Who's the "sexist" here?
Or is it Les Moonves, for terming Rather's criticism "sexism" and resorting to gender to explain the broadcast's falling ratings?
On Monday, Rather, speaking on a little-watched cable network that shall remain nameless, criticized his former employers' revamping of his old show, accusing them of "dumbing it down, [and] tarting it up" in the hopes of attracting a younger audience. Acknowledging the first female sole anchor as a "nice person," he asserted that "the mistake was to try to bring the 'Today' show ethos to the 'Evening News.'"
On Tuesday, Les Moonves, the man who picked Couric for the job and convinced her to take it, responded by terming Mr. Rather's remarks, if not Rather himself, "sexist," and urged her critics to "give her a break." As for the effort to attract younger viewers, he argued that the "evening news will die" without them.
No one has been more supportive of Ms. Couric than I, even when I sometimes cringed at the content of her program and the focus on her looks and her legs. It's not because we're old friends; I've met her exactly twice, once when she interviewed me on the ‘Today’ show, and once, some years ago, when she happened to be in town on the night of my annual Yom Kippur break fast, and she came over with my neighbor and her agent, and graciously served as the judge of a noodle kugel bakeoff between my friend Katherine and me (I lost).
The reason I've "shilled" for Katie, as some of my more critical friends describe it, is the same reason that I always argue that it takes two women, not one, to crack the glass ceiling. When a first woman fails, for whatever reason, she isn't the only one who suffers. Inevitably, her failure becomes our failure, a judgment about women instead of a conclusion about her.
So it surprised me not at all when, in the wake of Katie's disappointing ratings, headlines repeatedly questioned whether Americans really were ready for a woman anchor. I expect if Hillary fails, it will similarly be written off by many in the media as proof that America isn't ready for a woman president.
The pressure on first women to succeed is ridiculously inflated by the knowledge that if you don't, you bring half the population down with you.
What could be more "sexist" than that?
Unlike Katie Couric, Dan Rather is someone I've known for 20 years, since I was the first woman (and one of the youngest people) to run a major presidential campaign.
At the time, I was a kid and he was a star; I was a girl who inherited my job from a man because of a silly scandal, a law professor in a world of hardened tough guys, a feminist when campaigns and news organizations considered "women's issues" as a separate and subordinate department.
The easiest thing in the world would have been for Dan Rather to treat me the same way many others of his generation and stature in the media did: with condescension, if not contempt; patronizing me, or ignoring me altogether, and dealing instead with the men in the campaign.
But he never did. He was a Texas gentleman, he was tough as nails, you could (and can) call him many things, but "sexist," in my experience, was never one of them.
Indeed, his downfall came years later because he relied on the work of a woman, whom I never heard him blame, much less ascribe their failure to her gender. Unlike Moonves.
When I ran into Dan some months ago at a dinner honoring the late Peter Jennings, he said essentially the same thing to me as he did on television on Monday. His criticism was aimed not at Couric herself, but at the men who run CBS and CBS News and who had assumed, wrongly, that having a beautiful, and younger, woman anchor a "lighter" newscast was the route to success.
Moonves was not alone in such thinking; my old friend David Westin, the president of ABC News, made the same mistake in replacing Peter Jennings with Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas, who were unquestionably chosen for their looks and their youth, before turning to the older and more experienced Charlie Gibson, who now trounces Katie on a nightly basis in the ratings.
The problem is not that Dan is sexist, but that Moonves was wrong. People may "watch" and not listen to television, but when it comes to news, the ratings for the last nine months suggest that young viewers, like older ones, seem to care more about content and experience than looks and laughs.
Katie is easier on the eyes than any of her competitors, but the response of viewers, men and women, has been a giant "so what?”
The problem with Moonves, who, perhaps not coincidentally, left his great wife of many years for one of the most beautiful women in the "news" business, Julie Chen, best known as the former host of "Big Brother," is that they underestimate the intelligence of their audience, and judge women by their looks instead of their knowledge and experience. You can be sure that Katie would not have gotten the job if she was the female Bob Schieffer or Charlie Gibson or Dan Rather.
The introduction of Couric as an anchor reeked of sexism, and the early version of her newscast was almost unwatchable. Her publicity photo was touched up to make her look slimmer, even though, whatever her problems, weight is obviously not one of them.
At the same time, the substance of the broadcast left anyone hungry for actual news (and why else would you watch the news) literally famished.
Most experienced women journalists I know were privately appalled at the transparent effort to showcase Katie's personality instead of her ability. We knew that the first woman to sit in that chair needed to prove herself by the old rules before trying to change them.
Things have improved with a change in executive producers and increased emphasis on hard news, but initial impressions are hard to change, and the question remains not whether America is ready for a woman anchor, but whether Katie Couric was the right person for the job.
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Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.