Wendy Mesley come on down

On two major U.S. networks, women now anchor the evening news. CBC might want to think about that.

Wendy Mesley come on downIt was 1976, and I had just been hired as a television news anchor and staff announcer at CBC’s Halifax station. Only 22 years old, I had been put through a complicated audition process beforehand—anchoring both the six and 11 o’clock news, including at-the-board weather and interviews, then turning around the very next day to host early-morning radio at 6 a.m., and the afternoon show at 4 p.m., before racing back to the TV studio to anchor the six and 11 o’clock newscasts all over again. Over a 24-hour period, I was a one-woman band—all a test to see if a woman could keep up to the “rigours of the job,” as management put it, something I suspect a male announcer had never been asked to do. It seemed to be a set-up to ensure I’d fail, but when I refused to be reduced to a withering heap on the floor, the bewildered CBC bosses reluctantly confirmed my position on staff, and my trial period was over. I had made it—the first-ever female CBC staff announcer in the Atlantic provinces. (By that time, Jan Tennant had held the distinction in Toronto for five years.)

I was a pioneer, and pioneering was not to be easy. Criticism abounded from within the ranks: male announcers were aghast, managers were still leery, even some female employees expressed their displeasure (“women shouldn’t be reading the news”; “they aren’t credible”; “their voices are too shrill”). This was a time when the only shows women hosted were afternoon-tea-type programs about flowers and food and arts and crafts—shows I abhorred. The most widely held belief, even among those who begrudgingly accepted my appointment, was that my time in TV would definitely be short-lived—women anchors would surely be out of a job as they aged, well before they reached 40.

Four years later, when I moved to Toronto to anchor CBC’s flagship 6 o’clock TV news, I realized things weren’t much better when one Toronto manager told me that women shouldn’t be anchors because “men become credible as they age and women just get old.”

That was 30 years ago. How times have changed. Female news anchors are aging quite nicely past 40, some into their 60s, all in front of the camera. Even Nostradamus didn’t see this one coming.

Yet, in spite of all the gains, it wasn’t until 2006 that the final bastion of male anchordom came tumbling down in the U.S. with the hiring of Katie Couric at CBS as the first solo female evening news anchor on a major network. (Barbara Walters holds the distinction of first female co-anchor, at ABC in 1976, famously joining Harry Reasoner, who couldn’t hide his disdain at sharing the desk with a woman.)

Walters broke down numerous barriers for women in television, but it’s Couric, the homey, former long-time popular host of NBC’s Today show, who brought down this final big one. Better late than never, but does she merit this lofty history-making distinction? After all, national news anchoring is a very specific job—the anchor must obviously be credible and informed, but the real test is connecting with the audience. In other words, you have to have “presence.” Think Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. They were great newsmen, but above all, they were great communicators.

Couric was successful in her morning gig, but on the anchor desk? I think not. She resembles a deer in the headlights, looking a bit propped-up, like a puppet on a string, unsure of what her next move will be. What came across as warm and comfortable on the Today show does not translate for Couric as anchor. On morning television, her habit of pronouncing her “ings” as “eens” (“it’s interesteen,” “it’s happeneen,” a localized U.S. dialect) was tolerated, but on the national evening news, it’s just grating. And live on the scene of the earthquake in Haiti, Couric seemed to be trying too hard to come across as crusty and profound, like many of her male predecessors, but instead just seemed cold and detached, a description that would never have been used to describe her on the Today show. Katie, as she was known on her morning gig, is learning that evening news is a lot different than morning TV.

But the problems with Couric (ratings aren’t good) didn’t stop rival ABC from hiring Diane Sawyer, who slipped into “retiring” Charlie Gibson’s quickly vacated anchor chair last December with considerable ease. Like Katie Couric, Sawyer comes from early morning TV (Good Morning America), but is also a former beauty queen. Years ago that would have brought out voodoo dolls and sorcerers. An aging beauty queen a major national news anchor? Surely you jest. But at age 64, with her teenage pageant days long behind her, Sawyer has not only built up an impressive resumé (60 Minutes, 20/20, and Forbes magazine’s 2008 list of the world’s 100 most powerful women), but also proudly displays what appear to be untreated crow’s feet (really!).

PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTOPHER WAHL

Photograph by Christopher Wahl

Sawyer is proving to be an excellent front man for ABC News. Anchoring from Haiti, she was warm and sincere—obviously alarmed and distressed by what she witnessed, and not afraid to show it—drawing in her audience, who could completely relate to how she was feeling. Unlike Couric, the comfortable and human Sawyer has been able to translate her early morning success to the anchor desk. She has true presence, and, as such, could be manning the ABC news desk for many years to come.

So the bra burners, the women’s libbers of the ’60s and ’70s, can finally relax. Even if “softy” Couric and “beauty queen” Sawyer were not who they had in mind, credible females are finally at the top of the news chain, after being bypassed for years. And with two of the big three anchor positions in the U.S. now held by “mature” women, all of a sudden aging female anchors are in vogue. The rules have changed.

Here in Canada, although a number of women have been competent fill-in and weekend national news anchors for many years (all the way back to Tennant in the ’70s), none have yet popped into that big permanent seat on a major network. In 1992 Pamela Wallin became Canada’s first female nightly national news co-anchor (with Peter Mansbridge) when CBC launched Prime Time News at 9 p.m. When the show fared badly and was moved back to its original time slot, there was only one anchor—and it wasn’t Wallin, perhaps because men weren’t even close to being pried out of that big anchor seat back then. Things are different now, and the winds of change are blowing from the south. So is there a woman anchor on television today who deserves the title of first permanent Canadian female national news reader? Hmmm.

At CTV, Lloyd Robertson is still king, and deservedly so. He’s an excellent interpreter of news, and a skilled communicator, probably why he’s universally referred to as just “Lloyd.” (Another sign of the times, Cronkite was certainly not known as Walter.) Long-time weekend anchor Sandie Rinaldo is competent, but doesn’t come close to having the presence of Lloyd. Substitute Lisa LaFlamme has more appeal, and seems to be gaining more confidence over time, but it’s still Lloyd who has the charisma.

At CBC, it’s a different story. Although Peter Mansbridge has been glued to the anchor desk for a long time, I believe he makes a better interviewer than an anchor, so maybe he shouldn’t be feeling too comfortable right about now. After all, he does have serious competition from one of his female replacements—none other than the ageless and engaging Wendy Mesley. Known mainly for her work on CBC’s Marketplace, and a regular contributor to The National, Mesley has that extra something, that star quality that Mansbridge has always lacked. Armed with all of the credentials for the job, including three decades of reporting experience, Mesley also connects big-time, diving headfirst through that lens and into the hearts of the audience. Just last week, when I ran into a friend who had been interviewed for a Marketplace story, and I asked him how it went, he replied, sadly, “not good, Wendy wasn’t there.” He talked about her as though they were long-time friends, when, in reality, they’ve never met. Crusty old judges and mean-spirited spinsters all like Mesley. A modern day Mary Tyler Moore—warm and human, making the occasional flub, as she tilts her head one way, then the other with that disarming grin, anchor Mesley keeps gaining fans. In an unofficial poll for this article, I couldn’t find one person to say a negative thing about her. Let’s face it, there’s just something about Wendy that makes you want to watch her—she’s interesting, and she has that mass appeal that can move mountains.

But can she move management at the CBC? Filling in is a consolation prize, and Mesley deserves much more. If the powers that be at The National don’t wake up, someone south of the border just might…and there she’ll go.

Perhaps her ex-husband Mansbridge can help. In 1988, as the folklore goes, Mansbridge was being courted by CBS, which “apparently” prompted then-CBC national news anchor Knowlton Nash to “give up” his position, so that Mansbridge could take it over and remain in Canada. It always sounded like a fairytale to me, but if it’s not, then maybe it’s time for Mansbridge to “pay it forward,” and step aside for 53-year-old Mesley, a seasoned television journalist who is still rising toward her peak, in mid-life. Mesley deserves the historic title of Canada’s first female permanent national news anchor.

Thirty years ago it never could’ve happened. Today, it very well could. Here’s hoping.




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Wendy Mesley come on down

  1. "I believe he (Peter Mansbridge) makes a better interviewer than an anchor …" Agreed. As anchor, the man is like ice. As interviewer, he warms up. Mesley, like Sawyer, is credible and humane, not to mention hot!

  2. "On two major U.S. networks, women now anchor the evening news. CBC might want to think about that."

    Why does the gender of a candidate make an iota of difference? Shouldn't one just pick the best person for the job?

  3. I must agree with Gaunilon on this, gender shouldn't be the issue. But I think if you wanted to make an argument for female news anchors you could have found a better example. I enjoy watching Wendy on such shows as Marketplace but I don't believe that qualifies her to host the news. Perhaps a better choice to promote would have been Kathleen Petty, somebody who already has a reputation for news.

  4. Over half the Canadian workforce is female. Over 65% of university graduate are female. 70% of graduating lawyers are female. 65% of new cars sold in America last year were purchased by women. And you're still complaining.

    It's not 1973 anymore Miss Dunn. Employment equity explicitly discriminates against men today in the employment market, and you're still complaining? You still want more? How about cab drivers? Do you want equity there too, I ask rhetorically, or do you just want to poach the best jobs, not as a matter of social justice but as a matter of pure, selfish greed?

    Tell you what: when you support "gender normalizing" the criminal code for equity in the prison population in this country, currently over 95% male, I'll consider your latest greedy selfish demand, deal?

    Quota hiring diminishes the accomplishments of all women, invites a justifiable backlash, and in the long run will harm women more than help them.

  5. duh! it's Couric who did great anchoring live on Minneapolis, California Wildfires and Haiti.. and she's the best interviewer on TV. She paved the way for Sawyer.. and if Sawyer was the first, she'll face the same scrutiny Couruic dealth being the 1st

  6. The premise of this essay is false. Canada has not one, but two female national TV news anchors. Sophie Thibault anchors TVA's 10 p.m. newscast, and Celine Galipeau is the anchor of Radio-Canada's flagship Telejournal 'cast. I'm not even French and I knew that!

  7. "Shouldn't one just pick the best person for the job?"

    Who watches dinner-time news? Geezers! Grandpa Jones, tripping on some black market viagra or cheap imitations that won't interfere with his beta-blockers, is who. Katie Couric is a dimwit; much like all US newscasters (Sorry John Roberts, I liked you better on the Pepsi Power Hour). So, women who could have been or were beauty pageant queens now are evening news/teleprompter readers.

    Wow what an accomplishment!

    Sarah Palin fits right at home at FOX with her dumb-as-a-rock commentary and MILF looks for the retirement home Casanova's. Grandpa like his ladies dumb.

    So in fact the right person was chosen for the job. Let's face it, with 66% of Americans overweight, last thing anyone wants to watch is a diabetic and morbidly obese geriatric man wheezing through another man-bites-dog bit of useless mind-numbing, attention distracting, fluff that segues into some great commercials on life insurance and value-added burial plots.

  8. Ahh diversity fascism is still alive and well. Affirmative action has now entered Network TV. I think we should ban men from hockey and everybody should pretend that women's hockey really matters. That would be the ultimate act of political correctness. American anchors are getting their asses kicked by the males on Fox News. Sorry but Sawyer is not good in her new role. Ditto for Couric. Female anchors are a cute little experiment like woman's hockey. Maybe if we could find somebody hot like the Obama Girl maybe then I would watch a female lead news broadcast. I can't think of one Canadian female who has that kind of star power. All i can say that any female who takes over an anchor role better not be working for a government funded network.

  9. The comments here are very revealing. If only the best person for the job could actually receive the position. If only the "battle of the sexes" was actually a relic of the past. If only attitudes weren't so difficult to change…it seems to take forever. Pity, a real pity issues discussed here still matter and are still relevant.

  10. I agree that Mesley would be a great anchor. She is certainly credible and charismatic. I was really rooting for her when she admirably battled cancer a while back.

    As much as I have liked Loyd Robertson over the decades, I really think its time for him to move over and let someone else have the job.

  11. As a long time CBC National follower, I find myself turning the channel if cutie pie Wendy with the tilting head and "disarming grin" is on. I find her interview style self righteous and besieging and her persona sickening. Her intellect doesn't compare to the late Barbara Frum. The CBC should give Wendy the hook and allow some other people a chance. What happened to Diana Swain?

  12. Wendy Mesley as permanent anchor of The National? Give me a break!

  13. Nice article Sharon. Very well said. Looks as though Mesley really knows what she's doing.

  14. Anne-Marie Mediwake is the perfect anchor. Wendy Mesley and a few other should be coached by her as to how to get rid of their faked smile and be less animated.

  15. TV? Do they still make those things? If you get your news from a TV then you don't need it. TV is is a razors edge from being as anachronistic as a newspaper – or a magazine for that matter.

    Seriously, for her work on Marketplace, Wendy Mesley should have been given any position she wanted. My favourite episode was Baby Einstein when she embarrassed the ill prepared Disney PR person.

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