Jill Abramson on the Challenge of Creating a Female 'Voice of Authority'

In 2006, Abramson wrote in More about how women can establish their power and authority, and challenge the "Daddy knows best hierarchies" of government, business and media. And click here for More's March 2012 profile of Abramson.

By Jill Abramson
jill abramson new york times image
Jill Abramson
Photograph: Fred Conrad, New York Times

As Couric takes her seat at the anchor desk of CBS Evening News, her correspondents and producers in the field will be flooding her with images of war, climatological cliff-hangers around the world and tales of an ugly partisan fight for control of Congress.

Couric will be scrutinized for how she handles the news. But viewers and critics will be paying close attention to other factors too: whether she dons the horn-rimmed glasses she sometimes wore on the Today show to project gravitas; if the anchor’s desk has been reconfigured to show off her legs; and whether Couric has adjusted the timbre of her voice and the wattage of her smile to the sweet spot on the spectrum between perky and powerful.

Couric joins hundreds of other women holding high-level jobs in the media, politics and the corporate world at a time when audiences (viewers, voters, shareholders) are getting used to hearing the news of the day and affairs of state delivered by a woman. But even as women wield increasing power, they—and we—still struggle with how that voice of authority should look and sound.

I know this dilemma firsthand. I’m 52, and I became the first woman managing editor of the New York Times after a string of other “firsts,’’ including serving as the Times’s first female bureau chief in Washington, D.C. I’ve been reporting on the intersection of gender and power—Anita Hill, Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice—since I started out as a political and investigative reporter in the 1970s. I know that acquiring authority as a woman is tough enough; using and projecting it is even more complicated. There are plenty of pitfalls and few good role models.

Couric’s deal was still in the negotiating stages when CBS chief Leslie Moonves proclaimed that the era of the “voice of God” anchor was dead. Since then, CBS has been trying to figure out exactly what era we’re in. Couric spent weeks traveling around the country this summer on a listening tour modeled on one taken by Clinton before her 2000 Senate campaign. It wasn’t just a publicity tour, but one designed to help Couric find her anchor’s voice. I agree with Moonves that the very notion of an Olympian voice of authority, in the mold of Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite, is passé. Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert have built successful shows by puncturing the pompous, gas-filled television talking heads. Anderson Cooper’s emotive style may give Couric a wider emotional berth as well. The explosion of the Internet, with so many voices (many of them ideological), has also radically changed and democratized where people go for news and whom they view as an authority.

Journalists—including God himself, Walter Cronkite, in conversation with CNN’s Larry King—have also talked about whether Couric has the hard- news cred for the CBS Evening News job, one that involves setting an agenda and leading a staff. Does she have the knowledge, the experience? Fair questions.

But the endless comments about her looks and accessories are silly and retro—even if they are inevitable. Until women anchors are old news, until Hillary or another woman has occupied the West Wing, we’ll be flyspecked with these gender-based  visual aids. The irony: As my female contemporaries in influential jobs have all learned, the one way not to establish power and authority is to imitate men. If Couric tries to ape Uncle Walter (and she wouldn’t), she’s dead. Perhaps there is a reason why there is no female equivalent of the word avuncular.

First Published June 3, 2011

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