Breaking news, not families
Two women move to major television news jobs, an environment where being a parent used to be seen as a hindrance.
By ERIC DEGGANS
Published April 18, 2006
It was, Meredith Vieira admitted, a quandary that brought her to tears.
While considering whether she wanted to replace Katie Couric as co-host of NBC's Today show, Vieira found herself crying over the harsh realities of the schedule. Namely, an early-morning start which guaranteed she would never see her children, Ben, 17, Gabriel, 14, and Lilly, 13, wake up for school.
"Gabe said, 'See us do what? Fight?' " Vieira said during a press conference this month, laughing as she described consulting her family on taking the top job in morning television. "I thought, 'You know, he's got a great point.' "
Hard to believe this was the same woman who passed up an offer to anchor CBS's Early Show in 2002 over family concerns and was booted off CBS's 60 Minutes in 1991 when she told producers there she wanted a part-time schedule after giving birth to Gabriel.
But Vieira has company.
The New York Times detailed how Couric polled her two daughters Ellie, 14, and Carrie, 10 and parents on her job options before taking the flagship anchor post at CBS. ABC's Elizabeth Vargas told the Washington Post when she was appointed World News Tonight co-anchor: "Being a mom is the biggest, most important role in my entire life."
Network news anchor jobs - whose occupants' lives are dictated by breaking news - have never been known to offer work-family balance.
But for Vieira, Couric and Vargas, their focus on family isn't just an incidental topic: It's at the center of their public image.
What gives? Are we hearing these stories just because they are women? Or are they reflecting a larger change in society? Might this focus on work/life balance affect how their shows cover the news?
And does it feed concerns about whether Couric has the gravitas to lead the CBS Evening News?
"(Family priorities) are seen as a plus . . . It helps the audience identify with (Couric), because they're going through the same kinds of situations," said Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, who has worked for NBC's Meet the Press, National Public Radio, CBS News and the Washington Star newspaper.
As audiences for network evening news programs dip, showcasing anchors who are working moms could help reach new viewers.
"I can remember making my way at the newspaper when my son was born, and I just felt that I could not let on that I had any babysitter issues or anything," Cochran said. "That has changed with many more women in the newsroom . . . But the underlying question is: 'Would a man be telling that story about (himself)?' "
Jill Geisler, an instructor on leadership issues at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies (which owns the St. Petersburg Times), noted that in a survey of 750 journalists of both genders last year, Poynter discovered more than half reported working long hours, not taking all their vacation time and seriously considered leaving journalism.
"I had respondents saying, 'I can't talk about my family at work' or 'They roll their eyes when I talk about family,' " added Geisler, who was news director at television station WITI in Milwaukee for 20 years while raising two children. "On the one hand, there's great news that women are bringing their families into the conversation . . . and authority figures in journalism are working mothers. The question is . . . whether that trickles down to other areas in journalism."
At WITI, Geisler and the assistant news director were mothers, cultivating a sensitivity to work and family concerns that spread through the organization. She could see the same thing happening at the networks.
"Both (Couric and Vieira's) stories (involve the) extreme need to be attentive to family . . . one is a widow, and the other is a wife of a man with a debilitating illness," Geisler said. (Couric's husband, Jay Monahan, died of colon cancer in 1998; Vieira's husband, Richard Cohen, has multiple sclerosis.)
"Think about the impact that has on sensitivity," Geisler added. "My hope is that they use their influence to help change the culture of the organizations and that change has a ripple effect to others."
For Kate O'Brian, vice president and executive director of ABC News One, it's about generational difference as much as gender. Men from the 60 Minutes generation - recently retired executive producer Don Hewitt, who told Vieira to leave the show, is 83 - were expected to live and die at their desks, and so were the women.
Now, amid rumors Couric's duties as a 60 Minutes correspondent herald a changing of the guard at the program, network news operations are more friendly to employees who are concerned about work/family issues, said O'Brian.
"With Barbara Walters, you didn't even know if she had children . . . When these guys were coming up, you didn't talk about your families," she said. (Walters, co-host of The View who became the first woman to co-anchor a network newscast in 1976, has one daughter.)
"I have two children and I was a single mother for a number of years and . . . every career decision was a discussion around the dinner table," said O'Brian, who once asked her children if they wanted to move away from New York City after the 9/11 attacks.
"Given that we work these crazy jobs with weird hours, there is more of an understanding that your kid is a part of your life . . . and if your life isn't right, your work won't be, either."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report. Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or firstname.lastname@example.org See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media.
[Last modified April 18, 2006, 09:33:11]
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