Journalists deny good looks' role in TV news

Posted: Feb 08, 2002 12:00 AM
Who's your favorite news anchor? Is it the one with the cleft palate, lazy eye and the giant gray eyebrow with black roots stretching from ear to ear? Or is it the guy with the huge tower of orange hair and the face with the pockmarks and jagged scar? You know, the one who looks like he fed a marshmallow to a wolverine using only his lips? Oh wait, that's right. In this reality we don't have news anchors so hideous that they send small children scurrying. In this universe most of our television journalists span the spectrum from attractive to downright dreamy. Some even have names like "Stone" and look like they were hired straight from a J. Crew catalog. I get confused because every now and then journalists get all freaky about this fact, as if maybe it's not true or something. It's enough to give me the "Twilight Zone" willies. About a month ago, CNN got itself into hot water by daring - daring! - to suggest that Paula Zahn, their new morning host, is good-looking. They cut a promo asking, "Where can you find a morning news anchor who's provocative, super-smart, oh yeah, and just a little sexy?" The sound of a zipper zipping was faintly audible underneath the word sexy. Zahn was reportedly furious. The promo was pulled. As many commented at the time, it was a typical Washington blunder; the network accidentally told the truth. Walter Isaacson, the head of CNN, quickly apologized. "It was a bad mistake," he said. "I'm really sorry. The promotion department didn't get it cleared." Now Washington is all abuzz over Greta Van Susteren's new "look." The former CNN legal analyst and talk show host recently jumped ship to Fox News and visited the plastic surgeon during her one-month transition period. How much, exactly, she got done is hotly debated by people who must have better things to do. The media's obsession with this story has been amazing. Newspapers and Web sites have been crammed with before and after pictures. Van Susteren was invited onto the "Today" show and "Good Morning America" to discuss the "double standard" for men and women in TV news. Apparently, men stay good-looking longer than women do. "They say the shelf life of a woman is not particularly long. But there must be some men who feel the pressure," Van Susteren explained on "Good Morning America," nodding to the fact that lots of male news anchors get nipped and tucked, too. But the funny part, to me, is the media's obsession with appearances while being unwilling to admit that appearances are important. It may be rude to suggest that a black guy might have gotten his job partly because of affirmative action. But in Washington and New York, to even hint that someone's looks got them on TV is about as close as you can get to an invitation to a duel. Now, I'm not saying that TV journalism is a brainless calling. It's not. NBC's Norah O'Donnell, for example, is very smart and very professional. She's also as hot as tar. Anyone who thinks she would be a Pentagon correspondent if she looked like 3-day-old road kill is kidding himself. That goes even more so for the scores of news readers who look like they could be underwear models. As Fox News' profoundly talented - and pretty handsome - Brit Hume explained during the Zahn "controversy": "TV news is a peculiar hybrid medium with many imperatives. And attractive people, alas, is one of them." The best illustration of the media's neurosis on this point was a couple years ago. ABC News had signed on teen heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio to conduct an interview with Bill Clinton for Earth Day 2000. Inside the news organization, veteran journalists and producers were furious, demanding that the event be described as a conversation and not an "interview" as part of the news department. Why were they furious? Because DiCaprio's not a journalist - he was just a good-looking actor reading from a list of questions provided by a producer. The outrage from some journalists seemed to stem from the realization that most viewers wouldn't be able to tell the difference. Now, I should disclose that I was recently signed on as a commentator for CNN. I appear on the occasional panel (most Sundays on "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer") and offer my opinions for what their worth. I hope the relationship works out well for me and for CNN. If it does and if I were to become a ratings darling, I would hardly be surprised if the suits asked me to do something to make this sweaty, bloated apparatus I call my body more tolerable to the viewing public.