Wendy Mesley come on down - Macleans.ca

Wendy Mesley come on down

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

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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.