-TV vacated by Jessica Savitch. Crawford now is anchor for the 11 o’clock news at Pittsburgh’s WPXI-TV. “(I’m in my early 30s. It’s nobody’s business how old anybody is,” she said.)
“The real truth in this thing is that appearance is the overriding concern and the overriding requirement” at smaller stations, Crawford said.
“If you happen to have pleasant appearance and journalistic credentials, you’re golden. Appearance is more important than anybody lets on.”
What smaller station management wants, she said, is that “you just look terrific and sell the product.”
The “product,” in this case, she said, is “the news.”
Discrimination against women is a reality in the television industry, Crawford asserted.
As men get older on television, they become “distinguished,” she said, while “older women are just old.”
“It has been my experience as co-anchor that the man sitting next to me always makes more money than I do,” Crawford added.
(That men co-anchors do not always make more than their women colleagues is evident in the case of KREM’s Beverly Carr. KHQ’s Dean Mell said he has it “on pretty good authority that she is making probably 20 to 25 percent more than her colleagues over there.”)
Denying that appearance is important in an anchor is “foolish,” she said.
“Looks, unfortunately, play a part in who gets to be anchor and who doesn’t,” she said. “Females in this business are generally asked to leave when they get in their 40s.”
If the television industry does concentrate heavily on young, attractive women, the audience bears some responsibility for that, Mell said.
“We react to audience perception – there’s no question about it – by ratings,” he said.
“And you can say what you want about the ratings – it’s the only book we’ve got. That’s what we have to live with. That’s the reality. It may be accurate.
“If the audience tells us that all they want or what they prefer overwhelmingly is a young pretty face, male or female, then that’s probably what they’re going to get.”
Mell asked, “What do we care if it’s old, young, fat, skinny, bald-headed, whatever? If the audience wants it, by George, we’ll give it to them.”
Far from becoming less important, audience reaction to appearance, age, sex and other characteristics of news anchors is becoming more of a factor in the Spokane television industry, one former Spokane news anchor says.
Bob Baker, who has worked for both KXLY and KHQ, retired from television last year to open the Croissant Café.
Television news in bigger cities can be really “cutthroat,” he said.
“Some real bad things can happen to people. You can be sitting on top one day and fired the next. Stars are made and fade.”
Competition is heating up among Spokane stations, he said, adding that he expects to see a lot of changes soon.
KREM’s recent termination of Wes Lynch as news director may just be the beginning, he said.
In addition, KXLY officials announced Thursday that television news director Mike Fitzsimmons is being replaced.
Age and appearance were two of the factors in Christine Craft’s suit. But her suit also claimed that she was fired because she was not sufficiently deferential to men.
“I don’t know if that was sexual in basis or not,” Carr said. “I hardly think so. It couldn’t have been.”
She speculated that Craft’s case may have been similar in nature to something that she has experienced.
“In the past, I’ve had a problem with being too strong a personality,” Carr said. “It’s not something that I need to change personally, but I tend to come across as very strong. Sometimes, I tend to overrule or overshadow my male co-anchor.
“We’re a team, and we have to appear that way to the viewer.
“And if we come off as being Mutt and Jeff or if I’m overshadowing Dennis or Bud or Jim, or whoever it was, I need to tone myself down just a bit, not in the way I act, but in the way I format the show.
“Instead of opening the show every night, it’s every other night. We take turns.”
Asked if her “overshadowing” had anything to do with Jim Mills recently being removed as her co-anchor, Carr replied that it did not.
“Jim’s abilities lie primarily in reporting, and as anchor, he could not get out in the field as much,” she said. “We really missed it.
“Plus, he seems more accepted in early-morning time. More women watch, and it’s a factor. You have to program to certain audiences, and women like him.”
Television is a business, and profits depend greatly on the ratings.
If news ratings fluctuate based on an audience’s likes or dislikes of an anchor, shouldn’t a station be able to replace that person with someone who might be more to the audience’s liking?
Will the success of Christine Craft’s suit change the way television stations hire and fire their anchors?
One change, Eastern Washington University journalism teacher Dick Hoover said, will be that any woman threatened with the loss of her anchor position will have Christine Craft in the back of her mind.
Hoover was KREM-TV’s first news anchor, and he also served as news director for the station.
When KHQ anchor Nancy Goodspeed almost lost her anchor position last week, Christine Craft parallels were drawn immediately.
Goodspeed’s boss, Dean Mell, termed her proposed job change as a “promotion” to the senior correspondent position, while Goodspeed herself steadfastly maintained it was a “demotion.”
Asked if she might fight the station as Christine Craft had done when she was demoted, Goodspeed replied, “I won’t rule it out.”
Meanwhile, Mell objected strenuously to parallels being drawn between Craft and Goodspeed in stories run by Spokane, Portland and Seattle newspapers.
“I don’t know how offering a person a promotion, making them the highest-paid reporter on your staff and giving them broader responsibilities keyed to a potential role as management can be construed as discrimination,” he said.
The question in Goodspeed’s case is moot because the woman KHQ was considering as her replacement rejected a job offer with the station, and Goodspeed will retain her position.
But the ghost of Christine Craft won’t go away, said Hoover, who also wondered: What about the rights of free enterprise?
Television is an intimate medium of “eyeball-to-eyeball” contact, and “an anchor person is a package of journalistic ability, writing ability and appearance all wrapped up.
“It’s wrong to prevent ownership and management from putting the best person in the slot,” he said.
The role of women on television is changing, Hoover said.
A decade ago, there were no women at all in the newsroom, he said. Even now, he said, there are many less-than-beautiful women reporters, and that may be the beginning of accepting less-attractive women delivering the news.
Both Goodspeed and Carr, in earlier interviews, said they thought the trend in the television industry was toward allowing older women to remain on television.
Both expressed the hope that they might be allowed to age on the air.
“Women can be 40 and 50 and be credible at what they do, just as men can,” Crawford said last week.
The audience, given time, will accept and even demand to continue seeing a woman anchor as she grows older and less attractive, Hoover said.
“We may want our Barbara Walterses and Nancy Goodspeeds as they grow gracefully older.”
Sunday, August 21, 1983