Drop the faux couple format for TV news

February 04, 1999|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON -- Five years ago, Janet Peckinpaugh became "the extra woman." She was the singleton, the uncoupled female who strikes terror in the hearts of all those hosts who arrange dinner parties according to the Noah's Ark theory of entertaining.

But it wasn't the sexual symmetry of a dining table that Ms. Peckinpaugh upset. It was the balance of the anchor desk.

In 1994, the executives at the CBS affiliate in Hartford, Conn., found themselves with three female anchors and two males. They bluntly told the then 44-year-old Ms. Peckinpaugh that they had "too many women" and threw her overboard.

The managers did not see this as a move of biblical proportion. It was just another round of musical anchor chairs. When the tune stopped, she lost her seat.

But last Friday, a Connecticut jury called it something else: sex discrimination. In an $8.3 million verdict, they decided that Ms. Peckinpaugh lost her job on account of her gender.

What they said, in effect, is that the entire practice of male-female anchors is essentially biased.

I confess that I am old enough to remember when the anchor seats were reserved for men. Any time women hold 50 percent of the top jobs, it still looks like progress to me. However, the shelf life of an anchorette has been notably shorter than that of an anchor. At the same age men were moving to the big time, women were put out to pasture.

Now about half of all the anchors and reporters are women and many are aging along with the audience. The chief executive officer of Post-Newsweek Stations, which owned Ms. Peckinpaugh's station at the time, actually brags that all the women anchors at the company's major outlets are -- gasp! -- over 40. We've progressed to the stage where a woman can be middle-aged as long as she doesn't look middle-aged.

Ms. Peckinpaugh was replaced by a younger woman, but didn't win her case on age discrimination. She won on gender discrimination because she could only fill "the woman's job." The managers never considered a two-woman team. In fact, 50 percent was just another glass ceiling.

The "extra woman" claimed that her verdict was "a major victory for every woman in television and every woman who wants to go into television." But that's not at all clear.

For one thing, the $8.3 million -- which also punished the station for reneging on a promise and retaliating for an earlier sexual harassment complaint -- is unlikely to hold up on appeal. For another thing, who knows which way the glass will shatter from this broken ceiling. Come the next opening in the news dating game, it's as easy for a man to protest this pairing as a woman.

This is where you get down to the core of the case. This is not just about employment discrimination; it's about entertainment. Is your evening news show "news" or a "show"?

If it's news, then, in theory, appearance isn't much of a job qualification. If it's entertainment, then a station manager is in essence a casting director who hires characters for his sitcom: a goofy weatherman, a sports jock, a perky entertainment reporter, his and hers anchors. Does that sound familiar?

Movie, stage and television directors are exempt from laws against gender discrimination when they cast for a role. Where do we put TV anchors? One part actor, one part reporter, a hybrid in pancake makeup?

I am not thrilled that WFSB made Ms. Peckinpaugh walk the gangplank of Noah's Ark, even if she was rescued by another station. The preference for the coed team is probably as arbitrary as the old certainty that only men could deliver the news. There are a handful of anchor teams with two women that do just fine.

But in the ruthless, ratings-driven, focus-group scheme of things, station managers are increasingly doing show business. Like it or not, they pick the leading man and woman.

By the way, if you think that coed anchor teams are the worst examples of TV news bias, may I suggest you turn around. You'll see nine cameramen for every camerawoman. Or check out the news directors: There are nearly three men for every woman. Anybody out there need an extra man?

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 2/04/99

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