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RADIO’S VERY PUBLIC WOMEN : AT NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO, WOMEN HOLD UP HALF THE NEWSROOM--AND THEY’VE CHANGED THE WAY WE THINK ABOUT WHAT’S NEWS AND WHO’S MAKING IT

<i> Murray Fromson is a journalism professor, director of the Center for International Journalism at USC and a veteran broadcaster</i>

Eight men and eight women, all editors and producers, sit around an oblong table in the conference room of National Public Radio’s Washington headquarters. It’s 10:30 a.m., time for the daily story conference that will decide the lineup of the network’s evening news showcase, “All Things Considered,” and National Public Radio’s other daily news programs.

In a word, the atmosphere is minimalist, nothing like the posh surroundings of the commercial networks. Some mauve chairs. Plaques on the wall commemorating awards NPR’s news department has won.

John Dinges, the managing editor, orchestrates the meeting. He’s a soft-spoken man in his mid-40s, with a bushy mustache and rolled-up sleeves. Before moving over to the management side, he was a correspondent in Chile and Panama, where he culled material for two well-reviewed books.

Dinges turns to national editor Larry Abramson, a balding, wiry man who speaks quietly but is respected for his news judgment. He ticks off the top stories of that day in April, 1991: John Tower killed in an air crash, legal maneuvering in Los Angeles over the Rodney G. King beating, mounting personal bankruptcies, Sen. John Heinz’s funeral.

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What about a follow-up on the William Kennedy Smith rape story, asks one of the women.

“We’ve already done that,” replies Abramson. “It’s still only a rumor,” a judgment most everyone in the room seems to accept. But NPR’s decision-making evolves in the spirit of collegiality. Anyone in the meeting, including student interns, is free to debate the merits of a story. Today, an assistant foreign editor, Julie McCarthy, is agitated.

“This is a much bigger story than a single case of alleged rape,” she says. The other editors and producers, the women included, seem caught off guard but not surprised by McCarthy’s vehemence. She is known as one of the more vocal feminists in the shop. All eyes are on Abramson. Matter-of-factly he says, “Smith has not been charged with anything. The story is hearsay. What’s the reason to cover this story other than its salacious gossip? We don’t chase ambulances.”

The tall, slender McCarthy is unyielding as she leans across the conference table and challenges Abramson. “Don’t you see the broader implications of sexual harassment and date rape?” she asks.

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Abramson shrugs. He’s not sure this case warrants intense coverage, but he’ll have a reporter follow up the Palm Beach investigation.

As the meeting breaks up, the other women let the matter drop and head downstairs to the newsroom. A couple empathize with Abramson, known as one of the more sensitive men around NPR. He jogs regularly with some of the women editors and producers during the lunch hour and several years ago took four months of paternity leave to care for a baby son while his wife returned to work. So the implication that he was somehow insensitive to women’s issues did not seem to wash.

As decision-making meetings of this kind go in journalism, this one was different. Unique. An equal number of men and women deciding what was to go into the day’s broadcasts. It is not that way at the networks. At NBC News, a similar meeting normally involves 10 men and three women. The situation is better at ABC and CBS, where half the people at their planning meetings are women, but final decisions about what goes on the air still rest with the men, who are executive producers of all three evening newscasts. (On the print side, the imbalance is even more startling. At the 5 p.m. gathering of editors at the New York Times, when the makeup of the front page is thrashed out, 10 men and two women, on average, confer with Editor Max Frankel. The Los Angeles Times counts one woman among the regular participants at its daily Page 1 meeting.)

At NPR, however, the balance of men and women has changed the texture--and the subtext--of the news. Women, even young ones such as McCarthy, feel free to speak their minds. Parenthood has become a priority within the corporate culture, which allows staffers to arrange leaves and part-time schedules to tend their children. And perhaps most significant, in both topic and approach, women have helped redefine the issues of the day.

“NPR is unique,” says Mary Anne Dolan, onetime editor of the defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner and now a writer and film producer. “It has an eclectic quality that seems to involve a male-female consensus. You obviously get a different editorial discussion going about rape when the jury is made up of eight men and eight women than with 10 men and two woman.” The dynamic is one that she recognizes from her days at the Herald. “We were the first newspaper in the United States to have a 50-50 mix of men and women (on the masthead),” she says, “and it definitely changed the tone and level of conversation. Men seemed freer to talk about their concerns and curiosities with women present in the room, so a broader spectrum of concerns emerged.”

Jonathan Alter, media critic for Newsweek, goes so far as to say that after listening to NPR, “I would say women are frequently better reporters than men. Part of it is because women are able to get interviewees to open up and talk more freely, saying things they might not say to a man. It says something about intimacy between reporters and sources, and women seem to be more capable of handling intimacy.”

Still, NPR is not without its critics, both for professional and ideological reasons. Jim Bellows, a longtime print and broadcast news executive and now the West Coast bureau chief of TV Guide, rages when asked about the women at NPR. “They’re so sanctimonious and arrogant,” he says. “It’s unbelievable. They’re snobbish intellectuals, living in another world. Their reporting is a form of Afghanistan journalism. It’s a long way from reality, or at least my reality.”

Those sometimes separate realities are at the heart of the difference between NPR and other major news organizations. The women of NPR have, at their best, created newscasts that reflect their sensibilities as women. And their work has often been a measure of the distance that still separates male and female journalists.

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WHEN COKIE ROBERTS, THE VETERAN CAPITOL HILL CORrespondent, first reported for work at NPR in 1978, her eyes inevitably fell on the unimposing three-story red-brick building across the way on M Street, the Washington headquarters of CBS News, at the time the most powerful, richly endowed news organization in broadcasting.

It was the pinnacle of an era when broadcast journalists were treated like movie stars and some were paid nearly as well. Network profits were unparalleled, budgets were open-ended and retrenchment was never a word that was spoken or even thought about in the newsrooms.

NPR, just 7 years old then, was an upstart, little more than a collection of pipsqueak college radio stations, funded by taxpayer dollars and staffed by the only people it could afford to hire: network castoffs and, it was said, a bunch of women whose broadcast experience hinged largely on their ability to introduce Bach, Beethoven and Brahms to classical music buffs.

Roberts was in some ways typical of the raw talent the network tapped. She’d done some television work around Washington when she was just out of college but took time out to get married and raise a family. When her husband, Steven Roberts, then of the New York Times, was assigned to Athens and the Greek-Turkish crisis over Cyprus erupted, she got a job as a CBS radio stringer. After returning to the United States, she heard about an opening at NPR from an old Wellesley College friend, Linda Wertheimer, NPR’s longtime political reporter and co-anchor of “All Things Considered.” Her first beat at NPR was covering family issues and lifestyle.

Not in her wildest imagination could Roberts have envisioned a time when people in the nation’s capital would take her new employers as seriously as CBS News. Long before the networks began to hire more women, National Public Radio had established its reputation as a place where women were welcome. Surely, money was a significant factor. The best salaries at NPR are a pittance compared to the mega-bucks the networks are paying. (Now, NPR salaries are becoming respectable--$70,000 a year for a host and $50,000 or so for experienced correspondents, producers and editors.)

What they brought to NPR was a background that helped shape the distinctive mini-documentaries that the network’s newscasts have become known for. “Women could argue for longer pieces based on their experience,” says Lawrence Lichty, a consultant during the start-up stage of “Morning Edition” who is a Northwestern University media professor. “Many had come from local public radio stations which were underfunded and could not even subscribe to a wire service. Therefore, they did more of their own reporting, which tended to be lengthier to fill the time.”

From the outset, women helped broaden the list of topics deemed newsworthy in NPR’s expanding domain. Celeste Wesson, a longtime producer and correspondent who has retired, temporarily at least, in favor of full-time motherhood, remembers a series she worked on in 1982 at the time the so-called gender gap was on the nation’s conscience.

“We not only looked at the politics of the gender gap, we also looked at specific issues where women tended to vote differently than men . . . issues of Medicare, assistance to the elderly, women as caretakers of aging parents and pieces on welfare because polls showed women were concerned about it.” That was followed by a series on child care and sexual abuse of children. It’s not that such stories wouldn’t have been covered by male-dominated staffs, Wesson says. “It’s more subtle than that. Perhaps with a woman pushing the story, it was a little bit easier to get it on the air, to get more time. I think it is partly because of women being in journalism now that stories which were once considered exclusively for the women’s pages became real news, and NPR certainly played its part in making that happen.”

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Charles Bailey, a veteran Washington journalist, came out of retirement as editor of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune to become the Washington editor of NPR in 1983. For three years, he was in constant touch with Roberts, legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg and other women reporters on the staff, whom he describes as “more sensitive than men to all kinds of things.”

When he worked on a report about the safety of the Dalkon Shield with correspondent Wendy Kaufman, he recalls, “she understood the story and was sensitive to something that a man would not have been. She interviewed executives of the A. H. Robins Co. (manufacturers of the Dalkon Shield) for almost an hour, and they never once referred to women as women or used the pronoun she. It was always the complainant. It was absolutely desexed. After listening to nearly an hour of tape, she picked up on it and I did not.

Kaufman remembers the interview. “It was so striking. We talked for hours, and it was like they had been talking to a truck,” she says. “It was as if the product was not intended for any particular sex.”

Bailey, a tall, avuncular journalist, is the co-author of “Seven Days in May” and other books. He’s respected and liked by those who have worked with him and for him, and he remains intrigued by his experience at NPR. “One of the things I enjoyed so much about supervising so many women at NPR was that they told you what they thought, how they felt and what they were angry about,” he said during a lunch not far from the White House. “You catch a lot more crap, but there’s less left on the table at the end of the day.

“There’s a premium in journalism in not revealing your feelings. It’s a corollary of objectivity, the disinterested approach to the story we’re working on. But we all know we have feelings. Men just suppress them.”

In Bailey’s view, “women have tended to civilize the places where they’ve worked. Not only do they bring a different point of view on life to a place, they have different ways of resolving disputes, settling scores and persuading people. Women are less likely to get into a win-lose situation, more likely to seek a consensus approach.”

You hear repeatedly in the NPR newsroom that women have not been made to feel like tokens or powerless symbols the way they have been at NBC, ABC and CBS, where women have had trouble breaking in from the inception of network news.

“I walk around with a beatific grin because the people around here don’t understand the nature of real frustration,” says Anne Garrels, a diplomatic correspondent who has devoted much of her time to coverage of the Soviet Union. “They’ve never worked at a network or, for that matter, anywhere else. This place is tame by comparison with any of the networks.” Garrels was a correspondent at ABC News for a decade, then NBC News. “When I left NBC, I was basically told I wasn’t attractive enough. I was too old. I wasn’t blonde. The head games were awful, the values so distorted. Here, I have more freedom than I have ever had anywhere else in commercial broadcasting.”

With the exception of Barbara Walters, who from 1976 to 1978 was co-anchor of the “ABC Evening News” with Harry Reasoner, there has never been a regular woman anchor on the networks’ nightly newscasts, never a woman as executive producer of those broadcasts and never a woman president of a network news division.

NPR broke the ice when it lured Barbara Cohen from the old Washington Star to be its director of news in 1979. She has had a long career in Washington journalism, as managing editor of the Star, and later as a producer at NBC News. She is now Washington bureau chief at CBS.

“Barbara definitely had an impact,” says Celeste Wesson. “I was hired as an editor and a year and a half later promoted to be a producer of ‘All Things Considered’ because of her influence. I never felt that I had to prove that I was twice as good because I was a woman.”

“To my knowledge,” says Cohen, “NPR was the first news organization to have a woman anchor in every newscast. And they did not just do women’s subjects. There’s no question that women do have a set of interests that you cannot expect a man to have. But when I was the only woman executive at the Star, I found I had to adapt to male values. That was not true at NPR.”

But some critics scoff at what one veteran newsman calls “NPR’s boo-hoo kind of journalism.” And conservative writer David Horowitz says: “Under the guise of affirmative action for women, NPR and others of our left-wing culture have instituted affirmative action for radicals.”

NPR’s management denies having a liberal bias. So do the journalists. But even some of its most ardent listeners confess mild embarrassment over the absence of Republican or conservative voices among NPR commentators or analysts. It’s a complaint made forcefully on the floor of Congress by GOP legislators, including Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who said recently that he was “fed up with the increasing lack of balance and unrelenting cheerleading I see and hear on the public airwaves.” Dole is among the Republicans who recently delayed the $275-million federal budget for public broadcasting. (NPR gets only a fraction of that, and then only indirectly; its news budget--$14.7 million in 1991--comes from individual public radio stations across the country that buy network programs such as “All Things Considered.”)

Conservatives jumped on NPR again last October after Totenberg, along with Timothy Phelps of Newsday, broke the story of Anita Hill’s charges of sexual harassment against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. Supporters of Thomas were particularly incensed that NPR assigned Totenberg to be the co-anchor of PBS broadcasts of the Thomas confirmation hearings.

At the other end of the political spectrum, Jeff Cohen, executive director of FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting), a media watchdog group, is highly critical of NPR’s “centrist” approach to the news. But, he says, “people who call (NPR) too liberal or too left probably don’t listen to it. Their ideological agenda is to destroy public broadcasting and they mask their hatred in this way to intimidate journalists who are open-minded.”

More troubling, perhaps, are criticisms from within. One highly regarded male broadcaster, who asked not to be identified by name, left the network in part because of his irritation with what he describes as its lack of balance. “Some people at NPR did not and still do not believe they have to play by the same rules as other journalists,” he says. “They have this elitist feeling that allows for an enormous leap to judgment. They might discuss date rape, but not because the particular story is a good one, but because they believe date rape is so horrible that making judgments based not on facts but feelings is perfectly acceptable.”

IF ANY ONE WOMAN PERSONIFIES NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO, IT’S SUSAN STAMberg, a tall, imposing figure who was the first NPR woman to achieve stardom. “Those were lonely days,” she says, recalling how it was more than 20 years ago. She leans against a wall in the newsroom, exhausted from getting to work at 3 a.m. for one of her occasional stints anchoring “Morning Edition.” In 1970, Stamberg, and shortly thereafter, Wertheimer, were on board and familiar to NPR’s small but loyal listenership. Stamberg was a den mother, an eclectic arts advocate with a huge laugh and a grating New York accent that made many broadcasters wince. But she had a down-to-earth charm that caused people to hear what she was saying.

“Listening to her was like sitting around a kitchen table, chatting with a friend, or gabbing over the back fence, a style common in old-time radio,” recalls Lichty, the Northwestern broadcasting professor. “She had a way of weaning stuff out of people with innocent-sounding questions, and she did it without any training in journalism.”

Robert Siegel, a 20-year veteran of NPR who succeeded Cohen as director of NPR news and is now co-anchor of “All Things Considered,” thinks Stamberg, who is now taking a leave to write a book, had a profound effect on the network. “From the moment she went on the air and established her presence, it became unthinkable to have a broadcast with all male voices. I can’t remember any of the women on our staff who barked at people with the news. The women on network television tend to snarl and growl at the camera, which I find scary. We make an effort to maintain some kind of conversational connection with our audience.”

The work going out over the air may have sounded effortless, but it was not that way away from the microphone, Stamberg says. Because there were no women in management in NPR’s early days, “it was tiring, arguing all the time with the men, attempting to convince them that there were stories out there which were not being told but were of interest to half the nation’s population; namely women. They would say, ‘But we’ve done them.’ And I would say, ‘No we haven’t.’ And, of course, I was right.”

She recalls an episode during the early 1980s when bombings of abortion clinics first began. “We covered the first bombing, then the second,” Stamberg says. “But when a third occurred, the male editor was bored and wanted to skip it. It was only after I persisted by pointing out that the local cops seemed to be investigating what sounded like domestic terrorism and that we ought to be asking why the FBI hadn’t been called in that he agreed to follow it up again.”

Over time, opportunities for women have steadily broadened. When he went to work at NPR in 1971, Siegel says, there was not one woman in a managerial position. Today, more than half of NPR’s news staff, both on and off the air in production capacities, are women, and the driving force behind “All Things Considered” is its executive producer, 32-year-old Ellen Weiss.

The emergence of so many women at NPR has prompted some jealousy and talk of a “troika” composed of Roberts, Totenberg and Wertheimer. The gossip is that somehow they dictate or influence network policies. That, says one insider who requested anonymity, is just plain nonsense. “The idea of women going in as a group to pound on someone’s table is ridiculous,” he says. “Four of us, all men, negotiated the last union contract, and it involved some tough bargaining. None of the so-called troika was present, and later even Nina said she did not think the presence of women on the negotiating team would have helped at all.”

“The primary impact of having so many women working at NPR,” says Celeste Wesson, “is that they are in powerful positions both in editorial decision-making and on the air, and that makes other women there comfortable. I’m sure this has some impact on what goes out over the air. It does make a difference, but that difference is fairly subtle.”

Inside NPR, company policy affecting families makes the networks seem as if they were in the Dark Ages. A number of the men with working wives have taken paternity leaves to care for their infant children. One took a leave to allow his wife to return to school for an advanced degree. Another can be seen from time to time, working out at the local gym down the block from NPR, with his daughter in attendance.

“That would be unheard of at the networks,” says Marlene Sanders, who for years was one of the most visible women on ABC and CBS News and is now an independent producer. “Even today, women are grudgingly given sick leave rather than maternity leaves when they are pregnant. It costs the companies less, especially because the time off allowed is far more restrictive.”

Israeli-born Cadi Simon, the foreign editor, has worked at NPR for a dozen years, and despite her responsibilities now does it only part time. “I have two small children and I want to spend time with them. I have choices to make,” she says. “I volunteer in the nursery school where my children attend and at the community center. It keeps me in touch with the real world.” When there’s breaking news, as in the case of the Gulf War, Simon abandons her part-time schedule and can work 12 or more hours a day if needed.

The network hasn’t achieved gender blindness, says Vicki O’Hara, senior editor of “Morning Edition,” “but,” she adds, echoing the opinions of her colleagues at NPR, “it’s not nearly as bad here as it is at the networks.”

ANY ASSESSMENTS OF THE WOMEN’S IMPACT ON NPR ARE BOUND TO BE SUBjective. Robert Ferrante, the executive producer of all morning programming and a former network executive, says “the women have educated the men here. They have proved that their judgment is solid. They have shown their capacity for sexual blindness and they have helped us (men) improve ourselves. They are truly gender-free journalists.”

Roberts wouldn’t go that far during a conversation in the Capitol Hill coffee shop. Is the matter of equality still an issue? “Yes,” she says, “even at NPR it’s a fight. We women feel a lot of decisions are made in a sexist fashion. When the people in charge think of who to send someplace, the automatic reaction is to send a guy. They think guys first. It’s the most natural thing on Earth.” But have the women changed the men as Ferrante seems to think? “How do we know how they would have been had we not been there?” she asks. “What we did was to come as an entire generation and break down the obstacles, and we all have wounds to show for it. We all have splinters. But we broke barriers every step of the way and the women behind us have been able to walk along a much more open path.”

In a recent book about women and men at the New York Times, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nan Robertson describes a similar sort of trailblazing on the print side of the profession. A. M. Rosenthal, then editor of the Times, was flabbergasted, she says, when she and a number of other reporters filed a class-action suit against the paper in 1974. But the judge in the case ruled that the women had been victims of persistent salary and professional discrimination. Robertson also describes the years when only men could belong to the National Press Club in Washington. She and other female reporters attending programs there were relegated to a small balcony without lunch while the male registry and their guests sat on the ballroom floor, enjoying a four-course meal.

As Cokie Roberts recalls the times, “We had people tell us all along the way that we weren’t qualified to deliver the news, that we weren’t authoritative enough. We would have meetings with men in high positions and find their hands on our knees. We would have invitations from those people to hotel rooms. All kinds of propositions. Insults they didn’t consider insults.”

Roberts has a twangy voice and an accent that reflects her upbringing and education in Washington and at Wellesley College. The ultimate Washington insider, she’s the daughter of Hale Boggs, the Democratic majority leader in the House of Representatives until his death in an airplane crash in 1972, and Lindy Boggs, who succeeded her husband in office and served several terms in Congress. Now in her late 40s, Roberts is a cool, stylishly dressed, handsome woman with a wry sense of humor and a knack for cutting to the heart of an issue.

“Those assaults make a difference in terms of how you think about yourself,” says Roberts, who is now a Capitol Hill correspondent for ABC News, but who does a regular political spot every day on “Morning Edition” out of loyalty to her former network. “Maybe they’re right, you begin to think. Maybe I’m not authoritative. Maybe I’m not smart enough. And then you say to yourself, God, I went to the same schools as those guys. I have the same education as they do. What’s the problem? Why am I asked how many words a minute I can type when the guy next to me can’t type at all?”

Roberts and the other women at NPR have overcome those obstacles, and, with the men of NPR, have given it mainstream respectability. NPR’s female reporters have also proved themselves in traditional “big story” coverage. They were prominent in reporting on the Persian Gulf War. The voices of Deborah Amos and Deborah Wang, Vicki O’Hara and Nina Totenberg describing the war and its consequences enabled NPR to win the Columbia/DuPont Silver Baton award for radio reporting this year. Their work helped push NPR’s weekly Arbitron ratings to more than 10 million listeners a week, then the highest in the network’s history.

Some reporters and editors are not altogether pleased with the network’s newfound acceptance. “It’s true,” says veteran foreign correspondent Deborah Amos. “We’ve become enormously mainstream. I think we’re trying to copy the (networks) instead of finding different ways to tell the story. We do follow the pack, and that bothers me a little. We don’t take as many chances as we used to.”

Still, Roberts is right when she says that when news executives at their morning meetings in Washington, New York and Los Angeles discuss what they’ve read in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal, they also refer to what they’ve seen on the networks and heard on National Public Radio.

Across the board, the trends are unmistakable: More women on the air. More women’s bylines on major stories. More women entering journalism, as evidenced by the fact that 70% of USC’s journalism students are women. But it’s the executive suite that still eludes females.

While NPR’s vice president for news, managing editor and national editor are all men, the women are on the ascent and seem poised to crash through the glass ceiling. That may prompt rebellion among women at the commercial networks. If women are good enough to claim equality at NPR, after all, why not the rest of the broadcast news organizations? Indeed, why not all of journalism?


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