COVER

The Female Question

Does a second-banana bias keep women from top anchor jobs?

MARCI McDONALD May 26 1997
COVER

The Female Question

Does a second-banana bias keep women from top anchor jobs?

MARCI McDONALD May 26 1997

The Female Question

Does a second-banana bias keep women from top anchor jobs?

MARCI McDONALD

The face is, if anything, more sharply chiselled—testimony to the years that have passed since she slogged through the world’s hellholes, confronting barbarism beyond the scope of any voice-over or script. Her television makeup, by her own insistence, is all but invisible, and her over-sized glasses defy every tenet of conventional image-makers’ wisdom. But esthetics were not the reason Ann Medina, 54, was pegged to play TV ringmaster to the nation’s political leaders in Ottawa’s Government Conference Centre last week. As moderator of the chief English-language election debate of the party leaders, Medina brought to that marathon five-ring circus two decades of journalistic credibility and the unflappable cool of a correspondent who once ducked mortar shells in Beirut. When she interrupted runaway rhetoric with a sharp “Mr. Chrétien, we’d like to get one more question in—please,” even the Prime Minister buttoned his lip.

To a casual viewer, Medina might have appeared only as the obvious—a figure of no-frills solidity and high seriousness. But to a generation of TV newswomen for whom she has served as a reportorial role model, she is a more ambivalent symbol. Chosen to anchor CBC TV’s Saturday newscast in 1987, she became a cautionary example of a woman who was invited into the august circle of those deemed worthy of delivering the network news only to find herself thrown out—a public humiliation. “I was the one,” she summarizes neatly, “who got dumped.”

Medina was not the first woman to be evicted from that elite and exclusively male club. Barbara Walters earned that distinction in 1978 after two testy years of teaming up with Harry Reasoner on ABC’s World News Tonight. Nor would Medina be the last. Two years ago, just months before CBS ignominiously booted Connie Chung off her $2-million-a-year perch next to Dan Rather, the CBC axed Peter Mansbridge’s co-anchor, Pamela Wallin, from its foundering Prime Time News, provoking a public uproar. On both sides of the border, the casualties have been accumulating among those who dare challenge the glass ceiling that seems to put the single most prestigious on-air job off-limits to women.

Walters went on to host 20/20 and her own interview show, becoming a small-screen institution long after most viewers had for-

gotten Reasoner’s name. Wallin cannify cobbled together her own production company and launched a nightly talkfest that showcased the kind of in-depth interviewing she does best. Emerging with a stardom that far outstripped that of her previous incarnation, she found herself ironically transformed into the biggest draw on the Newsworld cable network. “I’m quite happy to do what I’m doing now instead of reading introductions to items,” she says. “I just happen to think it’s more interesting work.”

Revenge was also sweet for Medina, who enrolled in fdm school and later became chair of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television, which runs the industry’s Gemini

Awards. Four years ago, she received an invitation to host the 1993 election debates from her former CBC boss, David Bazay—the man who had offered her the coveted spot anchoring the Saturday edition of The National but then left other bureaucrats to inform her that her voice was too strong, her relationship with cosmetics too weak, and that her gig was up. “I said to David, ‘Isn’t my voice a bit strident to moderate the election debate?’ ” she recalls, borrowing the precise terms of her indictment. “ ‘Are you sure my makeup will be all right?’ ”

The fate of each of those female anchors may be unique, but the collective message they convey is the same: women might cover wars or moderate political debates, even pinch-hit on the weekend anchor desk, but serving up a nightly summary of reality on the network’s flagship show is clearly men’s work. CTV Ottawa bureau chief Craig Oliver recollects arriving at CBC Radio in the 1950s only to be handed an official announcer’s manual that declared female voices unfit to read the news. Even The Journal’s revered Barbara Frum, who regularly faced off against global powerbrokers, was confined to a separate show at the back half of the network news hour, after Knowlton Nash’s nightly edition of The National.

According to Wallin, that second-banana bias still persists in some executive suites. “It was a truism in television for many years that people wanted men to give them the news because their voices were firm and they were figures of authority,” she says. “But what some

TV programmers haven’t figured out is that the demographics have changed. You have a huge, huge chunk of women who are important consumers, and they’re looking to see themselves reflected on air.”

At first glance, that female presence hardly seems lacking. Once, producers might have claimed they could not find women with on-screen credentials. But today there are so many that, when the CBC began casting about for someone to replace Wallin on the newly refurbished National magazine two years ago, TV critics took to handicapping the odds of the seven contenders vying with the eventual winner, veteran fifth estate host Hana Gartner. In the CBC’s regional newsrooms, promising female talents are so numerous that one of them, Wei Chen, the nightly co-anchor on Toronto’s CBLT, despaired at what she dubs “the logjam.” Says Chen: “When you’re doing local news, the brass ring is always to get your story on the national newscast. But the CBC would bring in their national people to do your story, and use your tapes.” In 1993, Chen fled to CTVs Canada AM and is reportedly the leading candidate for the morning anchor slot on that network’s all-news channel, due to debut this fall. “Now, women are everywhere,” confirms Wendy Mesley, whose chances to succeed Wallin may have suffered from the fact that she happened to be Mansbridge’s ex-wife. “When you look at the possible contenders for Peter’s job, there are at least as many women on that list as men. We’re on the tarmac, waiting for liftoff.”

Mesley insists that she got what she wanted out of what at times seemed an on-screen audition for Gartner’s job: her own show, Undercurrents (which, despite having been announced as a victim of CBC budget cuts six months ago, may yet be resuscitated). At the same time, two other alsog rans won their own Newsworld slots. Alison Smith, most § often cited as Mansbridge’s heiress apparent, launched I The Lead, her prime-time half-hour exploring the day’s § top stories. And former Canada AM host Nancy Wilson “ landed the afternoon chair, co-anchoring Politics with Don K Newman on Newsworld.

“■ None had benefited from the sort of Cinderella scenario

depicted in last year’s film hit Up Close and Personal. Michelle Pfeiffer stumbling onto the big story while her dashing producer-mentor, played by Robert Redford, yelled the right questions into her earpiece. Smith started in 1977 as a copy clerk on the local Toronto newsdesk after journalism school, begging weekend reporting crumbs. “I always knew you had to work your way up,” she says. It took more than 10 years before she got the call one Saturday night to fill in at the last minute for Knowlton Nash on The National. Smith was on the way out to a dinner party with her husband, Toronto corporate lawyer Jim Morrow, and insisted on keeping the date, calmly nibbling her appetizer course before dashing to the studio. “I was fine until I sat in the chair and heard the music,” she says. “Then, the heart palpitations started. It was all of a sudden realizing what chair you’re sitting in. For me, it’s never been a question of filling Peter’s or Knowlton’s shoes—it’s their shoulder pads.”

Unlike other candidates, Smith, 42, is not coy about her hopes of one day snaring the network’s full-time anchor honors. For her, the post serves as a telling metaphor. “At a certain point I think it’s important to have the face of the flagship program a female face,” she argues. “It says a lot about the network—and about its openness. And, to young women journalists coming up, it says, This is a chair for you, too.’ ”

Wilson’s career began in 1974 as one-half of the news staff at CFTK in the northern British Columbia outpost of Terrace. A federal election had just been called, and her first assignment was to interview then-Tory leader Robert Stanfield. “In those small stations, there were no gender distinctions,” she says. “You were a warm body, so they put you to work.” But when she turned up at Ottawa’s CJOH a year later, executives nudged her behind the camera for a four-year apprenticeship, researching and producing, before anointing her weekend anchor. Now, extemporizing on late-breaking bulletins with Newman live every afternoon, Wilson regularly blesses that stern tutelage. On the day last month when the show’s monitors suddenly halted a preelection gabfest with live footage of Peruvian troops storming the Japanese Embassy in Lima, she found herself with only a few sentences of wire copy in hand—and, as she puts it, “winging it.” Adds Wilson:

‘What can go wrong will go wrong. How you finesse the chaos with a measure of credibility so people aren’t distracted— that’s what determines how good you are.”

One spectacular mishap provided her with surprise proof of her own mettle. In

1988, while hosting Canada AM, she was invited to file a simultaneous live report on the free trade debate for CBS’s Good Morn-

ing America. On air, before the largest au-

dience of her career, she couldn’t make out

Charles Gibson’s questions through her earpiece. Wilson tells the tale as a defining moment of disaster, but neglects to mention that several weeks later she received an overture from the U.S. network. She did not pursue it, she says, because she and her husband, documentary producer Laine Drewery, decided they didn’t want their daughter, Caitlin, to grow up in the United States. “A lot of people,” she admits, “thought I was certifiable.”

That anecdote is one of many from gifted female broadcasters that has given Wilson’s former colleague, Craig Oliver, pause. “You know why more women aren’t anchors?” he says. “Because, honest to God, their values are different. To get those jobs, you have to drive for them, not for days but for years. And men don’t mind giving up a marriage for that—in fact, most of us did.”

Medina, however, lays the blame on the fact that the best and brightest women in broadcasting are often seduced away from frontline reporting experience. “If they’re attractive and smart, early in their careers someone comes along and says,

‘I’m going to make you a star with a morning or a midday show,’ ” she observes.

“Once you take that exit, you’re out of learning the craft of journalism.” She once dispensed that warning to Mesley, who, while reporting from Parliament Hill, was repeatedly offered the temptation of her own daytime talk show. “If anchors are going to be respected, they have to know what they’re talking about,” Mesley agrees. “And I didn’t think the best way to do that was to spend an hour and a half a day being fussed over with lighting and makeup and never actually talking to real people.”

Now a traffic-stopping 39, she pointedly dismisses any topic that might smack of the frivolous, and cringes at the mention of two trophies of her celebrity that others might flaunt—her own fan club and an unsolicited Wendy Mesley Web site. Nor do Mesley or her peers spend much time lamenting the double standard they are saddled with—every strand of their hairdos subjected to exacting critical comment while Peter Mansbridge goes bald before the cameras. “I just see that as part of the business,” shrugs Wallin, who learned to master her own makeup and lighting—a practice that helped brand her a diva during her ill-fated CBC sojourn. “TV is a visual medium and there are more things people can respond to with a woman on the screen than if there’s a man. What are they going to say—that he didn’t change his tie?”

Lor today’s television newswomen, the only ominous inequity re-

Female contenders say it is just a matter of time

mains age. Walter Cronkite might have grown white and jowly in America’s living rooms, but at 31, Diana Swain, the flame-haired anchor of CBC Manitoba’s nightly news show, 24 Hours, is already fretting about “the pretty limited window of opportunity women are still given for their prime.” A former National reporter and summer substitute for Mesley, Swain dazzled the CBC brass with her deft Winnipeg flood coverage last month—much of it transmitted live to the full network. Suddenly, she finds herself touted as the woman to watch, adding a new urgency to her aspirations.

Swain began her career as half of a stereotypical local news team—a fresh-faced ingenue deferring to a seasoned co-anchor twice her age who always served up the lead story, or, as she puts it, “the big enchilada.” In 1988, as a plucky 23-year-old with two years of oncamera experience in Prince George, B.C., she snared the co-anchor spot at Winnipeg’s Global affiliate, CKND. The drawing card—and only hitch—was the man beside her at the newsdesk: her father, Brian Swain, then 47, whom she had scarcely seen since her parents split when she was five. They made each other’s reacquaintance under the nightly gaze of 50,000 viewers, and, as she admits, it was not always a pretty sight. After one Winnipeg columnist reported their off-air histrionics, she concedes, “I think people tuned in just to see if we were smiling.”

Unfinished family business was not the only problem that shadowed their partnership. She balked at the fact that her father wrote the newscast—a perk she was allowed only on the late-night edition. “I thought, This isn’t journalism,’ ” she says. “ This is reading in front of the camera.’ ” After two years, she bolted to the rival CBC show, and later The National's reporting staff—a distance that allowed her to heal the long-festering wounds with her father before his 1995 death from lymphoma. But when she returned as anchor to 24 Hours, that bitter experience made her determined to wield a free editorial hand. One glimpse of the traditional male-female anchor duo can still set her steaming. “Why are the women going along with it?” she asks.

Now, tempted by the larger national stage, Swain has set herself a daunting task. “I want to be part of a generation who are changing the definition of the woman anchor,” she says, “rather than following in the footsteps.” Still, as she notes, there is only one true measure of their progress: the dawning of a day when the prospect of a female chief news anchor no longer counts as newsworthy. □