Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene
What's The Frequency, Connie?
Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer
Connie Chung has been fired. No matter how you feel about the woman personally, her departure from the CBS Evening News raises some interesting questions about our tastes in news (and newscasters) and the role of women inthe media.
A brief summary: Before 1981, the CBS Evening News belonged to WalterCronkite, a veteran journalist who still makes the list of one of the most trusted people in America. When he retired, CBS gave the job to Dan Rather. In 1993, faced with a serious rating slippage, CBS made a big deal about adding Connie Chung as "co-anchor." It really WAS a big deal. There hadn'tbeen a woman co-anchoring the nightly news since the brief Barbara Walters/Harry Reasoner fiasco in the 70's. And there had not been a successful network news "team" since Huntley-Brinkley.
Although a veteran reporter and Emmy-winner, Connie Chung was often described as "perky," and "a good news reader," certainly attractive to women and Asians, but not really in the same league as Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, or Peter Jennings.
Last week, CBS fired her. Dan Rather would do the news alone again. CBS was still in third place in the network news ratings wars.
Some think that Chung's firing was precipitated by her interview with Newt Gingrich's mom ("just between you and me," she had promised Mrs.Gingrich, and then aired the part of the interview that called Hillary Clinton a "bitch"). Chung was attacked as "disreputable" and "unprofessional" at the time. Others say that her performance after the Oklahoma City bombings was "less than stellar." Others blame constant bickering between Chung and Rather, or low ratings generally. Anyway, her departure leaves national network news exclusively male (again) (still).
All that is "personality coverage" and not as interesting to some of usas the bigger question: What is the role of women on a TV newscast? Or more specifically, why is the role of women different on a local newscast versus a national one?
Because of course, on the local level, the news team is usually a man and a woman. Here in Boston we have the teams of Chet and Natalie , Jack and Liz ; they not only work well on local TV; they've also become traditions around here and even the beneficiaries of fierce loyalties. Most news is,after all, pretty much the same. Often our viewing decisions are shaped not so much by what we're told as by who's telling it to us.
And we like our local news done by a "team." You can see it in the promos for the news (News Team X) and even in the cheerful banter back-and-forth between the male and female anchors, the sports reporter, and the weather guy. I'm sure it's much the same all around the country. One big happy family.
I'm not making fun of that. We LIKE that. It works! It's fun to watch and it almost feels like home.
But on the national level, it's Dan and Tom and Peter. Period. And although Diane Sawyer is now on 60 Minutes with a bunch of men and Barbara Walters does 20/20 with Hugh Downs, the world of network news is still pretty much a male bastion.
Is it because we still consider males the voice of authority? More serious perhaps? More hard-driving and willing to get at the facts? Do we still consider women as OK for local stuff like fires and arrests but not capable of reporting on wars and diplomacy?
Is it merely habit? Or a self-fulfilling prophecy ? (We don't get to see women giving the national news, so it's harder to be comfortable when one of them does).
As one brought up on Chet and David and "Uncle" Walter, I certainly feel predisposed to this "male anchor preference syndrome". I'm not proud of it,I guess, but it's true. Is this a form of male chauvinism still alive and well -- or is it something else?
The decision to fire Connie Chung was, like all network decisions, based upon ratings, business and money rather than on ideology. But as another woman leaves the network news scene unsuccessful, it does raise a number of interesting concerns.
I do not have the answer. But I certainly appreciate the question.
Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.