Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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March 25, 2005
By: Garance Franke-Ruta

THE POWER OF MARKET FORCES. Kevin e-mailed me to add to Massie's point, below, noting that the local newcaster formula is almost always one male and one female anchor, partly because market forces demand it. I'd add that television and film both seem to demand greater gender parity than less visual media because the visual representation of an all-male world just looks so off and repels female viewers.

One of my favorite examples of how this works in practice is the movie Shattered Glass, about The New Republic, which turned Jonathan Chait into the fictional character "Amy Brand" in order to make up for the fact that so few women worked at TNR. The producers must simply have decided that they'd lose the audience if they only had one central female character, even if she was played by Chloe Sevigny and based on Hanna Rosin.

I also sometimes wonder if CNN's long decline is related to the utterly unwatchable women they promote to the anchor positions, such as the robotic, rail-thin Daryn Kagan. I greatly prefer watching someone like FOX News' lively Rita Cosby, who is also far less noxious than her male peers at that network. Cosby is plump (by TV news standards), slightly asymmetric, brash, and always seems to be having a really, really good time on the air. In short, she seems normal, whereas Kagan seems as unreal as the computer-generated movie character Simone. Cosby looks like someone who loves her job and is happy with herself and isn't trying to be perfect. Given the images of women on television in general, that's immensely appealing.

CNN used to have a lot more smart, strong, normal-looking women on air, such as the much-heralded Christiane Amanpour, who inspired a generation of women to become foreign correspondents and war reporters. I suspect if they went back to the formula of showcasing such women, instead of ones who look like winners of a spokesmodel contest, they'd find there's a market for watching them. Indeed, I wonder how much of the surprising popularity of CNN Headline News' controversial new Nancy Grace show is due to its content, and how much is due to the fact that Grace is a passionately opinionated woman with bad hair, which makes her more entertaining to watch than the prettily bland anchors. It also makes her seem more real, even if she isn't.

Occasionally watching FOX News -- as I do for, uh, research purposes -- has convinced me that one underappreciated reason for that network's success has nothing to do with its politics, but rather with the sorts of stories it chooses to cover. The network airs a fair number of little local-news style stories featuring regional events that no one else puts on cable, involving the sorts of people who otherwise never get brought into representation unless they are involved in a major national tragedy. If you are one of those people whose world is largely excluded from visual representation on television, it must feel very gratifying to have a news station willing to acknowledge that you and people like you exist.

All of which is just to say that television networks, despite their flaws, seem to be doing a better job than Op-Ed pages of catering to audience desires to see themselves represented, whether that audience is female or rural middle-American. And given the quality of most of what's on TV, you know what that says about the Op-Ed pages. Garance Franke-Ruta 1:05 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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