News Anchor Roundtable
Six top New York TV newswomen offer the scoop on issues of journalism, gender -- and whether news is entertainment.
With all the attention paid to women in entertainment, there has been less of a focus on women in the news business -- despite Katie Couric's rise at CBS. Mere days after November's national election, The Hollywood Reporter's Paul J. Gough and Randee Dawn sat down at the Extreme Wow Suite at the W New York with several of the most prominent: Cynthia McFadden, co-anchor of ABC's "Nightline"; Hoda Kotb, co-host of NBC's "Today" and a "Dateline" correspondent; Soledad O'Brien, CNN anchor and special correspondent; Megyn Kelly, co-host of "America's Newsroom" on Fox News Channel; Maggie Rodriguez, co-host of "The Early Show" on CBS; and Alexandra Wallace, executive producer of "NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams."
The Hollywood Reporter: How do you feel women were covered by the media in the recent election?
Hoda Kotb: I was talking to some people in the makeup room one day at work, and one person said, "Gosh, everyone's been so hard on Sarah Palin." And I said, "No one knows her. We don't know anything about her, so you have to start from the bottom up." Did you guys think it was sexist?
Megyn Kelly: There was definite sexist coverage of Sarah Palin. In particular, the questions that were raised about how could she be both vice president and a mother. That was absolutely ridiculous. People saw this as an opportunity to rip on conservatives and the conservative movement, because this is red meat for people who don't like conservative women. The conservatives have, in the past, criticized some liberal women who wanted to both work and have children, so here's a conservative woman -- arguably far right -- who comes out and says she can do it all and she wants to do it all, and some of her detractors saw that as red meat and potential hypocrisy.
Soledad O'Brien: How many kids do you have?
Kelly: I don't have any children.
O'Brien: OK, so I have four. It's really hard, and any mother would say it is really hard to do it all. So I think sometimes, don't dismiss it, because a lot of times the women who were raising that question were women with children who actually were on both sides of the political aisle.
THR: Do you think your subjects treat you differently when you cover them because of your gender?
O'Brien: Does being hit on count?
Kotb: One of my first jobs -- this was in 1987 -- I was in Mississippi and they wanted me to cover some men's meeting. The guys (at the club) would not -- this is unbelievable that I'm thinking about this 20 years (later)! -- but I had my microphone and I wanted to interview one of the men, an astronaut or somebody, and no one would talk to me. I had to put the microphone on the podium and pray to get sound. You figured, "If I could just muddle through this bit, I'll make it." But I don't feel it now. Do you guys?
Kelly: I don't feel it in television at all. This is a second career for me -- I practiced law for eight years -- and I can say I felt it a lot more when I was practicing law. I was like the young, blonde attorney. In my first job in the legal profession, I was treated like a paralegal when I first got there. I was the only lawyer they asked to copy cases -- they never asked any of the male lawyers to copy cases or run to go get a book from the library. Finally, I had it out with the senior partner in the law firm ... and so that was the end of that. But it took something like that -- you had to get in their faces to show them you're tough before they respected you.
Maggie Rodriguez: I've had some people make assumptions about me that I think would never be made about a man. When I was a reporter in Los Angeles, there was a police commissioner who called on me and I asked him a tough question. And he said in front of everyone, "I would never expect a question like that to come from a girl as sweet as you." I just wanted to deck him.
Kelly: One of the greatest advantages you can have is somebody underestimating you. Having a guest come on, and they're looking for an argument and they want to make it contentious and they see my blonde hair, and they think (snorts in disdain). And then I bust out my ninja litigating skills.
THR: Let's talk about the blending of news and entertainment. How have you seen the lines blurring in recent years?
Alexandra Wallace: If you look at the nightly news genre, we're as hard news as we ever were. It's more of a mix -- we try to do a mix of stories in the way that any kind of good news magazine does. But we do as (much) hard news as I've ever done, and I feel no pressure to do "entertainment" at all.
Cynthia McFadden: "Nightline" is having its highest numbers in the last nine years. We have done a very consistent diet of politics and the economy, and nobody's telling us not to be as hard as we can be. We talk down to the American public at our peril. And for a while, we did that a lot. We're in a situation now, with what's happening with the economy -- people want real news.
THR: To a certain extent this is cyclical, isn't it? The summer before Sept. 11 was all about shark attacks and Chandra Levy.
Kotb: That show "Fear Factor" came out just before 9/11, and I bet my life that it was going to be buried. After six months or so, that show came back. We know what real fear is, and it seems so trivial (on that show).
O'Brien: I've had interviews where I've gone from covering harder news to (lighter morning show fare). People say, "How can you do both?" But most of the women I know can juggle a lot of things well. It all fits very fine into the plate of stuff I'm interested in.
McFadden: That's what makes interesting television programs, frankly. In a steady diet of any of this stuff, you have to eat your brussels sprouts. I do wonder if women in this business are more eclectic than the men in this business.
O'Brien: When Katie (Couric) went to (anchor the "CBS Evening News"), it was, "Well, she did the Peter Pan costume (on NBC's 'Today')." The woman had a reputation for grilling people that I think was unparalleled in morning television! And to have her career distilled down to a Peter Pan moment was not only unfair but absurd.
Wallace: Coming from a male perspective, that's how women are defined. I actually think that's why women are great in news. I'm not saying we're "rounder" people, but we have a variety of interests, and I try to make them show up on air. I try not to be a woman in a male's mold.
THR: Is it a matter of picking your battles?
Kelly: For me, personally, it's been an ongoing evolution. I hadn't been an anchor before I started my current role, and when I took the chair, it was opposite a guy (Bill Hemmer) who was very experienced and well-respected; I didn't know how they would perceive me.
McFadden: Was there hazing?
Kelly: There wasn't hazing. There were a lot of nasty (e-mails). They criticize your appearance and criticize your blonde hair. It hurts your feelings, obviously; you're only human. But all you can do is continue to do your job. The women are the toughest. Sadly, the sisterhood is not necessarily alive and well in all circles, and we're not always rooting for each other as we should be. Women need to look at other successful women and say, "I'm rooting for you." It's not a zero-sum game.
McFadden: Everyone isn't great, but I have to say that if it weren't for Barbara Walters, I would never have gone to ABC. I was leaving Court TV, and I had other offers, and I was poised to go somewhere else. She literally went to (the late ABC News chairman) Roone Arledge and said, "You've got to talk to her." And he was like, "Why?"
THR: For those of you who do have children, how do you juggle work and motherhood?
O'Brien: I don't do tornadoes; I do aftermaths. Whenever everything clears off and the National Guard comes in, I'm your girl.
McFadden: I had a child very late in life; I had a baby at 42. At that point, I had enough control over my career so it was easier. I now have the option of saying no, and no one is saying, "Cynthia doesn't want to work hard enough." I wonder how younger women do it.
Rodriguez: You prioritize. I'm so blessed because I have the perfect mommy schedule. Technically, my day is done at 9:00 a.m.
McFadden: But it never is.
Rodriguez: If I didn't want to move forward in this career, it could be over at 9. I have a 3-year-old daughter, but I'm frequently volunteering to go out. I'm a reporter; I want to be where the story is. It's incredibly difficult not to raise my hand for every single one. But I just balance it. I say, "OK, I went last time." But it's incredibly difficult to have to fight my instinct as a reporter to fulfill my obligation as a mother.
O'Brien: My mother used to say, "Everybody's been given the same 24 hours." We all have to figure out how we spend it.
Kelly: I'm recently married, and we hope to have children. I worry about the guilt. I feel guilty with my two Shih Tzus -- that they're spending too much time alone.
O'Brien: You prioritize more things. I have two things in my life: my work and my family. That's it. I think guilt is such a wasted emotion.