Connie Chung and the specter of sexism

June 16, 1995|By Richard E. Vatz & Lee S. Weinberg

CBS' UNCEREMONIOUS dropping of evening news anchor Connie Chung is generally cited as a prototypical example of sexism. Even TV Guide reports that Ms. Chung alleges that "sexism had played a role in her being fired, citing the example of Barbara Walters."

The analogy is correct, but the conclusion is incorrect. Whatever sexism was involved, occurred when Ms. Chung was selected for the job. Her firing merely confirmed that she was the wrong choice -- not because she was a woman.

Yet, one might still make a strong argument that CBS discriminated against Ms. Chung because of her gender. There is ample evidence that Ms. Chung was both hired and fired due to her sex alone. And that is why this matter has attracted so much attention. It is a clear example of the perils of hiring someone primarily to fill a demographic niche, rather than hiring someone primarily for his or her abilities or suitability for a particular job.

The Washington Post (May 31, 1995) says that the firing of Ms. Chung "has raised new questions as to whether a talented woman can ever reach the very top in television news." Such a conclusion, potentially discouraging to women not just at television networks but in general, is simply unwarranted.

Again, the issue is whether women are initially chosen for positions using the same criteria as men. If not, one guarantees that they will fall short of expectations.

So the answer to the Washington Post's question is: hire the right woman, thus avoiding speculation on the general ability of women to do the job and the motive for removing them or changing their duties.

And the "right woman" would be one with "gravitas," a fashionable, but nonetheless accurate term, which is defined by Merriam Webster's latest Collegiate Dictionary as "high seriousness . . . as in a person's bearing or in treatment of a subject." It may well be that "gravitas" constitutes the most important quality a national news anchor brings to his or her newscast: delivering the day's news properly and with seriousness and dignity.

Two of the more "cerebral" women in CBS' news division are Leslie Stahl and Rita Braver.

Could you imagine one of these more serious journalists doing some of the things Ms. Chung has done on the air? For instance, Ms. Chung, not atypically, goaded Newt Gingrich's mother ("just between you and me") into revealing that the speaker of the House had called Hillary Clinton a "bitch." Ms. Chung's sillinesses on "Late Night with David Letterman," which includes jibes about her equally silly husband, Maury Povich, would be an embarrassment to a serious newswoman. This is not to infer that a serious news person may not fool around. Ted Koppel, head of the gravitas union, has acted humorously, even been silly, on David Letterman's show; but he has not been silly regarding his primary job: delivering the news.

Some newspapers have even added to the hoopla over the Chung dismissal. For example, the New York Post sees the story as the undermining of Connie Chung through the machinations of Dan Rather. The New York Daily News sees Ms. Chung undercutting Dan Rather.

The Connie Chung fiasco, of course, stems from the selection process. The CBS executives who picked Ms. Chung to share nightly anchoring chores simply did not pick the best and brightest person for the job; however, they did pick someone who was popular with viewers. It was the same story in 1976 when Barbara Walters was chosen to co-anchor the ABC evening news with Harry Reasoner.

Ms. Walters was neither the best nor the brightest and should not have been chosen. Morley Safer said of Barbara Walters' breezy interviews: "She has now effectively withdrawn herself from the profession of journalism."

In the end, this analysis could, of course, be totally incorrect: it could be that regardless of the person selected, a woman nightly news anchor at one of the big three networks would not be acceptable to male or female co-workers. The problem is that we will never know until serious people choose sufficiently serious women to anchor or co-anchor the evening news.

Richard E. Vatz is professor of communication at Towson State University. Lee S. Weinberg is associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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