But then there isn't much serious journalism anywhere on TV anymore. Often the only connection to serious journalism on Couric's "CBS Evening News" is the recording of Cronkite's voice that introduces her.
By Chris Powell
News media people are snickering over the age and sex discrimination complaint brought against Hartford television station WTIC-TV61 by its reporter, Shelly Sindland, 40. As Sindland relates in her affidavit, her station's news operation is obsessed with sex appeal. Maybe the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities will be shocked, shocked.
In fact, of course, regardless of whether it is legal for TV stations to give more air time and promotions to the young and pretty and to demote or dismiss the aging and homely, the essence of Sindland's complaint will not surprise the many in journalism who realize that their own faces and figures are better suited for print or radio. Many viewers also understand that TV newscasts sell a lot of sex along with the news. After all, it might be too disconcerting for Channel 61's viewers to have to transition from the revealing costumes of the young women contestants on 9 p.m.'s "So You Think You Can Dance" to the dreary slop of murders, holdups, drug busts, and car crashes on the "News at 10" if the people presenting it were not also easy on the eyes.
Being uniquely visual, TV news simply cannot be separated from the looks of its presenters. Bob Schieffer had nearly 50 years of experience in journalism, most of it at the highest levels, when he unexpectedly fell into the anchor chair of the "CBS Evening News" in 2005. He was authoritative but cordial, as avuncular as his famous predecessor, Walter Cronkite, and increased the program's audience. Schieffer was also nearly 70. So in 2006 CBS gave the news anchor chair to Katie Couric, who had barely 20 years in journalism and little of it serious. But she was much younger, attractive, and already a national celebrity for being cute on another network. Schieffer may not have liked it any more than Sindland does, but he understood human nature and how the world works and brought no discrimination complaint.
In her affidavit Sindland laments Channel 61's recent change of morning news anchors, the replacement of a 34-year-old woman with a 23-year-old woman who is a former Miss Missouri. While just out of college, maybe the former Miss Missouri is already an award-winning journalist. (Most journalists are, journalism having so many awards.) But even viewers who cannot imagine her as an award-winning journalist probably can imagine her as Miss Missouri and be thankful for that much. And if she turns out to be both, it really may be show time.
But then there isn't much serious journalism anywhere on TV anymore. Often the only connection to serious journalism on Couric's "CBS Evening News" is the recording of Cronkite's voice that introduces her. The network may realize that some people continue to watch CBS out of habit developed in the Cronkite era. In turn such people may realize that watching TV news now is less important for finding out what is happening than for finding out what so many people are being told is happening.
Serious journalism is expensive, especially for local TV news, and may have little appeal to an audience that is busy making dinner or worn out and getting ready for bed. So the typical local TV news story consumes two minutes to convey perhaps two short sentences of actual information. The rest is travelogue, silly hyperbole, hysteria, or gush, recitation of the obvious, repetition, and sometimes a brief interview with a passerby who knows nothing about the subject at hand but can be induced to deplore it or to speculate on the culpability of someone he has never heard of.
Sex is always best, no matter how inconsequential to a statewide audience. For example, the other night a top story on Channel 61's newscast was the arrest of a man for propositioning another man at a gas station.
Newspapers make much more effort to be serious and sometimes manage to hold the government or bad guys to account, but they often strive to be as trivial as TV news, and for the same reasons, for newspapers are in the entertainment business too. The difference is that to find refuge in the trivial, newspaper readers need only to turn the page, while TV viewers have to change the channel.
Sindland may know all this and just figure that other aging women in TV news, including one in Connecticut, Janet Peckinpaugh, have won big damage awards for claims of age or sex discrimination, that she might as well try too, and that Channel 61 will tread more carefully with her while her complaint is pending. But anyone seeking to reform TV news might better start with the audience.
Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer.