Older Women Disappear in TV News

New York Times

By Steve Cavendish

Mr. Cavendish is a Nashville-based journalist.

Some of the most powerful ideas are simple ones.

“We believe that if you can see her, you can be her,” reads the slogan of the #SeeHer initiative, a gender equity campaign led by the Association of National Advertisers. Their mission: to change the way women are depicted throughout the media, by increasing diversity across criteria ranging from age to race to body type.

It’s a laudable goal and one that’s been embraced by corporate giants like Ford, Walmart and Microsoft, who have all committed to examining how women are being portrayed in their advertising. And in October, Meredith, a media company that owns both high-profile magazines like People, Better Homes & Gardens and Martha Stewart Living, as well as 15 television stations that reach approximately 12 million households, became the first media corporation to sign on, committing to do its part to help #SeeHer shift the balance of how women are portrayed by 2020, the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment which gave women the right to vote. Meredith joining marked an interesting breakthrough for the campaign because, as both a publisher and broadcaster with wide reach, they not only buy ads in other media but also produce original media content.

Meredith is also, as it happens, being sued for age discrimination.

In 2015, CBS affiliate KCTV in Kansas City, fired news anchor Karen Fuller, then 47, from the station and replaced her with a 32-year old. In Dec. 2017, NBC affiliate WSMV in Nashville let anchor Demetria Kalodimos, then 58, go, and replaced her with someone a decade younger. Both women subsequently filed suit.

Ms. Fuller’s suit alleged that removing older women from highly visible roles has been a problem at Meredith stations, with a set of seven female anchors in markets including Atlanta, Phoenix and St. Louis removed in a span of five years and replaced with younger women. The average age of the anchors who lost their jobs was 46.8, while their replacements averaged 38.1 years. In one case, the difference was more than two decades.

As they were evaluating candidates, Ms. Fuller’s bosses at KCTV, according to the suit, sought a replacement with a “hometown girl” look, and voiced concerns about how candidates would appear on camera in the years to come. “She can be cute and young but also able to dress up and be more serious and respectable … How will she age I wonder?” said the station’s creative director in an email about one prospect.

This is rarely a consideration for male anchors, who are on average a decade older than their female counterparts at Meredith stations; after ousting Ms. Fuller, KCTV named a 32-year-old woman to pair with her 54-year-old former co-anchor. After a federal judge rejected Meredith’s requests to dismiss the case, the company settled the suit for an undisclosed amount before it could go to trial in December.

Ms. Kalodimos’ removal was even more bewildering. The face of WSMV in Nashville for three decades, she is one of the most decorated reporters in the city, and has won three medals from Investigative Reporters and Editors. I’ve known Ms. Kalodimos for five years, and watched her for most of her career. Her departure was a farce: She found out about her dismissal via a package left at the station’s front desk after she had been out shooting an investigative piece on her day off. In her suit, Ms. Kalodimos says she believes she incurred the ire of the station by acting as a witness in an age discrimination suit filed by four other WSMV employees. The station disputes her claims in federal court filings.

These stations are hardly alone in showing people like Ms. Kalodimos the door. Aging in television newsrooms has always been a problem, particularly for women. For every Judy Woodruff or Andrea Mitchell who has remained on the air into her 70s, many more hit the ceiling that Ms. Fuller and Ms. Kalodimos have found, in spite of performance. Famously, Christine Craft, another Kansas City anchor, won $500,000 in 1983 for being “too old, unattractive and not deferential enough to men.” In 2013, Telemundo settled a suit brought by reporter Vicky Gutierrez, who was laid off and then replaced by a “substantially younger woman.” And in September, investigative reporter Michele Gillen, 63, filed suit for age discrimination, accusing a CBS affiliate in Miami of barring her from high-profile assignments because of her age. (The station disputes Ms. Gillen’s claims.)

“There is nothing new about older anchors feeling that they’re devalued in newsrooms,” said Al Tompkins, a senior broadcast faculty member at The Poynter Institute. “I’ve been around newsrooms for 46 years. They always felt like ‘My time is going to come when they’re not going to want me on the air.’”

Local television presents a particularly tough challenge: Ratings pressure is ever-present, consultants are a constant and management turnover can be high — neither of the general managers who terminated Ms. Fuller or Ms. Kalodimos, for instance, is still at their station. And yet the cultural influence of these stations, for all that they’re viewed as an outdated medium, remains real: Almost 40 percent of Americans watch local TV news, more than watch cable or broadcast.

Which gets back to the problem of Meredith and #SeeHer.

An unappreciated aspect of sexism in the workplace is age discrimination, and it operates in many places. But one of the places where it’s most visible — where we can all #SeeHer getting aged out — is in TV news.

Meredith is not the only broadcaster who has faced discrimination claims. But their decision to join the #SeeHer campaign gives the company — a magazine publisher that reaches more female readers than any other — an opportunity to force its local broadcasters to face some longstanding problems in television news, to take the lead in promoting all manner of image metrics, including race, body type and, yes, age.

In a statement, Meredith’s senior vice president of human resources, Dina Nathanson, said the company “categorically denies” the charges raised in the Kalodimos lawsuit. She also pointed to the company’s “outstanding track record regarding gender equity in the workplace”: 57 percent of its on-air talent and 52 percent of its anchors are women, she said, and that the company also has more women in off-air leadership roles than the industry average.

“Quite frankly, we don’t see the point of this op-ed piece as we are already a clear leader among media companies on the issue of gender equality, and are actively expanding our efforts,” said Ms. Nathanson.

That’s great, and advancing gender equality in multiple forms is important work. But it is not enough. It is impossible to accurately reflect women in the media when women in the TV news business are punished for getting older. Because if you can’t #SeeHer — well, we know what happens then. It’s something Ms. Kalodimos is feeling acutely right now.

“My gender and my age stamped me with a bull’s-eye I couldn’t shed despite decades of dedication, journalism awards, public respect and popularity,” Ms. Kalodimos told me. “At Meredith, the message to women journalists is loud and clear: Don’t make trouble, don’t stick up for other women, and whatever you do, don’t get old.”

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