Sullivan loses pounds as others lose their heads

January 15, 1994|By ALICE STEINBACH

"Kathleen's under spell of fat police; Pounds for bucks, oh Kathleen!" screams a headline in the Hartford Courant.

"As Kathleen Sullivan Loses, She Wins," trumpets the Washington Post.

"Dieting with Kathleen Sullivan -- With A Will and A Weigh," chimes in the New York Times.

Excuse me while I scream.


Or to put it another way: Stop the insanity!

Here we are, barely two weeks into 1994 and already it's threatening to become the Year of the Woman Who Let Us Down.

That woman is, of course, Kathleen Sullivan, former network news anchor. Fired from her TV job in 1990 -- amid criticism she was overweight, temperamental and had gray hair -- she has recently returned in a series of commercials for Weight Watchers.

You've seen the commercial. It features a slightly heavier Sullivan watching a younger, slimmer TV version of herself. Then she speaks: "One moment I'm a network anchor and the next, well, look at me." It's been followed by updates of Sullivan announcing things like: "Oh, my gosh, I've lost 8 pounds. I can't believe it."

Media types, it seems, can't believe it either. They're going ballistic over the concept of a newscaster turning adcaster. Never mind that she has been out of the business for three years. Suddenly everyone is interviewing the formerly forgotten-but-not-gone Sullivan.

Katie Couric, co-host of NBC's morning show, "Today," asked if Sullivan thought her stint as a saleswoman hurt the credibility of journalists. CNN reporter Judy Woodruff wanted to know whether Sullivan "can ever return to a straight news job."

The New York Times asked Sullivan to ponder "the questions everyone seems to be asking: Isn't it humiliating to go from being a big network star to a diet shill? And will she ever be able to go back to network television . . .?"

No one, by the way, seems to have asked the still-attractive Sullivan what the big deal is about being 10 pounds overweight in an era when women are supposed to be liberated from the "beauty myth" of too fat or too thin.

Nor have they asked whether those extra pounds might have ruled out Sullivan's return to television even if she hadn't become a "diet shill." Appearance, as well as ethics, has always played a role in TV journalism. Especially for women.

But the big question is: Why are the Media Police spending so much time on whether Sullivan has compromised her journalistic integrity? After all, Sullivan has said repeatedly she's not interested in returning to journalism.

And, conversely, why have they not spent more time focusing on the increasingly blurry line between journalists and people they cover?

Why, for example, wasn't there more of an outcry about the journalists who recently attended, along with the president, first lady and administration officials, the annual Renaissance weekend at Hilton Head, S.C.? In order to attend, they had to agree not to reveal anything said there.

And what about the journalists who receive big bucks to speak before special interest groups?

And does anyone but me find irony in the fact that the New York Times reporter who interviewed Kathleen Sullivan on her "transgressions," wrote a piece just two weeks ago about attending a private White House function?

"It was, all in all, a very pleasant evening," Maureen Dowd wrote. "I got some material for this column, fully aware that propinquity brings its own corruption. Once a reporter has met someone and liked him, it is hard to treat him with the same clinical dispassion."

True enough. But, hey, it's probably not as ethically compromising, journalistically speaking, as being a "diet shill."

Or is it?

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