Can Two Women Have Similar Jobs Without it Becoming a “Catfight?”

Last week brought the news that Diane Sawyer will replace Charles Gibson on ABC’s World News Tonight, making her the second woman to anchor one of the three major network nightly news shows.

This New York Times article examines Ms. Sawyer’s ascension to the post and looks at how the media is covering the story, trotting out old tropes about women’s inability to get along with each other, starting with the first few lines:

One female network TV anchor is a breakthrough. Two become a catfight.

That equation is almost inevitable no matter who the women are who make it to the top of television news. In the case of Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric, who in January will resume their former morning-show rivalry on the evening news, it’s already printed up in the program of public perception.

The article repeatedly mentions Ms. Sawyer’s appearance (“gorgeous,” “glamorous,” “golden allure,” “teen beauty queen,” “considered too fetching to be a ‘serious’ journalist,” “absurdly good looking” – just in the first four full paragraphs of the piece) while noting the scrutiny of women who break barriers and whether breaking those barriers even means anything at all. Some points in the article are sharp and true:

Ms. Sawyer and Ms. Couric will outnumber their male counterpart 2 to 1 in an era when networks are losing their primacy and even their creative advantage over cable, and network news, in particular, is sinking in relevance and prestige. (Back in 1976, when Barbara Walters was lured by ABC, the network very likely considered the anchor job too important to entrust to a woman and paired Ms. Walters with the more authoritative-seeming Harry Reasoner.) As in other fields, women seem to break through the glass ceiling just as the air-conditioning is being turned off in the penthouse office suites. Women anchors may turn out to be what women doctors once were in the Soviet Union, a majority without status or financial advantage.

While it’s great that a major news publication is examining the issue, including why women are taking the seat behind the anchor desks just when the medium is becoming extinct, it’s entirely unnecessary to frame Ms. Sawyer’s new post as an inevitable “catfight” between her and Katie Couric or focus quite so much on her appearance.

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