BACKTALK | fall 2006
How will history sound in Katie Couric’s voice?
Back in 2000, I experienced firsthand the shattering of the political glass ceiling when former Vice President Al Gore promoted me to manage his campaign for president. As the first black woman to run a major presidential campaign, the experience was both exhilarating and challenging, given the enormous task of trying to elect the most powerful leader in the world. My job demanded that I know a lot about the media, and I soon learned one thing for certain: As in the world of politics, men dominate the dissemination of news. Perhaps that’s why I am particularly excited to see Katie Couric at the anchor’s desk for the CBS Evening News.
Couric will now join the ranks of Sally Ride, Sandra Day O’Connor, Madeline Albright, Condoleezza Rice and other pioneers on the gender frontier. But she hardly fits one’s image of a glass-ceiling insurgent: Isn’t she too cute, too perky, to be the first woman to sit solo at a desk once occupied by Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather? Yet CBS, in an effort to raise itself from third place in the evening news rankings, felt that the best person for the job is this particular woman.
Since the announcement, women’s groups and leaders have heralded the significance of Couric’s ascension. My hero Gloria Steinem has been quoted as saying: “One thing is sure—women and girls will have their first vision of a female network anchor who is an authority on her own. Since we learn by example, there is no telling where that iconic image may lead.”
I often wonder how long it will take for women to be truly equal, so that when one of us shatters a glass ceiling it will not warrant such attention and celebration. What a utopia—or, rather, a meritocracy—we will have achieved when individuals are evaluated and rewarded on accomplishments, without regard for gender and race. We’re still far from there, but Couric’s hiring brings us one step closer.
Our news anchors are chosen to embody all that we find trustworthy and wise. Through them, we experience the world; their reports caption our history. Walter Cronkite cried with us when Kennedy was shot. Tom Brokaw shared our horror as the Twin Towers collapsed. Peter Jennings saw us into a new millennium. Watergate, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon—all have been explained to us in resonant, bass tones. Would history change if a woman spoke it? Now, we will find out.
It’s always easier to follow in someone else’s footsteps than to blaze a new trail. Couric will become a nightly reminder that a woman can be articulate, poised and strong enough to ask the tough questions. And the more intelligent, self-possessed and courageous women our daughters are given to watch, the more inspired they will be to become the same. Elizabeth Blackwell did not change the world alone when she became the first female doctor in the U.S., but she made it easier for every woman who came after her, and collectively, they have created change.
Katie Couric is not, however, the solution to the under-representation of women in the media. Alone she does not make up for the fact that only 14 percent of guests on Sunday-morning public-affairs television are female. Or that only 39 percent of prime-time television characters are female. Or that women account for slightly more than just one-third of working journalists—and only 0.6 percent of editors, heads of departments or media owners.
These problems are widespread and difficult to fix, but Couric, as the first solo woman anchor, opens the channels for others. Because we have further to go does not mean we shouldn’t pause to rejoice in the movement we have made. The new voice of history is a woman’s. Get used to it
Donna Brazile is adjunct assistant professor of women’s studies at Georgetown University and is chair of the Democratic National Committee’s Voting Rights Institute. She is also the author of Cooking With Grease: Stirring the Pots in American Politics (Simon & Schuster, 2004).