Ifill, Woodruff blaze new trail for women on TV

09/13/2013 8:00 PM

09/12/2013 3:33 PM

National TV newscasts have tried just about every kind of anchor configuration over the past six decades: A lone male anchor. A lone female. Two men. A man and a woman. Even three men.

But two women? Perish the thought. No national evening broadcast has ever dared put a pair of women on air together to read the news each day.

Apparently, as a character in the 2004 satire of 1970s culture “Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” put it: “It’s anchorman, not anchorlady! And that is a scientific fact.”

Until now.

Starting with its broadcast Monday evening, the “PBS Newshour” will feature two women in the anchor chairs. The venerable program – anchored for years by founding fathers Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer and lately by a series of rotating anchors – will be co-anchored by Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill.

The new era at “Newshour” will start out with a big “get”: Ifill will interview President Barack Obama on Monday as part of his round robin of media interviews to build support for a U.S. military strike against Syria. The interview will air Monday night.

Woodruff and Ifill have anchored “Newshour” before. Together, they handled the political conventions and election night last year. Still, their installation as regular co-anchors is a small cultural milestone for American TV news.

Such a pairing is “a no-brainer,” Woodruff says. “If you have two people on your team who really click, what difference does it really make” if they happen to be women?

Nevertheless, Woodruff, 66, acknowledges the symbolic import of the moment. Coming in with the first wave of female TV reporters and anchors in the early 1970s, she recalls looking for her first job and being brushed off by news directors with some variation of “We don’t believe a woman’s voice is authoritative.”

Ifill, 57, a former Washington Post and New York Times reporter, was a later arrival to TV, starting with NBC News in the mid-1990s and moving to public television as host of PBS’ “Washington Week” in 1999. She notes the “first” of her partnership with Woodruff, but plays down its significance. “We’re moving on the assumption that people want to see us, and the woman thing doesn’t help or hurt,” she said. Viewers “know us, and know what they’re getting.”

Following the all-male, Huntley-Brinkley era of TV news, women were first paired with men on local newscasts in the 1970s to create contrast, notes Bob Papper, a former news director and Hofstra University professor who has studied newsroom demographics for almost 20 years. The notion was that the two genders balanced each other, with a woman’s “softer” style providing contrast to the man’s harder edge.

While a female-female set up is increasingly common at local stations across the country, Papper points out that it’s still unusual during the two most-viewed local newscasts, typically at 6 and 11 p.m. At those hours, the male-female pair rules. Papper says this may reflect the audience; women are the predominant part of the news audience during most hours, but there’s more gender balance among viewers at 6 and 11 p.m.

Focus-group research indicates that viewers look for “a balance of power” among anchor teams, says Craig Allen, an associate professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. This balance, he notes, has been most easy to achieve with a male-female combination, mimicking the traditional mom-dad/boy-girl dynamic.

Allen doesn’t expect a lot of fireworks from Woodruff and Ifill – they’ll “co-exist,” much as McNeill and Lehrer did all those decades before them, he said.

Ifill has her own take on the subject. Asked why it took so long for two women to attain the most visible spots on a news broadcast, she replied: “Because men rule the world. I’ve never worked at a place where the people who rose didn’t look like the people in power.”

Now, she says, “we’ve slogged away for so long, it just seemed to make sense.”

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