Sunday, May 28, 2006

TV commentary: About the women

The sun's up and streaming across your face. You wake knowing things are going good. You've got a nice promotion that puts you among a very select few -- that takes care of professional life. And you're been thrilled to learn that you're pregnant -- that takes care of personal. Things just seem wonderful.

Then one day, you hear rumbles. Office rumors. They pop up all the time. They don't mean anything. Just something to fill the boredom, right? You're busy focused on your work, focused on your family. Then comes the meeting.

Everyone's acting a little strange. You're not sure what it's about but thankful that it has nothing to do with you. Right?

Not exactly. See, you're not fired, you're just demoted.


Well you'll be instructed to say publicly that with the pregnancy, you just aren't up to the duties required in your new position. You'll play along because the only thing worse than being demoted would be to be fired publicly. Besides, play along, and the promise is dangled that the guy (yeah, they went with a guy) who's grabbing your position will retire in a matter of years and maybe, just maybe, if you make nice, you can have your promotion back then.

So even though you've made comments, publicly, about how after the baby's born, you're going right back to work and, indeed, you'll be hitting the road for the job, you find yourself having to mouth words that really don't match up with you or anything you said before.

As you do that, most people just act like nothing big happened.

Doesn't it sound familiar?

It should. It's the story most didn't want tell last week. Argubably one of the biggest broadcast stories of the year. Why? Well it's sexism and it's against the law.

It was noted that ABC had stood behind Elizabeth Vargas originally but, with the tragedies Bob Woodruff experienced while attempting to report from Iraq, they seem to be weakening their show of support in the face of the news that she's pregnant. The word for that, as pointed out repeatedly, is "sexism." When a woman's job may be in jeopardy because she's pregnant, that's sexism. Family leave guidelines aside, her pregnancy has resulted in whispers of ABC's losing support for/interest in her as an anchor.

We (Ava and C.I.) wrote the above for "Katie Was a Cheerleader" (The Third Estate Sunday Review, April 16, 2006). We knew Vargas was being shoved out. E-mails came in during the week asking if we were going to update the topic? Or comment on the coverage?

We hadn't planned on it. Then friends started calling. Not all women, but all concerned about what happened and the rah-rah coverage of it that refused to seriously address what went down.

Elizabeth Vargas was promoted to co-anchor World News Tonight on ABC. She's now out of that position. No one seems to want to seriously address it in the coverage thus far. To focus on The New York Times, Wednesday Jaques Steinberg had a front page story entitled "ABC Rejects Dual Anchors In 2nd Shuffle" (continued inside on page two of the Business section). Now front page means something news wise. So we both read the article eagerly thinking Steinberg might address it. That didn't happen.

Steinbereg does note (on C2, not A1):

But in the end, Mr. Gibson not only got the job he sought last year, but he also got it alone, as Ms. Vargas was shunted to the sidelines. When she returns from her maternity leave in the fall, it will not be to "World News Tonight," but to the prime-time news program "20/20." Mr. Gibson said in a telephone interview yesterday that he was most comfortable, at least on an evening newscast, as a solo anchor. "I am not a particular fan of two people sitting next to each other in a studio," he said [Ava and C.I. note: Tell it to Diane, Charlie.] "It's a half-hour broadcast."

Gibson goes on to blather about Vargas' "joyous event . . . that affected us all."

Oh really, Charlie?

Yeah, it effected you. It got you a promotion. You went along with it. What does that say about you because we don't think it says "company man" or "team player" -- we think it says backstabber, we think it says hypocrite.

And if that's harsh, what we're hearing from friends ABC News is a lot harsher, a hell of a lot harsher.

They're bringing up the habit Gibson has of falling asleep on camera or pretending that a feed is lost when he doesn't want to address a topic a guest brings up.

Gibson, years ago, did a little news. Years ago. This isn't someone working their way up the chain. This is someone who willingly elected to turn their back on news and work in the entertainment division in some apparent desire to become the next David Hartman (with far less class, said one correspondent at ABC).

He's not just taking Elizabeth Vargas' job, he's also taking Bob Woodruff's. Let's deal with Woodruff first because we're also disgusted with the way Woodruff has been treated.

Woodruff was injured in the combat zone. ABC sent him there to cover Iraq. He was injured there and he's now lost his co-host seat at the anchor desk. Now, remember, we're talking about journalism here. But to us, that's a bit like someone being injured while serving in the military and returning stateside to find out that their employer doesn't want to hold their job but instead wants to give it to someone else.

He's injured on the job and ABC's answer is to give his job away publicly. It's rotten, it sucks and people at ABC News are very unhappy with the decision.

Now let's turn to Vargas. Steinberg, rightly, notes that the spin right now is spin. It is. She didn't want to leave -- everyone knows that, everyone whispers it. She was forced out because she's pregnant.

That's sexism and it's illegal:

Title VII was amended by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth and related medical conditions.

No one wants to note that. Steinberg gets credit for noting that the current talk doesn't fit with the talk a few months back. But why the reluctance to call it what is which is discrimination?

Vargas got pregnant. She didn't lose her mental competency. She didn't prove she was unfit for the job. As she'd indicated publicly, prior to this decision being announced, she intended to return to work "soon" after the child was born (as Steinberg notes).

The average reader of Steinberg's story can grasp what happened. So why the reluctance to call it what it is?

When we learned the decision was going to be announced, we thought we'd take a pass on it because a) we'd noted the rumors last month and b) we really didn't want to get into it. We don't care for Gibson, we're not impressed with him and we never have been. So there was really no reason to write anything else on the matter.

But that was dependent upon the press doing their job. And they're apparently not going to do it. Steinberg, we'll give credit to. The article lines it up perfectly. But Vargas didn't go willingly and to stay silent when publicly the press has taken the attitude of: "Oh well, things happen, what you gonna' do . . ." -- we didn't see how we could do that (especially not in the face of the e-mails from community members and the phone calls from friends at ABC and another network).

So since we're all supposed to look the other way (again, credit to Steinberg for his article), you know we've got to speak up. We know it too.

So here's some of the talk at ABC News among the people who aren't pleased with the decision/discrimination:

* It was one thing to have Vargas and Woodruff come to the anchor desk with less qualifications than Peter Jennings because they're much yonger but Gibson elected to make his career nonsense.

* He won't be able to pull off the ratings without Diane Sawyer by his side.

* Good Morning America will probably benefit from a change in co-hosts (not anchors, they're hosts of a morning talk show) because Sawyer's more important to the viewers.

* Vargas is making a big mistake by playing nice. She won't sue. Everyone feels she won't. And that it's a mistake to to believe anything she was told when she was informed of the decision. Too many broken promise (to women especially, but to men as well) indicate that there's no second shot for Vargas. When Gibson's gone, she won't be considered for the slot and they'll have a new reason. Probably tell her that they need her on weekends.

* With this demotion, her career is over at ABC. She needs to find a new network. She needs to do it quick. She can get out of the current contract by asking ABC if they want her to go public with why she wants to leave the network.

* "This is such a slap in the face to Peter [Jennings.]" It is.

But as we noted in "Peter Jennings Reporter leaves a bad taste:"

Remember how viewers were left hanging as to whom Fox was speaking of that silenced him? Well now it's time for Jennings' report on little league baseball and child abuse. The clips highlighted in the montage, 3 minutes and 31 seconds, focus on a father, Chris, and a son, Jeremy. Their last name isn't provided in this special (it was in the original reporting that Jennings did). We see Chris threaten his son and we're told about abuse (Jennings confronts Chris on camera about his threats and Chris admits he beats his son). What does that segment call for?
If Jennings were around, from what all said on camera, we think it would call for an update. That was some time ago, the baseball special. But we're not given an update because not only do viewers not get to savor Jennings' reporting, they aren't treated to any real reporting from this special. (For the record, Jeremy just completed a season playing baseball for Hagerstown Community College and Chris has a listed phone number. We're having a hard time believing ABC News couldn't track down what we did and actually get one of them on camera for some sort of update.)
We think even the most optimistic viewer must have given up any hope of a "tribute" that honored what Jennings stood for (we're told constantly what he stood for -- interest in the world and in covering the news). Apparently no one left at ABC News is too concerned with what interested Jennings.
Which is why we now are firmly in the land of fluff with 1 minute and 14 seconds on Jennings' love of the Constitution and statements such as "Jazz was one of his thriving passions" and "He loved his kids."
Let's be really clear that Jennings' work and his goals weren't honored. Think Disney is displeased by that? Think again.
Bob Iger, president of The Walt Disney Company, comes on camera to complain that too much coverage "in the last few days" has been about Jennings' career -- don't worry Iger, no one will accuse Peter Jennings Reporter of being about his career. Or of honoring it.
[. . .]
Bob Iger made it clear what he wanted -- the person, not the career. That's what he got. So why call it Peter Jennings Reporter? Why the testimonials of people who continually stressed how interested Jennings was with the world, how important what made it on to the newscasts he anchored was? Because the news department wanted one special and the bosses wanted another. The news department fought to work in what they could (they're especially proud of the sequence on tobacco -- which includes a tobacco exec raving over how fair Jennings was, showing "all sides"). Management wanted what they saw as a two hour Oprah special.
The special demonstrated the continued conflict between the news departments and the bosses who see it all as another form of entertainment. And in this round, news lost. (Though people in the news department fought very hard.) We heard grumbles about some of the news "stars" included in the special but the message came down that the network wanted their own highlighted. Some stress to us that it's a miracle that two hours of prime time television was turned over to news. We'd agree with that if we'd actually seen any news.

What are we hoping to accomplish with this? Really nothing. Most readers of this site and members of The Common Ills community know what happened, they were clued in back in April. But we will note it and note that it's disgusting. We'll also offer Woodruff some advice -- leave the network. Woodruff's injuries speak to his dedication . . . to news people. ABC News is not being run by news people. (You could argue that is true of all the networks but more so ABC.) It's being run by entertainment people. Don't think that means Woodruff justs need to learn how to navigate a new channel or venue.

Entertainment people run from an injury -- run from anyone's injury or disease the same way they do from someone on a string of flops. Woodruff's tainted now with "bad luck." That's his "crime." As long as Iger and the entertainment squad call the shots, he'll be avoided like the plague. He'll hear from some that they'll fight for him (we're told he's already heard that) but they're not up against news people, they're up against entertainment people -- ten pounds of weight gain freaks them out and can result in a shunning so that they don't 'catch' the bad luck.

We're sure ABC corporate will deny this. They did on another item with a laughable cover story -- more damaging than the original event itself. And yes, we have still have the videotape. Like Simply Red, we'll keep holding on (to the tape).

So that's what happened, Elizabeth Vargas got pregant and ABC got nervous (we noted that the first week of April). As expected, they demoted her. Not because of ratings or because she couldn't do the job and certainly not because she wanted some down time, but because she was pregnant. We hear about "the Mommy wars" and there's a book put out by a magazine and an organization but they don't seem to want to address this. It's obvious what happened. It's obvious to everyone at ABC News.

So that's our first look at TV and women. This is a grab bag commentary.

Let's talk ER and Neela. While the left worked itself into a frenzy over a standup comic's routine, ER addressed the war -- not in one episode, but in many. And guess what? The right wing noticed. News Busters has clips from some episodes. They're frothing at the mouth over what went down. Also blowing her right wing lungs is Sister Toldjah -- who by the way carries an ad endorsing Condi Rice for president in 2008 which means she at least has some sense of humor, right? (Oh, she's serious? . . . . Okay.) She takes time out from being alarmed that Barbra Streisand called Bully Boy a "C student" long enough to let her right wing base know what's been going down on ER.

She notes this March episode:

Dr. Neela Rasgotra: My duty is to be a good doctor and to be a good wife, not to be brainwashed into falling in line with some pseudo-patriotic delusion.

And that when a woman declared "our loved ones are serving our country and it's a small price to pay," Neela responded, "I think it's a huge price to pay, especially under the circumstances. . . . Well, the way the whole thing's been handled, how we got into it, how it's been managed . . . I still haven't seen any weapons of mass destruction, have you?"

We noted that episode here. (And it was also noted at The Common Ills.)

So why is it that the left isn't there to offer support?

James Spader delivers a court room speech against the Patriot Act (Boston Legal) and he 'da man, he 'da bomb. Neela tackles the war in multi-epiosdes and the left's just not interested?

Another episode was noted on May 11th:

Tonight on ER, the war comes home (came home in some time zones where it's already aired). But Parminder Nagra's Dr. Neela Rasgotra was ignored last time when her comments on the war weren't as important as some flashy speech. I'm sure that there's some White male who did something on TV that will be deemed as more important.
Just like last time. This wasn't just a court room speech, this was a storyline that they worked very hard on. It's actually given the show life. And it's created a wonderful starting point for a dicussion if any viewers are still playing the Quiet Game or sitting on the fence. I know people involved so someone could argue that's why I continue to note the program; however, Ava and I both know people involved and when we did our review at the start of the fall season and we didn't pull any punches. ("Pull the plug!" isn't pulling punches.)
It does matter what the alternative weeklies cover. It does matter what we hear on the radio or see on TV. Ending the war doesn't come via secluded conversations with only our nearest and dearests. It comes by putting the war front and center.

Another episode was noted May 18th:

To, again, note ER, Parminder Nagra's Dr. Neela Rasgotra attended the funeral of her husband Michael, a doctor serving in Iraq. As Michael's father puffed out his chest and talked to some men (of course) about the "kind of boy I raised," the "mindset of a warrior" and sharing stories of Sitting Bull telling people "this it was a good day to die," Neela walked over, shoved Michael's medals at him and refused to take them back.
She informed him that, "To me all they mean is death [. . .] How dare you, how dare you stand there and say that. 'A good day to die'? [. . .] You could have kept him here. You could have saved him. But instead you made him want to go back. For what? Because there was something 'noble' in it? Why did you do that when it would have been just as easy to convince him to stay for a much better reason? Because we loved him. Because we loved him."
A powerful moment and one that addresses the cost of war beyond dollars and cents. But don't expect it to be noted. This has been an ongoing story on ER as Neela has been vocal about being against the war. That's not been noted. It wasn't noted in the episode when she was informed Michael died. There's always some White Male to praise week after week. Usually doing a funny. Maybe that's a little easier to relate to?
It's not like they don't watch ER -- Noah Wylie's return and cause was noted -- but then Noah Wylie is a White Male. As, week in and week out, we can giggle at a comic or get excited by a Saturday Night Live skit or bluster about a speech in a courtroom on the Patriot Act, we never can find the time to note this ongoing storyline that's provided many powerful moments. Maybe that's it? Maybe it's easier to look away at the pain that's on the screen. It's a character Nagra's playing. She's doing a powerful job. Maybe we just don't want to note it because it's too powerful. I don't know if John Kerry's going to be on Mad TV this week, but, if so, I'm sure it will suck up all the discussion online.

So what's going on? The right wing noted it. Where was the left? Was it her race? Was it the fact that she's a "she"? It wasn't the fact that she was a character because noting James Spader's already demonstrated that TV characters could be raved over. Provided they were White and male apparently.

Now, yes, we know people working on ER. We knew this storyline was coming. Is that why we're so offended that it didn't result in all the back slapping every moment involving a White male did?

This is the first show to really tackle the war on broadcast, commercial television. (American Family -- A Journey of Dreams did a wonderful job while the war was just starting -- it didn't air on commercial television.) This was an important moment, this storyline. It's a shame it couldn't garner the attention it deserved. But the war came home, on your TV screens, invading a TV drama. It's the sort of thing that will be noted in cultural studies of this time period -- hopefully, by then they'll have a conclusive answer as to why a left so quick to applaud a con-man lawyer (that's what Spader plays and that's being kind) for talking about the Patriot Act, to win a case and sway a jury (and after it's been reauthorized by the Congress), couldn't match that applause for the storyline developing on ER? Couldn't even find the time to note it -- let alone applaud it.

By the way, please don't think we're under any delusions that males were the only ones not noting it. There are plenty of women as well. They didn't bother to note it either.

Take one site which actually blogged on Iraq this week (for a change). They did it about an Abu Ghraib trial and only because a female carried a book to the trial with a one word title that rhymes with "runt," but hey, they're doing their part, right? No comments on Iraq or even Abu Ghraib but that book title, gotta' love it!

Why they're so on top of things they also noted the 'clarification' Newsweek offered last week for creating a "fact" about a woman being more likely to be killed by a terrorist than married after a certain age. They even noted that Susan Faludi revealed (in 1991) that the claim wasn't true. After that, it got a little confusing for them. They started wondering if now Newsweek would apologize to Susan Faludi?

For what exactly? They ran a story in 1986 and she debunked it in 1991 (in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women). Why does the magazine owe her an apology? They may owe everyone, male and female, who read the article in 1986 an apology, but why would they owe Faludi an apology? It makes no sense (neither does ignoring the war). But for the sake of argument, let's defy logic and just nod and say, "Newsweek owes Susan Faludi an apology!" Well it's a shame they waited so long, a little while ago and they could have just written "I'm sorry" on her paycheck. (The screamers for an apology to Faludi from Newsweek are aware that Newsweek hired Faludi as a contributing editor in the late nineties and that she worked for the publication until recently, right?)

While Backlash was a wonderful book (and Faludi's a great writer) some seem to be under the impression that Backlash came out and the mainstream media said "NO!" Time put Gloria Steinem and Susan Faludi on the cover together. Faludi's debunking of the myth was well noted. Nora Ephron's Sleepless in Seattle refers to the book with Meg Ryan's character saying that the terrorist figure isn't true and that there's a whole book written to refute that myth. A male character asks, "Did anyone read the book?" We did.

But we wonder if all the finger pointers on the web did? Why? How about this from Newsweek's "Twenty Years Later: It turns out that getting married after age 40 wasn't quite as difficult as we once believed" (no link, we don't link to trash):

Much of the ire focused on a single, now infamous line: that a single 40-year-old woman is "more likely to be killed by a terrorist" than to ever marry, the odds of which the researchers put at 2.6 percent. The terrorist comparison wasn't in the study, and it wasn't actually true (though it apparently didn't sound as inappropriate then as it does today, post 9/11).

No, it wasn't true and, as Faludi reported (page 100 of Backlash), a Newsweek intern explained that the lie started as a joke reporters kidded each other about "and next thing we knew, one of the writers in New York took it seriously and it ended up print." Newsweek doesn't tell you that. They just tell that you that it wasn't true -- fifteen years after Faludi already did and, if you think about it, twenty years after people at Newsweek knew it wasn't true. (They knew when the story ran.) And guess what else? Readers of Backlash know this, Newsweek went with a faulty study for the rest of that story. And "months later" they had actual census data that disproved their cover story. That got "a two-paragraph item buried in the 'Update' column." The current article doesn't tell you that either. Newsweek's new story really admitted nothing. A real admission didn't require an apology to Susan Faludi, it did require that they admit to knowing the figure was false when they ran it and, that when they had census data months later that refuted the Harvard-Yale study (on which they based their cover story), they didn't issue a correction but instead buried the real data in the magazine.

Another great Susan (Sontag) had an excellent suggestion (that was vilified when she made it) encouraging us not to all be stupid together. We think it applies today as much as it did then.

Stupid is as Reba McEntire does. And Reba's thankfully canceled (and then gets an order for 13 episodes -- which will hopefully never air). But we grabbed a few minutes on Friday to see if we wanted to run an update review? Nope. It was an episode where the Hurricane Katrina evacuees were staying with Reba at Barbara Jean's invitation and Reba felt the need to say, "Barbara Jean, you're the whitest person in Texas! Stop talking like that!"

No, Reba is the Whitest person in Texas. In front of the cameras and behind them. Which is why, despite the fact that the show was supposed to take place in Houston, which the 2000 census found to be 25.3% African-American, there were no supporting actors who were African-American. In fact, to watch Reba you'd never know that Houston is only 51.2% White. That is reality, even if it wasn't what the star cared to show you.

Last Sunday, Charmed ended eight season with a one hour finale that wrapped up loose ends. Unlike Will & Grace, happiness for Piper, Phoebe and Paige (Holly Marie Combs, Alyssa Milano and Rose McGowan) did not entail them exiting one another's lives for sixteen years.

The bulk of the episode revolved around them (yet again) saving the world (and returning magic powers to one of Piper's sons). They touched on many things during those fast paced scenes (and long time viewers were probably happy to note a child at the end with Pru-like powers, closing the front door as Pru used to do -- without her hands touching the door). Then, having vanquished evil yet again, they returned to their home and Piper brought the Book of Shadows down from the attic because, "I think we should write everything down . . . Just so we can pass it down like it was passed down to us."

Will & Grace trashed friendship and also left you wondering if Will or Grace even had a job anymore? Charmed? In a very quick wrap up, you saw the sisters in their immediate futures. Phoebe continued her advice column but focused on love since fate had paired her with a cupid. She had three children, a job, a husband and, most of all, her sisters. Paige also had children, embraced her "inner white lighter" and her marriage to Harry (Ivan Sergei). Piper noted that she "filled the time" when they weren't fighting to save the world with opening her own restaurant (a success), her marriage and her children. ("Leo reclaimed Magic School and went back to teaching.")

As Piper finished her story, we saw her (played by Ellen Geer) as an elderly woman, reading from the Book of Shadows to one of her granddaughters who asked her to read more. Piper explained she was tired but told the young girl that she could look through the book herself, "After all, it will be your's one day." As Piper heads upstairs with Leo, more grandchildren come running through the front door.

Though Will & Grace wanted to do bad (melo)drama and spit at the loyal viewers (while disowning the message of the show), Charmed tied up all the loose ends, name checked several no longer on the show and left viewers with the knowledge that, through it all, the Halliwell sisters were always there for each other.

As we noted last year (May 29, 2005), Charmed was the longest running hour drama starring women. Eight seasons put them ahead of all the other shows. (It also put them ahead of the sitcoms, Laverne & Shirley had seven seasons.) They could have chosen a "downer" ending -- they could have killed off one of the sisters in a battle. They didn't. The sisters remained strong and they remained together.

That may not seem a whole lot to some but in a TV landscape that pits woman against woman, it did say something. (Charlie's Angels, to name another long running show with three female leads went out on their fourth season with Jaclyn Smith and Cheryl Ladd's characters battling over a man, guest star Patrick Duffy, when they came back for the fifth season, the entire storyline was dropped and never mentioned.)

Last year, Ty informed us, we noted that Desperate Housewives would see a ratings decline (it has, not as steep as many expected but that's what next season is for), we even noted Susan Faludi's Backlash in that feature. But he thought the section that needed quoting was this:

Season after season, it has presented female leads as actors in their own lives, not reactors, not passive victims. Four sisters (counting Pru who never shared space with Paige) have fought demons and each other yet always managed to pull it together despite everything else that was going on in their lives. Their paid careers, such as they are, can be described as hobbies. But that's due to the fact that unlike the Desperate Housewives, they actually have a purpose -- saving the world.
Saving the world. Let's repeat that because while a show like Desperate Housewives portrays women as narcissistic, self-serving and self-focused, Charmed has repeatedly addressed the issue of sacrifice for the larger good.

Charmed lived up to its part of the bargain with the audience on the season finale. And for eight seasons it presented women as we rarely see them on TV: working together, not against one another. "The power of three" wouldn't work without all three (as they sometimes had to learn). It may not have had the promotion and zeigeist to satisfy the trendy water cooler critics, but it had what mattered (what networks stopped caring about long ago): the power to satisfy the audiences.

[Semi-related end note: On Sunday, May 14th, hours after the post defending Alysa Milano from slime merchant Mike McCurry went up, we both were advised over the phone that there was another reason McCurry slimed Milano. She'd come out strongly for net neutrality -- the post doesn't have an indivual http address, the title is "Internet Freedom." If only she'd given a fiery speech -- and been a man -- on TV, she too could have been applauded all over the net. We'll note that we stuck up for her without knowing of her stance on net neutrality and we're glad that we did. We'd hate to have been one of the sites posting McCurry's slime about Milano and then taking him to task for other things but letting his attack on Milano slide.]
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