Women in Journalism Pass Another Milestone

From a Washington Post column by Andrea Mitchell headlined “Women in Journalism pass another milestone”:

On Sept. 17, another milestone will be passed for women journalists. Kristen Welker is set to become the 13th moderator of “Meet the Press,” the longest-running show on American television. For the first time, every Sunday public affairs program will be moderated or co-moderated by a woman as Welker joins Dana Bash, Shannon Bream, Margaret Brennan, Jen Psaki and Martha Raddatz at the helms for their respective networks.

Not that long ago, “woman journalist” was almost an oxymoron, especially in broadcast news. When I applied for my first job, at an all-news radio station in Philadelphia in 1967, I was told the newsroom was no place for women. I talked them into hiring me for the overnight shift, where I’d be less “disruptive.” I was so grateful to get my foot in the door, I hardly noticed my job title: “copyboy.”

By 1972, women were among the reporters covering the race for the White House. But Timothy Crouse’s rousing book about the traveling political press corps was titled, “The Boys on the Bus.” It was simply assumed that the news business was an all-male, all-White domain. That was true even when a woman was the boss. In her 1997 memoir, “Personal History,” Katharine Graham, the powerful former publisher of The Post, recalled that the Gridiron Club (founded in 1885) and the National Press Club (founded in 1908) were among “many unenlightened, regressive sanctuaries of male supremacy” in the nation’s capital.

The same year Crouse reported his book, a group of female journalists picketed outside the hotel where Gridiron Club members were holding their annual dinner. Graham wrote that she and her friend Meg Greenfield, The Post’s editorial page editor, wanted to see the action — without attracting any notice. With Greenfield behind the wheel, Graham, “hunched down as best I could” in the car, “trying to avoid being seen.” This gave her a “hilarious perspective” on the white-tie club members, the line of limousines and the picketing female reporters. Judith Martin, who wrote The Post’s “Miss Manners” column, wheeled a baby carriage for effect.

The National Press Club refused for decades to admit female members or even to allow them to attend newsmaker luncheons. In 1955, the club relented by offering space in the balcony. According to a 2019 club history by its historian, Gil Klein, the only speaker who refused to appear if women were excluded was Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1959. To accommodate him, the club permitted 1.4 women to attend for every 10 men. (History does not record how they arrived at that formula.) Only in 1971 did women attain full membership; fittingly, United Press International’s pathbreaking White House correspondent, Helen Thomas, became the press club’s first female officer.

A few pioneers broke through the gender barrier in Washington’s TV newsrooms: Lesley Stahl at CBS, Cokie Roberts and Raddatz at ABC, Judy Woodruff at NBC News, CNN and PBS, where she was joined by Gwen Ifill as the first female co-anchors on the NewsHour’s nightly broadcast. Yet even as women gained traction as reporters and editors, paternalistic notions held us back.

In 1979, I was energy correspondent for NBC when the Iranian revolution caused gas prices to skyrocket, creating endless lines at the pump and a political crisis for President Jimmy Carter. Nuclear power gained supporters — until March 28 that year, when the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania had a serious accident. During the first week of the reactor shutdown, NBC rotated correspondents from the Washington bureau, hoping to minimize exposure to the undetermined level of radiation. But not the energy correspondent.

Finally, I marched into the bureau chief’s office, along with another correspondent, Carole Simpson. He was a close friend (he hired me for NBC News), but when he explained that he wanted to protect women of childbearing age from radiation, I shot back that testicles were as vulnerable as ovaries. I was on my way to Three Mile Island the next day.

As the 13th moderator in the 75-year history of “Meet the Press,” Welker will be the first Black person in the role. But not, intriguingly, the first woman. That honor belongs to the broadcast’s founding host, Martha Roundtree, who launched the program in 1947.

Welker, the network’s chief White House correspondent during three presidencies, has a well-earned reputation for being collegial and inclusive. I can attest to her eagerness to jump into action for others, even while under pressure herself. A conversation with her usually begins with her asking, “How can I help you?” She is a rare combination: a pit bull when chasing a story, and the kind of friend you know you will treasure forever.

As moderator of the final debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden in 2020, Welker’s preternatural aplomb under extraordinary pressure was widely praised. Welker will now lead the most venerable program on television, inheriting the legacy of such predecessors as Tim Russert and Chuck Todd. There is still a long way to go in the march to equal representation, but Welker will be an example to follow. As White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said at Welker’s final daily briefing: “Little girls and boys are going to watch you and hopefully be inspired by everything that you do every Sunday.”

Andrea Mitchell is NBC News’s chief foreign affairs correspondent and chief Washington correspondent. She is also the anchor of “Andrea Mitchell Reports” on MSNBC.

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