It's Still a Man's World on the Idiot Box

By MAUREEN DOWD

New York Times

December 2, 2004

It's the End of an Era. A momentous change.

Tonight on NBC, one tall and handsome white male anchor with bespoke clothes will replace another tall and handsome white male anchor with bespoke clothes.

Even Tom Brokaw is a little surprised that he has been succeeded by someone who looks like the love child he and Peter Jennings never had.

"I honestly thought, eight or nine years ago, that when we left," Mr. Brokaw said, referring to himself, Peter and Dan Rather, "that it would be the end of white male anchor time."

Nah. Those guys are hard to kill off. Indeed, white men are ascendant in Red State America.

As my mom said, discussing her belief that Martha Stewart had been railroaded by jealous men, "If men could figure out how to have babies, they'd get rid of us altogether."

The networks don't even give lip service to looking for women and blacks for anchor jobs - they just put pretty-boy clones in the pipeline.

"I think we're still stuck in a society that looks at white males as authority figures," Mr. Brokaw conceded.

Bill Carter, a TV reporter at The Times, agreed: "Katie Couric may be a much bigger star and even more experienced than Brian Williams. But when the next 9/11 happens, it'll be Brian, not Katie, in the central role. The attitude still seems to be, 'We want a daddy in that chair.' "

And then there's biology. Asked why there couldn't be an anchorette as we enter 2005, Mr. Brokaw, the father of three accomplished daughters and the husband of one strong, cool wife, Meredith, replied: "You know, honestly, what happens is career interruptus by childbirth and a couple of other things. It's unfair to women that they have to juggle all this stuff, but it plays some role, I think."

At CBS, the Dan Rather look-alike John Roberts is locked in a battle with the Dan Rather sound-alike Scott Pelley to succeed Dan, and executives are considering four guys - three of them white - to replace Craig Kilborn on "The Late Late Show."

At NBC, Conan O'Brien is locked in to succeed Jay Leno in 2009, and executives have groomed Brian Williams for a decade to replace Tom Brokaw. I asked Brian in December 1995 if he was a Tom pod person. "I can deny the existence of a factory in the American Midwest that puts out people like me," he said, deadpan, looking at me with those green anchor eyes.

Roger Ailes says he has joked about Mr. Williams having too many shirts, but says he'll "do better than people think. ... He has that Tom Brokaw look of somebody every mother wants her daughter to marry."

Even if I felt like raising a ruckus about Boys Nation, who would care? Feminism lasted for a nanosecond, but the backlash has lasted 30 years.

We are in the era of vamping, self-doubting "Desperate Housewives," not strong, cutting "Murphy Brown." It's the season of prim "stay in the background" Laura Bush, not assertive "two for the price of one" Hillary. Where would you even lodge a feminist protest these days?

"You ought to call the Lifetime network or, as we say, the 'Men Are No Damn Good Network,' and protest it," Mr. Ailes slyly suggested.

I know that women have surpassed men, in many respects, by embracing their femininity and frivolity. Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer, who mix news with dish, cooking and fashion in the morning, are the real breadwinners of their news divisions, generating more ratings and revenue than the cookie-cutter men of the night.

Yet, as Mr. Ailes says, "network anchoring is still Mount Olympus." I checked around for feminist outrage, but couldn't find any. Women told me the nightly news was an anachronism, so why shouldn't the anchor be? "Caring about having a woman in the showcase or figurehead role seems so 80's," one said.

Another friend said she devotes the "one little ounce of feminist annoyance" she has left for the excess of "young fluffs" on cable news - as opposed to substantial newswomen, like CNN's bespectacled Pentagon reporter, Barbara Starr, "who looks like she could hit those generals with a handbag if they didn't give her answers."

But my pal admits that she watched Mr. Brokaw partly because he was "eye candy," and declares women at fault in this matter: "Women like to read books about men and go to movies about men. But men don't like to read books about women or go to movies about women. The only way this is going to change is if women refuse to watch men. And the problem is, women like watching men."

E-mail: liberties@nytimes.com