If anyone is under the impression that women have come a long way in terms of being respected for what they do as opposed to how they look, let me tell you the story of Cindy Hernandez of Albuquerque, N.M.
Hernandez is an anchorwoman at television station KOB. She was temporarily yanked from her anchor chair last week by her news director. And what journalistic faux pas had Hernandez committed? Plagiarism? Libel? Misrepresenting the facts? No, her crime, as it turns out, was not reportorial but tonsorial.
Hernandez, you see, had the temerity to cut her hair short without first getting permission from her boss. She went from the rather standard shoulder length 'do to a very short pixie cut. After a few viewers called in with negative reactions, including one who called her "Dr. Spock," the news director, Chris Berg, took her off the air briefly until, as he put it, "we could figure out what to do."
Was Hernandez outraged at this treatment? Not at all. She agrees that she should have asked first. "After all," she told me, "it's not like they're telling me to wear a wig." She is now back on the air and growing her hair. Like a good girl.
Now, it would be naïve to suggest that appearance doesn't count in television news. But it would be equally naïve to suggest that women and men face the same standards in this area. I talked to Berg about this, and he insisted that if one of his male anchors came in one day with bleached hair, he would react the same way.
But hair splitting aside, what does any of this have to do with journalism? I asked. He replied, rather vehemently, "Who are we trying to kid here? TV news is driven by ratings, period.
"We were concerned," he added, " for the viewers' comfort."
I had this image of viewers writhing in pain at the mere sight of Cindy's new 'do.
Delivering Only Warm News to the Viewer?
So do we blame the viewers, the culture, for focusing on a woman's looks rather than her ability? Do we blame sexist male news directors? Or do we blame reporters like Hernandez, who told me, "There was a feeling I didn't come across as warm anymore."
Since when did the news have to be warm? I wondered. And what does that have to do with hair? But I sense that Hernandez is just as much a victim of the culture as she is a reflection of it.
When I asked her what she hoped for in the future, the 34-year-old said, "Well, I can't see doing this past the age of 40." Why not? asked this 54-year-old. "Because," she said "I can't stand the thought of people talking about my wrinkles."
I asked her news director about that. "Do you only hire women who are young and coiffed?"
"Well," he replied, "You're not young and coiffed, but I'd hire you." I didn't know quite how to thank him.