Since we baby boomers were young, the news media has changed. BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs remembers that when he was a new young producer with ABC News, one of his first assignments was to work with Marlene Sanders, the first network newswoman to report from Vietnam, the first woman to report— as a substitute— from a network anchor desk. Now, as Dobbs writes in this Boomer Opinion piece, women have not just reached parity with men in his business. In many cases, through their performance, they have surpassed it.
It didn’t start with then-Fox News’s moderator Megan Kelly challenging Donald Trump during a debate in his first presidential campaign, but it sure got legs since she did: women, women, challenging and, equally important, not collapsing before a chauvinistic president of the United States.
The weaker sex? Look again.
Kelly began her first question in that early debate with, “You’ve called women you don’t like fat pigs, dogs, slobs, and disgusting animals,” to which Trump said afterward (characteristically more crass than class), “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever…” Ever since, it has looked like him waging war on women in the news media, and them waging war on him.
To which I say to every one of them, “You go, girl.” Because it’s not a war, not from their end anyway. It’s merely women doing their jobs. Just as well as men. Often better.
Look at NBC’s Savannah Guthrie. When she intrepidly questioned Trump during his Town Hall in mid-October and he said something shocking or shifty or just plain stupid, she didn’t let it pass. Like when she asked how he could tweet out a phony conspiracy theory about Joe Biden having Seal Team 6 killed to cover up the fake death of Osama Bin Laden, and Trump’s answer was, “That was a retweet. I’ll put it out there, people can decide for themselves, I don’t take a position,” to which Guthrie retorted, “You’re the president, you’re not like someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever!” As with every parry with the president though, she said it with a persistently disarming smile on her face.
Or NBC’s Kristen Welker, who moderated the second Trump-Biden debate. As conservative columnist Matt Labash wrote, “I would rather eat a live puppy with baby-seal sprinkles than moderate one of these things. It’s that thankless a task.” But here’s how David Bauder of the Associated Press described Welker’s thankless task: she didn’t stifle exchanges, but she did steer them, “cutting off the discussion when it was becoming unproductive.” That is, of course, what any moderator should be doing, but she was doing it unflinchingly in the wake of the president telling a rally a few days earlier that she is “extremely unfair,” then in a Fox & Friends interview calling her “terrible.” I’ve defended Fox News moderator Chris Wallace, who Trump steamrolled in the first debate, because what can you do when a steamroller is barreling toward you and you’re not allowed to run? But in the second debate, whenever Trump began a polemic beyond any productive purpose, Welker reined him in with her unfaltering commandment, “We need to move on.”
Only a little less illustrious in the spotlight is PBS NewsHour’s Yamiche Alcindor. Reacting to her questions at briefings, the president has called her “threatening,” he has branded her “racist,” he has labeled her queries “nasty.” He told her in one exchange, “It’s always get ya, get ya, get ya… that’s why nobody trusts the media anymore.” And how had she tried that day to “get ya?” By asking about Trump’s assertion early in the pandemic that some governors’ requests for assistance were overblown or unnecessary. In other words, by doing her job.
Finally (for now), Leslie Stahl of CBS’s 60 Minutes. Only partway through her sit-down interview last week with the president at the White House, he walked out, later accusing her of “bias, hatred, and rudeness.” And what was behind that? She held his feet to the fire, that’s what. Like her response that “You know that’s not true” after he appreciably exaggerated, “We created the greatest economy in the history of our country.” Her response that “There’s no real evidence of that” after he regurgitated his unsupported complaint about 2016, “They spied on my campaign.” Her response that “People can see cases going up all over the (country)” after he deceptively claimed yet again, “We’ve turned the corner.”
In short, as she warned him at the start of the interview, she’d be tough. She was.
The weaker sex? Hardly.
It’s not as if men never provoked the president— CBS’s Dan Rather was unpopular with the Nixon White House for being a dogged correspondent, especially covering Watergate, and once famously sparred with Nixon when he rose at a public appearance to pose a question and Nixon asked with a smug smile, “Are you running for something?” to which Rather thought a moment, then shot back, “No Sir Mr. President, are you?” Recently I asked Dan about his rationale for what some saw as insolence: “Always respect the office,” he said, “but never be intimidated by the person who holds it.”
Or ABC’s Sam Donaldson, who got under the skin of both Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan because, if there was an issue on which the president’s words might matter, even when an event was declared only a “photo op” or correspondents were expected to be silenced by the turboshaft engines of Marine One, Donaldson would shout above the din to ask about it, (which Reagan just laughed off with his classic class, saying, “That’s just Sam being Sam.”). Sam once told me his rationale, which is very much like Rather’s: presidents deserve respect, but not regal reverence. Even presidents, after all, still put their pants on one leg at a time.
But women sometimes sport a skirt, not pants, which metaphorically leaves them as free as men, sometimes freer, to say what they think, to ask what they need to ask, to practice their professions without compromise, and to make fair-minded Americans proud.