Let me begin with complete disclosure. I worked at CNN for almost eight years, before being laid off last year. And I’m not particularly sexy. OK, here we go:
Paula Zahn may well be sexy. That’s a matter of personal taste. But even if she is sexy, we’re not supposed to say that. Sort of the way a suspect may be guilty of a crime, but we can’t say he is until he’s convicted in court.
In case you missed it, CNN aired a promotional ad the weekend of Jan. 5-6. “Where can you find a morning news anchor who's provocative, super-smart (and) oh, yeah, just a little sexy?” it asked. The answer? “CNN. Yeah, CNN.”
And, oh yeah, the word “sexy” was followed by an unusual sound effect. Some thought it sounded like a zipper being undone. Company officials say it was the sound of a needle being pulled across a record. Remember LPs?
We are told that the ad never was approved by anyone in CNN’s executive hierarchy and that the network is sorry about running it. “It was a major blunder by our promotions department,” CNN Chairman Walter Isaacson said. “I was outraged and so was Paula, who has spent more than 20 years proving her credibility day in and day out.”
“CNN management has apologized to me and has assured me that a mistake like this will not happen again,” Zahn said.
Now, stop me if you’ve heard all this before. But the story came to mind again on Jan. 15, when CNN announced its hiring of Serena Altschul as a New York-based correspondent.
Who is Serena Altschul? Well, since 1996, she’s been a reporter for MTV News. So, whether or not she’s sexy, we at least know she’s hip. According to the MTV webpage, “Altschul regularly hosts MTV's hourly news reports which cover everything from music and pop culture to social issues and politics. Altschul has interviewed hundreds of musicians for MTV News including Sarah McLachlan, Metallica, Foo Fighters, Brandy & Monica, Beck and Jakob Dylan, to name a few.”
Oh. She sounds like a perfect fit for the “World’s News Leader.” It’s hard to believe she’s being hired based on her body of work at MTV. Also, according to CNN, Altschul still will work for MTV, where she’ll host the network’s “Breakin’ it Down” series and produce documentaries. So she’ll have one foot in the news world, and keep one in the world of pop culture.
Altschul isn’t the first woman to join CNN with, shall we say, questionable journalistic credentials. Last April, the network hired former actress Andrea Thompson to anchor on the revamped -- or maybe just plain vamped -- CNN Headline News.
Thompson came on board after only a single year in TV news at a local station. She also brought baggage -- nude photos shot during her previous career as an actress/model. Thompson said she would “make no apologies for the creative decisions I've made as an artist in my 20-year career.” Nor should she.
However, the episode raised a question: If Andrea Thompson wasn’t hired because of her sex appeal, then why was she hired? Certainly not on the basis of her vast experience at KRQE in Albuquerque, N.M.
I’m not saying these women are unqualified. But they have nothing approaching the experience of some of the reporters let go in the past year, including Carl Rochelle, Richard Blystone and Gene Randall. What the new reporters do have is more curb appeal.
So the bottom line is, being sexy can’t hurt you at CNN. Even 10 p.m. anchor Aaron Brown got into the act last Dec. 5. He ended his program by complaining about an online poll being held by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to determine which male CNN anchor was the sexiest. No -- not complaining that the poll was being taken -- complaining that he wasn’t included among the contestants.
Brown told viewers that his omission was not fair: “I hope you'll agree, not because I am desperate to be considered the sexiest anchor at CNN -- Larry (King) wins that -- it's just a matter of principle”.
The next night Brown reported he had been added to the AJC home page that was running the poll and that he was pleased with how things were going. “Essentially, it's me against the entire field. Not really fair, but the results are encouraging.”
Brown never got his name included in the actual poll, won by Nic Robertson. But he did convince the newspaper’s editors to consider adding his name to next year’s poll. So we have that to look forward to.
Oh, and on the women’s side – Paula Zahn finished tied for third, behind Daryn Kagen and the now retired Lynne Russell. Proving that, possibly, being sexy isn’t what it used to be.