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‘Sex War’ Parley Skirts the Issue

Andrew Lack, president of NBC News, did something last week that a journalist should never do. Lack, 50-year-old leader of the division and the executive most responsible for its stunning ratings renaissance in the ‘90s, made a blunder totally unbefitting someone of his media savvy and stature.

He let himself be quizzed by the press.

Uh oh.

It was Thursday afternoon, and the occasion was a conference call NBC News had arranged to interest print TV writers in its latest division-wide, weeklong, splashy enterprise that it had titled “The Sex War: The Tension Between Men and Women.” Or as it was framed in a flier accompanying the original news release: “The Battle of the Sexes: Is It Over? Or Is It Worse?”

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Well, who wouldn’t be titillated by that? And who could possibly avoid it, given that, starting today, “The Sex War: The Tension Between Men and Women” would be surfacing on every program bearing the NBC News logo, including “NBC Nightly News,” “Today,” “Dateline NBC” and “Meet the Press.” To say nothing of MSNBC, the network’s cable news collaboration with Microsoft, and the inevitable scores of local station tie-ins.

Quite frankly, I was suspicious of what NBC News had in mind for “The Sex War: The Tension Between Men and Women.” It looked so gratuitously . . . sexy. So I decided to dial the designated “800" number and eavesdrop on the conference call, being curious how the NBC News executives lined up for the TV writers would rationalize what appeared, on paper, to be just another highly promotable gimmick to attract viewers under the mantle of serious, meaningful news.

My doubts were eased when executive producers for the various NBC News programs outlined their plans for “The Sex War: The Tension Between Men and Women,” and Lack announced that “none of these stories are real ratings drivers. We’re not doing this because we think we have an opportunity to get better numbers [ratings] for these programs.”

Whew!

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A little later, when it was time for questions, though, the bottom fell out for Lack.

He and his colleagues had done a pretty good job explaining why NBC News was hurling itself like a Scud missile at “The Sex War: The Tension Between Men and Women,” which, after all, is what Sally Jessy Raphael examines in-depth every day, and something that ABC News is tackling in its Tuesday-night report from John Stossel: “Love, Lust and Marriage: Why We Stay, Why We Stray.”

I was gratified that some of NBC’s plans sounded interesting and not at all shallow or sensational.

What Lack was unable to explain, ironically, was why the top NBC News executives gathered to discuss “The Sex War: The Tension Between Men and Women” were of one sex.

Male.

Early in the conference call, we had been told the results of polling that the network had done for its look at gender strain, including contrasting opinions by males and females on how women fare in the workplace. Many more women than men felt that women got a raw deal.

With that in mind, a TV Guide man taking part in the conference call wanted to know, wasn’t it ironic that Lack and the NBC executive producers on the phone with the TV writers were guys?

At that point, Lack should have pleaded nolo contendre and thrown himself on the mercy of the court. Instead, he swiftly retorted that every print writer who signed up for the conference call was male, too. So that made NBC’s situation vis a vis “The Sex War: The Tension Between Men and Women” not ironic? Go figure.

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As an admitted male who works for a newspaper controlled by males--as almost all of them are--I knew where Lack was going. NBC News is hardly unique in being a media outfit where opportunities for top-management jobs are infinitely greater for males. But he never quite got there.

Instead, he turned defensive, noting that “a lot of women” from NBC News were behind “The Sex War: The Tension Between Men and Women.” He mentioned some.

And that seemed to be that. Except that a man from the New York Post wouldn’t let the matter die, causing Lack to respond: “If you think we [he and the male executive producers] produce the shows instead of the women mentioned on this show, you don’t understand our business very well.”

His message seemed to be that the disparity at the top of NBC News--men getting nearly all the executive producing jobs on programs, women almost always topping out at senior producer--was unimportant.

The New York Post man would not go away. Was Lack saying, he wanted to clarify, that women at NBC News would rather be senior producers than higher-ranking executive producers?

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand the thrust of your question,” Lack replied. He sounded irritated. Although quick to challenge others, members of the media hate being challenged themselves.

Actually, the thrust of the question was quite clear: Was Lack saying that women preferred not having the top jobs? The New York Post man reframed the question anyway, so that the thrust was even more obvious.

Lack’s response was oblique, if not evasive. “I think it’s one of the most thankless jobs in this business,” he said, apparently about being an executive producer. “I think these titles are kind of silly.”

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So silly, by the way, that no one from NBC News participating in the conference call volunteered to give his title up. Like someone trying to breaststroke his way through quicksand, Lack sank deeper with every attempt to extricate himself.

To illustrate his point about titles being supposedly irrelevant, Lack asked the New York Post man if he was married. The answer was no. “Then,” Lack pounced, “I think you probably don’t understand that they [women] are in charge.” Smugness was really hitting the fan.

Was this the ‘50s? Lack was sounding like “Father Knows Best,” seeming to redefine relationships in terms of that old saw about men having the trappings of power, but women--knowing how to wind those big lugs around their fingers--really controlling things.

Besides, added the head of the news division, “I don’t think there’s any prestige, title or money tied up in being an executive producer.”

Come again? Once more, none of the male executive producers on the line offered to flip-flop jobs with female producers beneath them.

Well, it was just a routine, harmless conference call, right? “I don’t think you have your eye on the right ball,” Lack lectured the New York Post man.

Actually, he had his eye on exactly the right ball.

The one--tension between men and women--that NBC News has promised to examine this week.


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