Female journalists have been working in the United States for centuries, but it wasn’t always easy. As early as the late 1800s, Nellie Bly courageously faked insanity in order to report on a mental institution from within. And Ida B. Wells made her mark covering the women’s suffrage movement. While women had to fight for the right to journalize, once allowed to demonstrate their mettle, their reportage — especially if reported under noms de plume — was well accepted.
You may not immediately be able to place names like Mary Heaton Vorse or Ida Tarbell, but the inroads they made in the early days of American journalism are legendary to struggling female journalists even today. And the “intrepid girl reporter” soon became something of an accepted trope.
Then something curious happened with the advent of broadcast news. Serious news was no longer women’s purview. Ladies were mostly relegated to doing the weather and puff pieces about cat shows. Being on television put a women’s physical appearance under the microscope and the men who ran the news corps thought viewers would be too distracted by lipstick and lady parts to follow a story about manly things like war, finance reports, and, god forbid, sports.
Decades of agitating would pass before the mentality change of “you can be a serious journalist only if viewers still want to date you after you’re done grilling that guy” passed.
The 1990s gave us Christiane Amanpour standing drenched in the rain in Bosnia as refugees flooded across the border, and later sitting down with then-President Clinton and chewing him out because he wasn’t doing anything about it. And while Barbara Walters and Jessica Savitch shared the spotlight with male co-anchors during prime time on the big three channels, and flew solo on weekends, our first prime-time news anchor on a major network didn’t arrive until 2006: Katie Couric. There’s a reason for that: Women in broadcast news have had to tread a fine line between being tough and being huggable, which is something their male counterparts certainly never had to worry about. Would you want to hug Bill O’Reilly?
Televised women in power are merely a reflection of the gender evolution in our culture and what constitutes an acceptable notion of femininity, but we have gone from worshipping the girly girl, to sexualizing the slutty slut, to fetishizing the strong, independent (but still gorgeous) woman who also knows kung fu, to that rarest of all species: women getting down to business and getting the damn job done. So, cheers to broadcast journalism for finally crossing the finish line! What follows are five of the best moments from this election cycle of women journalists delivering truth and justice and a few cans of whoop-ass along the way.
1. Soledad O’Brien
There are a number of recent thrills brought to you by the new queen of I’m-looking-at-the-documents-now-and-you’re–lying Soledad O’Brien. But the most heartwarming, special moment is probably the ass-whipping she delivered to Governor John Sununu. You may remember him; he’s one of Governor Romney’s henchmen who gets dispatched to lie for Romney when he’s already too busy talking out of both sides of his mouth.
On this particular occasion Sununu was repeating the G.O.P.’s hoariest of chestnuts about Obamacare “stealing” $716 billion from Medicare. Without as much as a blink O’Brien whipped out the C.B.O. report as well as CNN’s own independent analysis that proved beyond a doubt that Sununu was lying. There was not one moment in the interview when the former New Hampshire governor wasn’t trying to bulldoze more of his bald-faced lies, yet not for one moment did the CNN superstar slow down. Nobody puts Soledad in the corner.
2. Martha Raddatz
Now, look. You can’t rip on PBS’s Jim Lehrer who slept through the entire first presidential debate. We will simply not allow that sort of talk. And no, you can’t blame Lehrer for President Obama’s dreadful performance when he first went mano-a-mano. Let’s just say that it wasn’t a great night for Grampa Jim either. You all know what people said. It doesn’t bear repeating and we’re tired of hearing phrases like “potted plant” getting thrown around. It was awful.
Cue Martha Raddatz. Better known for her in-the-trenches journalist kick-assedness, Raddatz was never given the stage to bust it out Soledad-style in a studio and she wasn’t about to do so this time either. Instead, she just came in and acted like a professional journalist: She was calmly authoritative, and fair, and had no problem whipping the vice presidential candidates into shape when they went on too long. She even asked follow-up questions and lightly pressed them on statements that she felt needed clarification or just, frankly, sounded like malarkey. And if some in the G.O.P. thought she was a bit much or too far leaning left, well that’s what a debate moderator does, kids. If MSNBC’s Alex Wagner has any fantasies about moderating a debate in the future, she’d do well to watch the tapes from the recent vice presidential debate and let Auntie Martha show her how it’s done.
Of course, her candidates were lambs compared to the presidential candidates…
3. Candy Crowley
CNN’s Crowly seemed as though she was herding cats at times while attempting to force Romney and Obama to stick to their time limits. Meanwhile, Romney’s imperious attitude toward Crowley was evident as he argued with her about whether his time was up and if he was allowed another turn to respond. Republicans complained Obama got three minutes more than Romney, though to be fair, the governor was constantly ignoring the first rule of debating, which is not to be a tool to the moderator.
Crowley received a great deal of flak for fact-checking Romney when the governor backed himself into a rhetorical corner about whether Obama had used the phrase “act of terror” on the day after the attack in Libya. Not surprisingly, Fox News hosted mouth-foaming right-wing pundits who growled over the unfairness of the “fact-checker-in-chief!” But the bottom line is this: Crowley’s a journalist. If they just wanted someone to stand there with a microphone looking pretty, I’m quite sure Ryan Seacrest was available. It’s debatable whether Crowley should have confirmed the president’s statement; however, she also acknowledged Romney’s larger point: that the White House did not refer to the incident as a terrorist attack for two weeks. If Romney had been a smarter and quicker debater he then could have asked Crowley to repeat her statement but the governor did not, so Crowley wrapped up the question and moved on.
The highlight of the debate from a journalistic standpoint was that Crowley raised the bar for all future presidential moderators and she was not just some “lady with a microphone.” And in the words of Iggy Pop, “Candy, Candy, Candy I can’t let you go.”
4. Carol Costello
Carol Costello, CNN’s respectable in-the-background journalist who reports the news and somewhat perfunctorily never made waves. That is until now.
Recently Costello maintained absolute sang-froid in challenging bigot Bryan Fischer of the anti-gay American Family Association in a live telephone interview. Fischer was explaining why the AFA was so vehemently opposed to the nationwide annual ten-year “Mix It Up at Lunch Day.” (The event, founded by the Southern Poverty Law Center is an initiative to encourage students to eat lunch with someone whom they normally wouldn’t choose to sit with; essentially the goal is to break up cliques and teach tolerance.)
Fischer immediately began blathering that “Mix It Up at Lunch Day” was a secret plot to force Christian students to eat lunch with gay students so that homosexual children could somehow further their gay agenda and turn the school into a virtual gay rave with chocolate milk.
Costello countered Fischer by laying out the facts and history of the program, which had been started long before the issue of anti-gay bullying became a cause célèbre. Undeterred, the AFA spokesman continued with his “hate speech” [a term Costello used] at rapid fire and then he began reciting fake “facts about homosexuals” from the Center for Disease Control.
No sooner had Fischer spouted his false factoids than Costello decided to send him packing, with the farewell, “Mr. Fischer, I’m just going to end this interview, because what you’re saying is just not true. Thanks for sharing your views… I guess.” And she never once lost it with the guy, which is more than I’d be able to do in the same circumstances. By the time the spokesman got around to comparing LGBT tolerance with poisoned Halloween candy, I would have probably lost my mind. Of course, I would no doubt be a lousy on-air journalist, because I like to say “fuck” a lot.
5. Rachel Maddow
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow manages to be both tough as nails while remaining charming and accessible — and she has a devoted following.
Maddow, an Oxford-educated rock-star journalist, can run intellectual circles around unsuspecting interviewees who then, sitting in a pool of their own tears and snot, beg for mercy. Again, it would be too difficult to pick just one highlight; back in the old days when she was just a frequent contributor on panels and roundtables on MSNBC, Maddow delivered many a spanking to everyone’s favorite racist blowhard Pat Buchanan.
Watching MSNBC’s liberal darling disassemble an obnoxious guest is terrific blood sport, but what really sets her apart are her fiery, take-no-prisoners monologues. As a champion of women’s issues, she was out front very early about the extreme nature of Paul Ryan’s positions on abortion and “fetal personhood.” Maddow connected all the dots that proved Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell had known full well what the forced-ultrasound bill entailed and that he had been on board from the beginning. Maddow uncovered a rat’s nest of legislation to support the fact that there actually is a Republican “war on women.”
If someone could force a pried-eyed Clockwork Orange-style viewing on Pat Buchanan’s sister, Bay, and make her watch Maddow’s rant on the “war on women,” we could virtually guarantee that Lady Bay would hobble away a feminist — though sadly the Republican pundit’s head would still look like a mailbox wrapped in Silly Putty.
No matter how this election cycle will end, it’s important to acknowledge that these women have been paying attention and stepping up their game in the service of truth in journalism. And as it turns out, the Fourth Estate of Feminism is very much alive and these ladies have moved in and taken over.
Two out the four debates this election year were moderated by women, and the only thing that could make them even more exciting in four years would be if one of these aforementioned ladies moderated a debate featuring a future Madam President. And at the rate we’re going, all looks swell.