By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Of course, looks matter with men, too, which is why ABC’s Afghan coverage features literary hunk Sebastian Junger rather than pasty William Vollman. Still, you can scour the prime-time lineups and find no shows hosted by women as lousy to look at as skull-faced Alan Colmes, side-of-beef Chris Matthews or gaga Larry King, who appears to be popped out of his sarcophagus five minutes before airtime. It‘s no accident that the broadcast outlet that boasts the strongest lineup of women reporters and analysts -- including Nina Totenberg, Cokie Roberts and European correspondent Sylvia Poggioli -- is National Public Radio. There, the whole question of appearance slides into irrelevance (though it doesn’t hurt to sound as cool as Poggioli). Braininess becomes a virtue.
On TV, though, women‘s surest road to stardom is still to go “soft,” following in the venerable footsteps of Barbara Walters, the most important TV news personality of the last 40 years. When she first started co-anchoring the ABC Evening News with Harry Reasoner, there was much talk (a lot of it by Reasoner) that she wasn’t up to the manly task -- her personal, confessional style was too fluffy, too feminine. It was also the future. A quarter-century later, the gruff Reasoner is just a two-fisted footnote and Walters‘ point of view (not to mention The View) has defined our culture, not always in the most feminist of ways.
Tough-minded women still have a hard time throughout the media (not just on TV) because their intellectual force invariably seems to unleash primal fear and loathing: Susan Sontag’s remarks about the politics of the September 11 attacks drew far more vitriol than similar columns by men, and Pauline Kael‘s death brought out misogynist sniping, even in The Village Voice. This dislike of potent women helps explain why Amanpour has become a bete noire to right-wingers such as Varadarajan (she-man, indeed!) and The New York Post columnist who called her a “war slut” (the paper’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, later apologized).
Amanpour remains the first female TV broadcaster in our history who commands the same kind of respect as the long line of father figures that started with Murrow and continues (in much diluted form) with Rather, Brokaw and Jennings. And it seems almost to have happened by design. Ever since the Gulf War, when we saw her out there in the desert, she‘s neatly transcended the good looks that initially helped make her by commandeering the signifiers of male authority. She flies into places more dangerous than World War II London. She flaunts her flak jacket just like Gunga Dan. She struts into rooms with the same cocksure certitude that her mere presence elevates an interview into a world event. No doubt much of this is vanity and PR legerdemain, but this is how journalists become icons to the modern eye: They play one on TV. And nobody covering the war in Afghanistan plays the part nearly so well as Amanpour.
While the guys who run network news are still leery of tough women, they’ve learned that it‘s good business to have a female star on the order of Amanpour -- which is why MSNBC has been so eager to let Banfield earn her stripes in Central Asia. Everybody wants a desert fox, even Al Jazeera, a network I don’t exactly associate with the avid promotion of women‘s rights. Obviously playing to American tastes in female reporters, their New York City correspondent Ghida Fakhry may be the world’s most glamorous Muslim scold. All plucked eyebrows and well-cut clothes, she sits with Ted Koppel or Sam Donaldson and speaks with the self-satisfied aplomb of one who knows that America is nearly always wrong but still gets to live in Manhattan and not Qatar. She‘s a real piece of work (not the Sexiest Woman Alive). I don’t know what her true politics are, but if you think bin Laden‘s scary, just try to tell Fakhry that she’s got to start wearing a burka.