Maureen Dowd takes on the networks

The Times columnist lashes out at the network news on gender grounds.

By Rebecca Traister
Published December 12, 2005 7:25PM (EST)

You thought this might be a Dowd-free week? Yeah, so did I, until she went and wrote Saturday's spot-on column about the more difficult than it should be trick of landing a woman in a network-news anchor chair.

"Will Americans ever trust a petite, pretty woman in jewel tones to deliver the news as much as they trusted tall men with dark suits and deep voices, like Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Tom Brokaw?" Dowd asked at the start of her column.

Dowd recalled her conversation with a network suit last summer about whether or not 43-year-old Elizabeth Vargas wouldn't be a suitable replacement for then-ailing Peter Jennings. "If there were another 9/11, I'm not sure if she has the gravitas to hold that anchor chair," he said. "Maybe it's not even sex. Maybe it's age. I just think we'd need someone with a little gray in their hair."

No, it has nothing to do with sex, though NBC anchor Brian Williams is only three years older than Vargas and, as Dowd pointed out, "not noticeably gray."

"Maybe we could let Elizabeth do it Monday through Friday and then someone else could do it if there was a crisis," the executive added.

Of course, all this back story is just leading to an inevitable conclusion. Last week, Dowd's worst nightmares came true when ABC announced that Vargas would coanchor its evening news broadcast with a man whom Dowd refers to as "pretty-boy android Bob Woodruff."

See, that way, when there's a serious story, Woodruff can soothe us and make us understand, with the help of his deep voice, bobbing Adam's apple and penis. And when there's not a serious story, we can pat ourselves on the back for evolving to the point where we can accept news read to us by a woman.

Of course, nobody's claiming that there will never be a woman minding the news desks full time. There has been a lot of recent speculation that Katie Couric is about to give up her early-morning NBC duties to take Dan Rather's old seat at CBS.

But what I've wondered through all of this is: Who cares? Haven't we been told time and again that no one watches the nightly news anymore? Even when Jennings, Rather and Brokaw were behind the desk, we understood them to be dinosaurs -- perhaps beloved, but no longer the most relevant source for news in an age governed by the Internet and 24-hour cable channels.

Dowd asked a similar question. If and when Couric breaks down the wall between the morning and evening news for good, "will it be an important milestone for women?" She probably wields more cultural power in the morning, after all, and, as Dowd acidly points out, "by the time women get to take over something -- like Hollywood or Bush administration diplomacy -- the thing is already devalued beyond recognition."

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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