Women Who Reported Watergate
We’re going to start off this installment with a quiz.
Here’s a quote:
Right now, the action is at the bottom of the ladder. The progress of women in broadcasting could be measured when they began appearing on the screen. Then they started to show up on crews doing jobs you’d never think a woman could do. Now, some are becoming supervisors, department heads. A woman station manager isn’t far away.
Was this said - by a man - in 1984? 1994? or 1974?
That’s a quote from Allen Bell, a TV station manager out of Philadelphia, quoted in a New York Times article that sported the headline: The Women in TV: A Changing Image, a Growing Impact, September 28, 1974.
I believe Mr. Bell believed what he told the Times reporter. I believe Mr. Bell was caught up in the energy and the optimism of 1974 - the year of cultural introspection and change. Maybe he saw the handwriting on the wall.
If he did, it’s because by late September 1974, the country had weathered the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Richard Nixon. President Gerald Ford had assumed the presidency, after having only been appointed vice president about a year prior. And with Gerald Ford came his charming, real, colorful family.
In the fall of 1974, wildfire to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment was just beginning to spread to state legislatures. Title IX’s implementation changed a girl’s educational experience in elementary, junior high and high school. From then forward, college have experienced consistent increased enrollment from women. That’s where it started.
And in 1974, America had watched A LOT of TV. Much of it - - televised newscasts and special reports, which often featured hours and hours of Watergate testimony from the halls of congress.
Much as we’d love to analyze the accuracy of Mr. Bell’s predictions about gender equity in the business, we’ll save that for another installment. Today, we’re gonna find out who those women were who reported on Watergate and how their very appearances advanced opportunities for women into TV and all forms of journalism.
Why is this important?
Because this 2-year long scandal started small and grew to be large. By the time the nation understood the significance of the crime, it had gone from being a newspaper story, to one very much made for TV coverage. TV news changed and the faces of TV news changed. Without Watergate, it’s hard to know where women would be in the TV news industry today.
Watergate. For those born more recently, Watergate is the single word used to describe the crimes and cover up of President Richard Nixon and a band of men who worked for him – either in the administration or his campaign.
The scandal was complex enough in an age before computers were available to news reporters, that it also reinvigorated investigative journalism (which had been dormant since World War 2) and ushered in scads of laws that required the government to become more transparent in its affairs and availability of documents.
For the most part, Watergate is a story of men. President Nixon as the subject and investigative reporters from The Washington Post, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein bloodhounds on a hot, hot trail. The publisher of The Washington Post was Katherine Graham, who assumed the post in 1963 after her husband’s death. Remember her name.
Watergate created such demand in TV newsrooms – or at least the Washington bureaus of the major TV networks, Barbara Walters, Lesley Stahl and Connie Chung were covering real news… not just women’s news.
In researching how the media (mostly led by The Washington Post) toiled in the early days of Watergate - the days before Americans understood the significance of the “petty crime” of the office break-in, it’s clear that TV held back a bit. In 1972, a presidential election year, no one could fathom how disparate dots would connect to yield a more nefarious picture. And from 1972 to 1974, The Post’s reporters Woodward and Bernstein (CBS’s Lesley Stahl dated Bob Woodward for a brief time during these years - yeah, her book’s better than Barbara’s but I recommend them both) - they were given a long leash by publisher Katherine Graham. That long leash was permission to quote unnamed sources in newspaper articles. There was no way that officials in the government were going to provide explosive information on the record, particularly as it became more clear that President Nixon was at the scandal’s center.
If this sounds familiar, like you’ve seen it in headlines lately - this discussion of unnamed sources - what some might consider leaks - it should. And the standard that TV news held high - verifiability. Moreover, TV stations and the networks had much more of a relationship with the government. The Federal Communications Commission and licensing was paramount to the business.
So bottom line, while news organizations like to talk about a bright line - a fire wall - between the news side and the business side - if reporters are working to bring down an administration, they’d better know what they’re doing.
Final point about context: when a woman appeared on TV in the early 70s – be she Billie Jean King at Wimbledon or Barbara Walters reporting the news, it was a novelty. A win was a big win. Women reporters or even weather women (I WILL NOT call them weather girls) represented a potential career or calling to girls who watched the news.
The names Barbara Walters, Lesley Stahl, Marlene Sanders and Connie Chung and a few others - familiar if you were raised watching TV news. Maybe you’ve heard of them, but don’t know where they fit into this Watergate reporting picture and the early years of women reporting on national TV newscasts.
This was a time when the evening newscast, presented in similar fashion across the 3 major networks, provided the shared experience of world and national events for Americans to digest. TV network news was trusted. Walter Cronkhite was the most trusted man in America for many, many years.
In recent years, Walters, Stahl and Chung and others chose to share little bits about those early 70s years in different formats - primarily memoirs and interviews. Let’s start with the biggest name, Barbara Walters, who co-hosted NBC’s The Today Show on August 9th, 1974 the day President Nixon’s resignation transferred power to President Ford.
Fact: Barbara Walters didn’t just stand around and wait to “earn” her way to the co-host slot on The Today Show? Much like TV news veteran Ann Curry did in 2005, Walter’s Today Show seat came about from a very strategic contract. In her book, Walters tells of the 1972 show that was her big project called– Not for Women Only. What? The network thought that if a show was hosted by a woman, men would think it’s for women only, so the title needed to reassure them?
Jeez – I will only say I remember seeing that title appear in the weekly TV listing - wondering – as only an 8 year old can, why would there be a show called Not For Women Only? It was a syndicated show – 80 cities strong. During contract renewal negotiations with NBC, Walter’s agent Lee Stevens - and I am quoting Barbara from her book here –
“put in the contract that if Frank McGee were ever to leave the program, [she’s referring to The Today Show] voluntarily or involuntarily, I was to have the title of co-host with whoever succeeded him.”
Now it seemed like an innocuous clause and NBC signed on the dotted line. Walters went about her work primarily in the Washington DC studio, focusing on the Watergate Scandal. Again from her memoir,
Between us (her and Frank McGee – who anchored from the New York studio) we had all the major Watergate players on Today. Hardly a day passed when I didn’t interview a congressman, a senator, a constitutional lawyer, a pollster or somebody knowledgeable about the crisis.
Barbara Walters in 1973 held down the Washington desk covering most of the breaking news of any given day. It’s really quite amazing that the network didn’t replace her with a man. Can we chalk that up to a few men recognizing her skills? McGee realizing he’d rather have Walters covering these high profile headlines than a hungry male reporter on the rise? She was appropriately deferential, qualified and I shudder to think how much less she was paid than her male counterparts.
Okay, Watergate headlines tended to either move the Earth in a single day or get presented as the tiniest of clues about complex legal and investigative processes that would contribute to a bigger headline down the road. So when news was slow, Walters’ assignments included coverage of the Tricia Nixon wedding and other staples of “the women’s beat.”
In mid-April 1974, Walters got word while in California that Frank McGee, sole anchor of The Today Show, had died of bone cancer, a condition he had kept from everyone. Honoring the contractual commitment to Walters, NBC announced Walters as co-host of The Today Show and that they would be launching a search for a co-host.
The bonus lesson here listeners is that when you’re negotiating your employment, think about your own interests. Walters and Ann Curry 30 years later (Ann Curry’s long NBC career that turned sour when she became co-host of The Today Show is the subject of another installment of Advanced TV Herstory – took a seemingly innocuous condition – that being advancement in the event of significant change – and negotiated it into final contracts. We may never know if this was in lieu of a bigger annual salary or bonus package or other amenities of status. At the time the contracts were signed, it cost the networks nothing.
So it was that 4 months later, Walters was at The Today Show desk covering the day of transition of the leadership of our government.
This somber moment in our nation’s history, delivered to us by a team that included a woman who had earned her seat at the table. A legitimate reporter who didn’t use the pageant circuit to accelerate her path. Barbara Walters, who would go on to lead an illustrious career in journalism. She became the first woman to co-host the national evening news - in 1976 because she had earned the trust of world leaders and the reputation for asking the tough questions.
On August 9th, Barbara Walters was wearing a rayon print blouse buttoned down to just north of her cleavage and a red print head scarf.
Why? Why? Who?
Seated next to her co-host, Jim Hartz in a full suit and tie.
Really. Now discovering this 4 minute bit of video on YouTube was exciting! Mind you, there is really precious little written or documented video-wise of how women covered Watergate. So there she was! Delivering the news! Looking like she was headed to a Macy’s sale as soon as the show was over.
I’d love to be disappointed in Barbara. Goodness knows she didn’t include her questionable wardrobe decision in her memoir. Maybe she got no sleep the night of August 8th, with so many angles to track and report. Maybe it wasn’t her decision. Maybe she wasn’t thinking that 43 years later, someone would be reviewing it in the context of her role in the women’s movement.
Loyal listener, the sisterhood present and future needs you to watch the video on YouTube posted by The Today Show archives. for its historical context and its fascinating glance into a simpler time. Then, give Barbara Walters full credit for being there and let us never speak again of the wardrobe choice. For too many years, we’ve first focused on what women on TV were wearing and how their hair looked, rather than what they were saying.
My last word on Barbara Walters’ storied career is that it is so full of firsts and noteworthy experiences - interviews with pretty much every head of state in the 80s, 90s and 2000s that her memoir only merely mentioned reporting Watergate.
Lesley Stahl - the then-based Washington bureau reporter for CBS, on the other hand, had A LOT to share about her Watergate days. It’s a testament to the trajectory of careers and the eye to history that in her memoir Reporting Live Stahl dedicated more than 40 pages to Watergate. She talks about that early time in her CBS career and how her confidence grew.
Remember the whole, why would Barbara Walters wear a head-scarf on camera question? Stahl was candid in her book about the criticism she fielded from her mother about her glasses and hair, but it turns out her mother was both her harshest critic and biggest fan. Good for Stahl AND her mother!
Stahl was admonished for smiling – just a little - during a non-Watergate field report. Readers learned that in spite of her on-the-go job, she had a bit of a love/hate relationship with her high heels. Even now, women TV journalists and anchors are still subject to much more critique and criticism about their appearance than men are. Feel free to name the other high profile positions and industries that serve as similar targets.
Stahl also wrote openly about working in the rain, chasing down leads that went nowhere, you know, stories a rookie tells. But you get the sense that making her way in a man’s world, she tried hard not to embarrass herself or become the object of her colleagues’ plays for power.
TV today is filled talking heads – literally – heads who talk over the others on the panel so their voice may be heard, their point made. The 70s were a bit more deferential. There was hierarchy – oh boy how there was hierarchy and patriarchy!
Three nights a week, CBS did a 30 minute sum-up of the Watergate hearings. Bill Small (the CBS bureau chief in Washington) asked if I was ready to join some of the senior correspondents in a roundtable discussion on the shows. I lied and said I was ready. But my two male partners (not always the same) argued so much with each other, I rarely got a wod in. Night after night I’d be introduced, but except for a few bleats from me - “I disagr - Don’t you thi -” I was drowned out. Finally the bosses explained that telegrams and phone calls were pouring in complaining that the men were being rude to the girl. The bosses said, “If she doesn’t talk tonight, no more roundtable.”
A fascinating clip from a similar in-depth special report reveals a bit more of the on-air culture. Dan Rather - a familiar voice – leads a panel that included Daniel Shorr, the senior reporter with a reputation for being combative to colleagues. Stahl was his junior reporter and he had no qualms throwing Stahl off her game.
Lesley Stahl March 1
Stahl emphasized in her memoir that sources and how they were developed across all levels of government, hospitality service occupations like maitre d’s and the like – were gold to advancing the Watergate story. And she spoke of the sources - named and unnamed - and what was asked of her and all CBS reporters who were given a tip that could be the big story of the night. Stahl’s book is a testament to her witnessing the changing landscape for women in TV journalism. Reporting Live, I recommend it highly.
Three women whose names you might recognize fill the short list of those who regularly reported on Watergate. In a field of men, Walters, Stahl and Chung were in the thick of it… smack in the middle of non-stop whirring teletype machines considered state-of-the-art dispatchers of raw news.
Now remember that quote at the beginning of this podcast, the one where the station manager posits optimistically that TV news would be filled with women at all levels? In 1974, he may have seen Connie Chung gaining visibility for being the only Chinese-American woman in the field. Chung got her break in 1972, when as a result of the Federal Communication Commission’s plan to address Affirmative Action, Chung, Stahl and Bernard Shaw, an African-American were hired by the network.
Chung’s career took off in a different direction than Stahl’s. In 1993, Chung was the first Asian-American to ever anchor a national newscast, and only the second woman to do so - remember, Barbara Walters - ABC - 1976. Of course, do the math, that was 19 years after Watergate… 19 years after Mr. Bell expressed such optimism.
But during Watergate, Chung toiled in the Washington bureau, where for her too, the lines of hierarchy and patriarchy seemed to blur on purpose.
These clips are from my favorite source in the whole wide world - Emmy TV Legends channel on YouTube. I encourage you to watch their interviews with Chung, Stahl and Walters. There’s a lot of power in the stories these women tell.
They were the first to navigate the competitive field - the growing field of television journalism and news. They witnessed and reported American history in the making that resulted only from the work of the media - investigative journalism.
Within a few short years - the later 70s - more female faces were on regional newscasts as well as national - Jane Pauley, Jessica Savitch, Sylvia Chase, Linda Ellerbee and Charlayne Hunter Gault.
Today, the 24 hour news cycle, which blends talk and speculation with real news has a different place in people’s lives. We surround ourselves with the news sources we trust. That assumes that some are more trustworthy than others. In covering the Watergate scandal, the standards of professional journalism were the bond that secured viewers’ trust.
TV’s fascination with the thrill and hard work of investigative journalism didn’t end when President Ford and family came to reside in the White House. Reporters worked harder than ever to ensure transparency and expose corruption. But Watergate was a tough act to follow.
As we think about representation back then- about what it was like to be a girl or young woman watching women report the news… I’ll tell you first-hand, it was powerful. The palpable energy and momentum - propelled by the sheer numbers of the Baby Boom, changes in education due to Title IX and the march across the country to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Prime time TV couldn’t resist. In fact, it rose to the occasion.
In 1977, TV took its best stab ever at placing a newsroom at the heart of an hour-long drama - the show was simply called Lou Grant. CBS transitioned fictitious WJM news chief Lou Grant from Minneapolis (and The Mary Tyler Moore Show) to lead the city desk at the Los Angeles Tribune. The critically acclaimed Lou Grant featured two extraordinary actresses - stage and TV veteran Nancy Marchand as Tribune Publisher Mrs. Pynchon - an obvious tip of the hat to Katherine Graham and 30 year old Linda Kelsey as beat reporter Billie Newman.
Advanced TV Herstory will delve into those 2 characters - I don’t believe BELOVED is a strong enough word here - these two characters changed my life, as did the show - in an interview with one of the regular Lou Grant writers who went on to write for Cagney & Lacey - the Emmy-nominated April Smith.
But, now you know about the women who reported Watergate and how their hard work paved the way for women today.
My sources for this installment: The Today Show Archives and Emmy TV Legends Channel on YouTube. Two excellent memoirs: Barbara Walters Memoir Audition Random House – Vintage Books Division 2008 and Lesley Stahl 1999 Reporting Live published by Simon & Shuster, and the very thorough work by Northwestern University professor Jon Marshall - Watergate’s Legacy and the Press.
Advanced TV Herstory is part of the Core Temp Arts Network - a band of independent podcasters producing shows about TV, pop culture and life. Find shows at www.coretemparts.com. Audio wizard status goes to the talented David Brown. Music in the introduction is by Jazzer - called Take Me Higher and is found at Free Music Archive.
Got a memorable newscast or favorite woman TV reporter or anchor? Send your thoughts right away to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find scripts and access to the entire vault of this podcast at www.tvherstory.com. Follow us on Twitter – our handle is TVHerstory. Girls and women – yesterday and today - ALL of us learn from the women we see on TV. And more often than not, the best ones are brought to us by the women in the TV industry – writers, producers, directors….
We must learn from the past to support a stronger, smarter future & that’s why you’re listening to Advanced TV Herstory. I’m your host, Cynthia Bemis Abrams.