Peter Funt: Putting their trust in women

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Apple TV’s “The Morning Show,” which recently ended its third season, offers a melodramatic mishmash of media and current events, yet manages to get one thing right: It depicts women as the new faces of television news.

The series starring Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon not only places women in the anchor chairs for morning and evening newscasts, it demotes their male counterparts to token tasks like reporting the weather — a complete reversal of the way women were utilized for decades in real-life broadcasting.

CNN has installed a new prime-time anchor lineup that is 80 percent female, with Erin Burnett, Abby Phillip, Laura Coates and Kaitlan Collins. The token male is Anderson Cooper. This can be seen as a somewhat desperate ploy by CNN, which has struggled in the ratings of late, but across the entire TV news spectrum virtually every anchor opening is now being filled by a woman.

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Network news managers have long walked a fine line in trying to give women well deserved on-camera opportunities while also chasing ratings in what is, after all, a competitive business dependent on viewership and advertising revenue. In 2016 Pew researchers found that 51 percent of Americans said they followed the news “all or most of the time” but over the next six years that figure plunged to 38 percent. The door swung open for women anchors as programmers tried to buck the trend.

When Chuck Todd stepped down this fall from NBC’s “Meet the Press,” he was replaced by Kristen Welker. She joins a Sunday news competition that includes Margaret Brennan hosting CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Shannon Bream as the replacement for Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday,” plus a pair of female co-anchors: Dana Bash on CNN’s “State of the Union” and Martha Raddatz on ABC’s “This Week.” Each of these shows in the recent past featured a solo male host.

Women have a regrettable history of being ignored or ridiculed in TV’s principal anchor roles, dating back to Barbara Walters’ struggle to break the glass ceiling. In 1976 she was made co-anchor with Harry Reasoner on the “ABC Evening News,” with a $1 million annual salary roughly double what CBS icon Walter Cronkite — “the most trusted man in America” — was earning. Walters ultimately failed at the anchor job but went on to an illustrious career as an interviewer.

In nearly five decades that followed, women gradually assumed prominent on-camera roles — most notably Norah O’Donnell’s promotion to anchor on “The CBS Evening News” in 2019 — but recently the pace has quickened dramatically. Why? For one thing, multiple studies show that Americans don’t trust national news outlets as much as they used to. In Cronkite’s day, the male voice conveyed credibility. Today, in a world rife with disinformation and alternate facts, women are likely to be seen as more honest brokers.

MSNBC now features a five-hour afternoon block anchored exclusively by female journalists. In the evening, two of the channel’s biggest stars, Brian Williams and Rachael Maddow, stepped away (in Maddow’s case cutting her schedule to one day a week) and were replaced by Stephanie Ruhle and Alex Wagner.

Not surprisingly, the one outlet to go in the opposite direction is Fox News Channel, where Laura Ingraham was recently demoted and the three main prime-time hours were given over to outspoken males Jesse Watters, Sean Hannity and Greg Gutfeld. At FNC, where neither journalism nor equal rights carry much weight, women are valued principally for the length of their skirts — in “the leg chairs” as insiders call the seats offering the best view.

Elsewhere, however, women are being tested as anchors and hosts in a journalistic jungle where viewers seem eager for change. Latest example: The selection of three female moderators for the Republican presidential debate carried by NewsNation — Elizabeth Vargas, Megyn Kelly and Eliana Johnson.

It’s a new morning for women in TV news. You can research that by asking Siri or Alexa.

Peter Funt is a writer and speaker. He can be reached at