The Sexual on TV News: Lipstick Matters
In the final episode of the Mary Tyler Moore show in 1977, after a seven-year run, the cast is gathered in the newsroom hugging each other and eventually exits with Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore’s character) leaving last. She is dressed in a blue pantsuit with no bare shoulders. Contrast this scene with the way many women as TV newscasters or TV reporters role dress today.
Jedediah Bila, a member of ABC’s The View but previously on Fox News, revealed the late Roger Ailes, when he was chairman of this news organization, had, essentially, a dress code for women. “You used to go into a room and there were a bunch of dresses you could choose from.” 1 While Fox News might be seen as taking the issue of how women look in front of the camera to more of an extreme, female TV newscasters and reporters have pointed out that similar dress codes permeate many TV newsrooms. An anchor of a local TV news station in Boston stated, “Women are ‘encouraged’ to dress more provocatively that I feel is appropriate for delivering the news.” 2
Joe Muto, who worked at Fox News as an associate producer for The O’Reilly Factor pointed out that Ailes basically saw all news stations as covering much of the same territory and what made the difference was, “the channel with the most exciting presentation would win.” Bill O’Reilly indicated to Muto that appearance mattered when he criticized the producer regarding the picking of guests on his show. In one situation, Muto proposed an aging gentleman actor from the 1970s and O’Reilly commented, “He’s old and gray. …We’ll lose half the demo[graphics] in the first thirty seconds.” O’Reilly understood the power of the remote control in the hands of viewers–there was no guarantee they would stay through an entire episode of his show. Muto did point out, however, that there were six criteria for women on Fox News with “hotness” as one and “journalistic credentials” as six, which helped to ensure a steady stream of viewers. 3
Barbara Walters, to read of her rise to prominence on TV news, does not fit the image of how women on TV news—particularly Fox News, came to become a presence in the newsroom. When Walters became an anchor on CBS News, Richard Salant, the president of CBS News asked, “Is Barbara a journalist, or is she Cher?” but, apparently, he did not ask to have sex with her. 4
Roger Ailes, on the other hand, showed his attitude toward women in the newsroom when, in 1989, he said to one, “If you want to play with the big boys, you have to lay with the big boys.” When she refused to have sex, she learned that her chances of a job at Fox News had vanished, as a friend at the station told her, “Word went out, you weren’t to be hired.” 5 Ailes’s attitude toward women predated his tenure at Fox News, which he, essentially, turned into the influential news channel it is today. When he was producing The Mike Douglas Show in the late 1960s, one woman recalled that he said, “If your legs look good in a garter belt, I know you have great legs.” Her refusal to have sex with him, also ended her chances on being on the show. 6 Ailes’s expectation of women, and what he could do for them regarding their careers, matters beyond his personal proclivities: That beauty and sexual appeal mattered more than brains and talent has had an impact on viewers. Some of ways of appealing to viewers can be dangerous.
In the case of a local female newscaster on TV in Virginia in the 1990s, a stalker felt he had a special connection to her, in fact even sending her an engagement ring. A forensic psychiatrist who looked into this case stated, “[TV creates] the illusion of intimacy [it] is inherent in the medium.” In this situation, the woman felt the need to carry mace and a stun gun; her stalker was eventually sentenced to six months in jail. She moved away and started a TV news career elsewhere. The psychiatrist concluded, “Nobody knows right now how many anchors on the news get stalked each year. The likelihood for good-looking females on the news is 100 percent.” 7 Elsewhere a TV female broadcaster stated, “Everyone has a crazy guy. It’s expected.” 8 More unsettling is a situation in Philadelphia where the stalker of a female TV news reporter pledged to continue stalking her after his 15-year prison term ends because, as he said, “I’m the only person who can protect her.” 9
In looking at YouTube, the number of videos that address women on TV news—particularly Fox News is difficult to precisely count. More disturbing are the ones that have a song created for the video. Some titles include: Top 20 Hottest Women of Fox News, Best 10 Hottest Fox News Girls, Fox News Ladies, 19 Sexiest Women of Fox News, Top 10 Most Beautiful Fox News Female Anchors Of All Time, Fox News Lady Legs, and Women of Fox News Legs. How much intimacy is created by the feeling that TV news women can be seen in a visual medium other than television?
A song by Austin Cunningham, The Girls on Fox News included the catchy lyrics, “I want a girl like the girls on Fox News.” Also adding the sentiment, “honey sure beats vinegar to wash down the news we need,” which helps to reinforce the fact that substance matters little when addressing issues of, well, basically, any importance.
When Megyn Kelly was with Fox News, she did an interview on The Howard Stern Show and discussed her breasts and her husband’s penis. Stern, in fact, asked if she was a C cup bra size while Kelly responded, “my husband calls them ‘killer Bs.’” 10 Imagine Barbara Walters, Connie Chung, the late Jessica Savitch, or, for that matter, fictional Mary Richards feeling compelled to have this type of conversation with Howard Stern? If Kelly felt comfortable with this interview, after all she had to know what type of conversation Stern would have before she came on his show, it indicates some of the shift that has taken place and what is considered a new normal for women associated with TV news. While Fox News might be seen as taking the issue of beautiful women and how they dress in front of the camera to a new height, it would be wrong to assume this is something confined to one news channel. One woman, who regularly appears on a variety of TV programs stated, “If you’re a woman in the public eye who appears on news programs it’s incredibly difficult to figure out what level of sexiness to project. …Sex sells.” 11
Of course, Chris Wallace of Fox News, interviewed by Don Imus (basically on a par, at times, with Howard Stern, regarding the level of his raciness) was asked when Sarah Palin joined Fox, “”When you interview her, will she be sitting in your lap?” Wallace responded, “One can only hope.” 12 There was no indication he later apologized to Palin for his flippant remark.
On Fox News, The Five is a show where five people sit around a table and discuss politics (in the usual superficial way). But for a long time, the women on the show had to deal with a leg cam, which is as it is described—a camera focused on their legs. One reporter covering Fox News said, “They put the woman with the best legs ‘on the right front’, and they have a camera that goes directly for the legs! And so essentially they have what they call the ‘leg cam.’” 13
A midday Fox News show, Outnumbered, has four women sitting in a semi-circle with a different man each show. The man is referred to as “one lucky guy.” Legs are visible as one YouTube video put it, Luscious Outnumbered & Fox First Legs. Rush Limbaugh even felt the need to comment on Outnumbered saying, “it’s nothing but eight pairs of legs that you see. Why tune into a program when all you see are eight pairs of legs with the skirts halfway up the thigh?” 14 Harris Faulkner, a regular on the highly rated show (usually around 1.8 million viewers) did, however, reveal that earlier in her career elsewhere she was stalked for five years.
Faulkner is interesting in another way: Among the fifteen solo female hosts on Fox, MSNBC, and CNN combined, she is the only African-American. 15 This is, perhaps, in contrast with the hiring of women, and the growing diversity among directors of TV shows. The Directors Guild of America (DGA) reports that the hiring of ethnic minority directors has more than doubled since the 2009-2010 TV season and the percentage of women has nearly tripled. Among first-time directors, 25 percent are minorities and 32 percent are women. 16 A study, however, released by the Women’s Media Center reported that the same progress in television news may not be happening, “At ABC, CBS, and NBC combined, men report three times as much of the news as women do. Work by women anchors, field reporters and correspondents has declined.” 17
During the 2012 Presidential election night coverage on Fox News, there was some disagreement with Karl Rowe over the election returns from Ohio. As a result, Megyn Kelly needed to walk from the primary broadcasting spot to the room where election results were being calculated and election projections were being determined. It was her walk which allowed the camera to focus on her legs that received attention. OK, so Barrack Obama won re-election as President, but the opportunity to show Kelly’s legs, now there’s a moment.
Murphy Brown a comedy show focused on a newsroom and its various personalities, starring Candice Bergen, received an odd sort of national attention, when, during the 1992 Presidential campaign, Dan Quayle, George H.W. Bush’s vice presidential running mate, felt the need to criticize the show and the lead fictional character for having a child out-of-wedlock. In one episode, however, the issue of Murphy Brown’s appearance was the focus of attention. Brown cuts her hair, in violation of an appearance clause in her contract, and viewers responded negatively to the change in her appearance. At least the show did not focus on how much leg female TV reporters showed or how high up a thigh skirts could go.
Appearance, beauty, skin, matter on Fox News, and perhaps are permeating their way through other news organizations. The late Chet Collier, a Fox News executive, indicated appearance over substance mattered when he said, “Viewers don’t want to be informed. Viewers want to feel informed.” 18 Feeling can go along with being enthralled by attractiveness—particularly of a beautiful women dressed in a provocative dress. Legs mattered to Roger Ailes, and, apparently little else, regarding how he displayed women on his station. When Catherine Crier was on the station, she had the audacity to wear a pant suit (shades of Mary Richards) and Ailes, upon seeing this, yelled, “Tell Catherine I did not spend [money] on a glass desk for her to wear pant suits.” 19
When Kirsten Powers was a regular on Fox News, now on CNN, she felt the need to challenge the impression that because the station has had a predominance of blonde female reporters, anyone should see them in a dehumanizing way. A more thoughtful observation might address whether viewers, in general, believe that the women they see on TV news are there because they demonstrated competence and intelligence or just needed to satisfy a higher than normal level of appearance. One male regular on various Fox shows commenting on economics, when he gave a public presentation, referred to the station as, “Fair, Balanced, and Blonde.” So much for Powers objecting to the way the station has been perceived. One communications analyst said, “Given the fact that the typical Fox viewer is male over 60 years old, who holds traditional beliefs about women…Male Fox News viewers expect attractive women.” 20
Whether all this beauty brings with it a sensitivity to women’s issue might be challenged. Liz Trotta, a regular Fox News commentator, was discussing female soldiers close to the front lines and said, regarding potential rape situations, “[they want] to be warriors and victims at the same time.” 21 Of course, Trotta is not blonde.
In the 1960s a band call The Fugs had a song titled, Dirty Old Man, with the lyrics “Dirty old man, looking up every dress I can.” Fox News, at times, seemed to fit the notion of the higher the dress, the higher the ratings. Of course, these images are not lost to time since they have been saved on YouTube—all with reference to looking up dresses (for example, Fox News Top 10 U.skirts of ALL TIME, Fox News Upskirts, Fox News’ Courtney Friel Upskirt). It is difficult to believe that any of these women are not aware of how they are being immortalized on YouTube. Appearance matters, if it is a way to gain a competitive edge. It is not unusual for local TV news reporters, male and female, to meet with image consultants. One local TV news reporter, made in this case by a man, said, “The vanity of TV news is something people should understand before getting in the business.” 22
Fox News might be taking the appearance of women on its station to a farther extreme, there isn’t that much you can do to men on TV news but remove their suit jackets and hope their stomach is flat and hair somewhat fully still there, so women are the focus of attention.
How We Got Here
William S. Paley, the founder of CBS once said in the early 1960s, “I’ve got Jack Benny to make money for me.” This in a time period when news was not expected to be a money-maker for TV networks. News helped networks satisfy the broader “public interest” and helped them fulfil guidelines to retain their Federal Communication Commission licenses. The big three networks, ABC, NBC, CBS, seemed content to have news divisions as, essentially, money losers.
In 1960, the House Subcommittee on Legislative Oversight held hearings on what became known as the Payola Scandal. Even then President Dwight Eisenhower felt the need to weigh in on the issue in February of that year While this scandal involved radio stations and disc jockeys being paid to play certain songs to increase their market value, it also resurrected the TV game show scandals of the mid-1950s, where contestants on shows such as The $64,000 Question were coached regarding answers and how they appeared in front of the camera. The networks, for the most, responded by cancelling game shows and replacing them with public oriented programs, such as more news.
The rise of the news business as a profit maker begins with 60 Minutes. By then certain pieces of the puzzle were in place that were indicating that news could be a profit maker. 60 Minutes began in 1968 and the format, as explained by producer Don Hewitt was to focus on stories not issues. The success of the show lead Hewitt to later state, “No one can report news today without making money.” 23 With Roone Arledge becoming President of ABC News in 1977, shows such as 20/20 and Nightline reinforced the belief that news presented in an entertaining way could be profitable.
In addition to 60 Minutes changing the landscape of TV news, in odd ways shows from the 1960s such as The Dating Game and The Newlywed Game showed that debasement could be a part of television. Individuals and couples made fools of themselves, although fully dressed. Megyn Kelly discussing her breasts with Howard Stern or Chris Wallace discussing lap sitting with Don Imus, can trace a lineage back to these shows. 24
Competition can be pointed to by conservatives as good for American business but competition in the TV news business, particularly as cable news shows began to develop, does not always lead to a better product. Certainly, Roger Ailes understood this clearly, which is why he was determined to use beautiful women to attract and retain viewers. The hiring of a women based on appearance is reflected in this quote, “Heather Nauert had only her blonde, youthful good looks and a sincere desire to become a television star.” 25 She worked at Fox News from 1998 to 2005, eventually she moved on to other news organizations. In April 2017, she became State Department spokesperson and less than a year later, acting Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. While she has a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Columbia University, the quote above regarding her, indicates it helped that she had looks go to along with credentials.
A competitive edge is the game plan for the foreseeable future regarding Fox in relation to MSNBC, and CNN. Fox consistently does well regarding viewers over the other two news channels with approximately 2.4 million viewers (1.9 million for MSNBC and 1.1 million for CNN). In the case of Fox and MSNBC, however, both have about 20 percent of their audience in the all-important for advertisers 25-54 age demographic pool, while CNN has 32 percent in this same category. These figures can vary, for example there are times when MSNBC has had more viewers than Fox. Of course, Cartoon Network had 11.3 million viewers in the same period of time, although many may not qualify to vote. Realizing that competitors are always close on your heels, keeps Fox on its toes or up to its thighs in short skirts and an over-abundance of makeup.
Viewers as Questionable Vessels of Knowledge
Men and women viewers went in different directions regarding news retained from TV news shows. According to a study done by two female professors, men watching a beautiful woman do the news retained less if a female reporter was covering politics or war, which basically covers all of what TV news covers, while women, on the other hand, did not change the level of their retention based on what type of news was covered by a female reporter. 26
A 2007 study that looked at the knowledge level of the public, noted that they, “are about as aware of major news events, as was the public nearly 20 years ago.” 27 Some of the results of this survey were surprising: That in 1989, 26 percent of the public could not name the then Vice President of the United States (Dan Quayle), while in 2007, 31 percent could not name the then Vice President (Dick Cheney). Even though in the almost twenty years that had passed, the Internet had blossomed and 24-hours news became a regular feature of cable TV, yet basic knowledge had not really changed. Furthermore, in 1989, 25 percent of the population had at least one college degree and that had increased to 30 percent by 2007 (2018, it is closer to 32 percent): More educated people did not appear to affect the results of this survey. Or, for that matter, the onset of 24-hour cable news shows has had no noticeable positive impact.
With cable television and online streaming apps such as Netflix, offering a wide variety of choices for viewers, those who choose to tune-out news can easily do so. In an era before cable news when broadcast television stations offered a variety of programming, including news, a viewer could receive “politics by default”—they might be forced to absorb some news while waiting for their program to start. As a result, viewers might accidentally pick up some news. Not so today unless a viewer wants to specifically sit in front of a cable news show. If a reason, however, to watch a particular news channel, such as Fox, is based on reasons other than the supposed substance of the product but on clothing, legs, makeup, and hair style, why bother believing something of substance is retained by a viewer? In a somewhat satirical way, one article addressed what Fox News viewers knew, not about the news, however, but rather if they could correctly identify which pair of legs belonged to which woman on Fox News. Contrast this quiz with the situation in 2006, when Katie Couric became the CBS Evening News anchor. Some critics of Couric’s appearance wondered if there was going to be a problem with viewers seeing too much of her legs, defined as “legendary” or “celebrated.” 28 Brian Williams took over as anchor at NBC Nightly News in 2004 from Tom Brokaw, no mention was made of his physical appearance. Time changes many things and one of those is what passes as acceptable–or even expected from women on TV News. Legs, as the focus of attention on Fox News, led to one situation where a viewer felt that Janice Dean, the meteorologist, has legs that do not measure up to some higher standards. As this viewer wrote, “[Your legs] are not flattering on you. Your legs are distracting every time you walk on screen.” 29 That the influence of dress on local news has been influenced by what is on national networks was pointed out by a visual stylist for NBC when she said, “The look of local news doesn’t exist anymore. …The audience expects talent to look like they’re at [the] network level.” 30
Fox News demonstrated how it, unfortunately, treated more than a handful of women as charges of sexual harassment emerged. The departure of Bill O’Reilly and the millions of dollars paid to women who accused him of sexual harassment, in addition to the charges leveled against the late Roger Ailes by Gretchen Carlson, among others, has led to an odd notoriety for Fox News: Charlize Theron is scheduled to play Megyn Kelly in a movie about the sex scandals of Roger Ailes. No doubt the selling point of the movie will be sex and beautiful women, no mystery there, making the late Hugh Hefner proud. Maybe the movie might generate some increased interest in viewers wanting to watch Fox News, but for reasons that have nothing to do with news. Beyond Fox News women working in a variety of televised news organizations confront the problems the movie might eventual highlight. Allison Yarrow, a journalist and author stated, “I remember reporting a story I was proud of and then being yelled at by a superior for not wearing lipstick. Others have endured worse reprimands for their physicality than this, but it underscores the value a particular look holds for women in television news.” 31
That more men than women watch TV news is not new. That the men watching TV news are older, is also not new. Roger Ailes in creating Fox News understood who he was pitching his station to. An author who closely followed Ailes’s career stated, “The calculation was made that Fox’s mostly male audience would enjoy the news more when hearing it from attractive women.” 32 The term “Fox Glam” means heavy makeup, eyeliner, gloss, and anything else to enhance a woman’s appearance. Older men, primarily Republican, who watch Fox News are attracted to women who are “brighter” meaning blonde. Liza Mundy, a journalist, stated regarding Fox News, “They’re definitely pandering to a male audience…You think of Hugh Hefner’s girlfriends. As he [got] older, [the girls got] brighter and blonder.” . 33 But Fox News is not the only place where glam matters. One study that examined the role of female television news anchors (in this case on local TV news stations) noted that the vast majority of anchors who responded to a survey indicated that management had commented on their appearance. One of the respondents said that viewers commented on her hairstyle and clothes. The author concluded her study by stating, “Another said female anchors are constantly told by viewers how they should look.” 34
Lots of visuals, living up to Muto’s quote of an “exciting presentation” supported by short statements or summaries in the background or streaming news along the bottom, or “Breaking News” constants, added in with beautiful women dressed in the new dress code for TV, ensure that viewers will retain less of what they watch. Regarding women in particular, one analyst stated, “the culture of the network permits…and encourages, degradation of women and a dismissal of the serious issues that are facing women today.” 35 The #MeToo movement might look like a step forward for women, but Fox News and the willingness of other TV news outlets to follow the lead of Fox just might slow any advances.
It might be common, in a civics sense, to say that democracy requires a public with some basic level of knowledge to function well. What that means exactly in an atmosphere where TV news presentation is preoccupied with visuals and all that entails, is cause for concern.
- http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4382664/Jedediah-Bila-reveals-strict-dress-code-Fox-News.htm ↩
- https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2017/08/14/why-newswomen-look-like-they-going-cocktail- party/AQq0w7piieQagmHCeFQ8IO/story.html ↩
- Joe Muto, An Atheist in the FOXhole: A Liberal’s Eight-Year Odyssey Inside the Heart of the Right-Wing Media (New York, Plume Book, 2013) ↩
- https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/05/12/i-have-to-ask ↩
- time.com/4400914/fox-roger-ailes-gretchen-carlson-harassment/ ↩
- http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2016/07/six-more-women-allege-ailes-sexual-harassment.html ↩
- https://www.cbsnews.com/news/in-the-stalkers-spotlight-16-10-2003/ ↩
- https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/extreme-fear/201010/most-likely-to-be-stalked ↩
- www.foxnews.com/us/2010/05/27/man-vows-to-continue-to-stalk-tv-reporter-when-sentence-expires.html ↩
- https://acculturated.com/megyn-kelly/ ↩
- https://www.marieclaire.com/sex-love/a4898/sex-appeal-news/ ↩
- https://www.cnn.com/2017/04/21/politics/sarah-palin-fox-news/index.html ↩
- gawker.com/fox-news-uses-a-leg-cam-to-ogle-female-panelists-legs-1469841162 ↩
- https://www.theblaze.com/news/2017/08/08/rush-limbaugh-turns-off-fox-news-because-hosts-are-distracting ↩
- https://www.thewrap.com/cnn-woman-problem-msnbs-fox-news-on-air-female-achor-talent/ ↩
- https://variety.com/2017/tv/news/women-minorities-first-time-episodic-tv-directors-2-1202573993/ ↩
- www.womensmediacenter.com.com/reports/divided-2-17 ↩
- https://mediantics.blog/2017/09/05/quote-of-the-day-september-4-2017/ ↩
- https://wonkette.com/539031/roger-ailes-did-not-spend-all-that-money-on-a-glass-desk-to-not-be-able-to-see-your-snatch ↩
- https://www.quora.com/does-FOX-news-hire-their-female-anchors-purely-based-on-looks-attractiveness ↩
- https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/13/fox-news-likz-trotta-rape_n_1274018.html ↩
- https://www.racked.com/2017/2/1/14441128/local-news-anchor-image-consultants ↩
- Steve M. Barkin, American Television News: The Media Marketplace and the Public Interest (New York, Rutledge, 2003) ↩
- Steven D. Stark, Glued To The Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events That Made Us Who We Are Today (New York, Bantam Doubleday, 1997) ↩
- James T. Hamilton, All the News That’s Fit To Sell: How The Market Transforms Information Into News (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2004) ↩
- Maria Elizabeth Grabe and Lelia Samson, “Sexual Cues Emanating From the Anchorette Chair: Implications for Perceived Professionalism, Fitness for Beat, and Memory for News,” Communication Research (Dec. 14, 2010) ↩
- www.people.press.org/2007/04/15/public-knowledge-of-current-affairs-little-changed-by-news-information-revolutions/ ↩
- https://archives.cjr.org/behind_the_news/critics_on_couric_shes_got_leg.php ↩
- https://www.insideedition.com/fox-news-meteorlogist-janice-dean-rips-internet-troll-who-criticized-her-legs-39731 ↩
- https://variety.com/2016/tv/lifestyle/morning-to-newscasters-walks-fashion-minefield-1201884293/ ↩
- https://www.vox.com/first-person/2017/12/18/1678140/tv-news-sexism ↩
- https://books.google.com/books?id=mL8KI_kP0MMC&pg=PA163&lpg=PA163&dq=Fox+news+A+Current+Affair+meets+CNN&source=bl&ots=8NZNi_hB4W&sig=UK2Bdx461u1Qz67IgQiKwHzZGZU&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiU6M_3m6DcAhVmmeAKHTkECAMQ6AEIdzAO#v=onepage&q=Fox%20news%20A%20Current%20Affair%20meets%20CNN&f=false ↩
- http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2192751/Secrets-Fox-Glam-One-woman-lifts-lid-networks-bold-make-look.html ↩
- https://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1637&context=theses ↩
- https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/mgmyb8/blushing-with-sexism-the-makeup-secrets-of-fox-news ↩
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