On The Air

September 4, 2019 / Spark Magazine

A news anchor in a power red blazer beams from behind a desk in a news studio. Her matching red lipstick makes her unnaturally white teeth appear to glow. Concealer has been smoothed under her eyes because no dark shadows are allowed on TV. Her sprayed and straightened helmet of hair just touches her shoulders, teasing the line between come here and come hither. She’s professional but not plain. Pretty but not painfully beautiful. A voice in her ear counts down.

“3, 2, 1. Go!”

She smiles at the camera lens.

“Good morning friends,” she begins. This is the life of a female news anchor every morning of her work week. She’s groomed and gregarious at 4 a.m.

In a profession devoted to accuracy, the less you look like yourself the better. The women in broadcast news know exactly what the camera wants. Female broadcasters at both the network and the local level are the epitome of impeccable grooming. Journalism icons like Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer and Robin Roberts are celebrated for their skills and their fashion sense. Women in news were among the first to understand the power of the pantsuit.

Since women first started to read news on television in the 70s, their appearance has been scrubbed and scrutinized. Barbara Walters made headlines- literally- when she co-anchored the ABC News evening broadcast in 1976, the first woman to co-anchor an evening news broadcast in the history of television news. This former (and last) Today Show “Girl” was an expert in dressing for a 21-inch TV no longer in black and white. She wore pearl earrings and a richly red blouse encased in a black vest. Her hair is highly coiffed but not too high, and she’s wearing just the “right” amount of makeup. Earlier that day, ABC News threw a luncheon and held a press conference to publicize what her anchor partner Harry Reasoner referred to as “the first heterosexual news anchor team.” Most of the questions concerned what Walters would wear. Walters thought that if she answered, so should Reasoner. Variety reported that he mumbled a response about some “plain dark suit and tie.” Forty-three years later, men can still mumble about throwing together a suit. Whether she intended to or not, Walters became the role model to future female broadcasters and a figurehead for second wave feminism.

Being in broadcast journalism is a life punctuated by deadlines, and in this case, a woman’s career is punctuated by the worst deadline of all: her age. Patience is not a virtue in this business, and HD cameras are far crueler than any news director. At 79, Barbara Walters still hosts occasional segments for ABC News. Although she was and is the anomaly, now she’s setting a new standard. One day women will be allowed to age on TV, and you’ll see women in their 60’s and 70’s reporting daily. But not yet.

An Australian newscaster named Karl Stefanovic grew tired of the criticism his female co-anchor received about what she wore on the air, so he conducted an experiment. Every day for a year, he wore the same blue suit. No one noticed.

The problem in this business is that much more is expected of women than men. They must do the same job but never look bad while doing it.

At local stations, women freeze in studios and bake under the Texas sun on live shots (but no sweating while the camera’s watching). It’s a constant battle between too many and too few layers. Collars are perfect for hiding wireless microphones.  Jackets and blazers are fashion staples, especially given that women have faced backlash for outfits that expose their shoulders during a broadcast. Former Fox News Anchor Megyn Kelly faced criticism when social media viewers deemed the straps on the dress she wore to the Republican National Convention in 2016 too threadbare and “distracting” from the politics she was reporting. The right to bare arms didn’t extend to female newscasters.

Broadcast journalism is a career anchored in double standards. There’s an unspoken dress code for women. The way you look could stand between you and a promotion or you and a job in a larger market. The apparel must be stylish, but the outfit can’t be louder than the voice of the person wearing it. There are absolutely no fur, flowers or frills. You can show skin but not too much skin. There’s always a raging debate on the morality of bare arms on camera. Whatever you wear, you must look trustworthy. People are inviting you into their homes and their bedrooms every morning, evening and night. You’re what they get up to and go to bed to, so they have to trust you. And who better to trust than the person who's always camera ready?

The overemphasis on the visual aspect of this medium seems to equate physical perfection with truth. But perfection is a myth, and a myth is the antithesis of journalism.

Anchors are the face of the network, and the notion that a woman’s face must be young and pretty that dominates popular culture even permeates the news studio. The double standard also applies to reporters out in the field. TV stations are what people turn to when they’re scared or unsure of what’s happening. As the old saying goes, when everyone’s running from something, TV reporters are running towards it. Except with female reporters, in the middle of the hurricane or outside of the burning high rise at 5 a.m., they’re expected to be wearing lipstick and running towards the catastrophe in heels.

Without a doubt, the news is a formal business. The reasoning behind the dressy apparel is to separate you from the public. You can’t be confused with the civilians in your B roll. It’s a noble profession that elevates the people in it to the front seat of history, but the people in the front row have to look like they belong there. It’s all about credibility. Refinement and formality are inextricably associated with the career. TV news may be anchored in double standard, but one day, hopefully, the reality it reports on will be reflected in those who report it. •

To read more from Issue No. 12, visit us online here.

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