Editorial by John Ziegler

CNN Anchor Too Sexy for her Promo?


She's Too Sexy For Her Promo? (Or "Zahn's Sex Appeal Stops the Zapper")

Have you heard about the latest episode in the continuing saga of television newscasters pretending to be real journalists while simultaneously resorting to titillation for ratings? In case you missed it, CNN recently aired some promotions for its morning show "news anchor" Paula Zahn that hailed her as being "provocative, super-smart, oh yeah, and just a little bit sexy."

I didn't make that up. A major national news network known for its serious coverage of international affairs decided to promote its most visible newsperson by calling her "sexy." That sound you just heard is Edward R. Murrow rolling over in his grave.

Embarrassed CNN executives quickly yanked the ads, calling them "a major blunder by our promotions department." They also apologized to Zahn, who said, "When I saw it, I was offended."

As a former television anchorperson on the local level, I found this incident to be remarkably full of both humor and hypocrisy. First of all, does any one really believe that Paula Zahn or the vast majority of other "anchor babes" in the "news" business would have their jobs at all if they were fat and ugly? Anyone who does probably has spent far too much time calling the "Psychic Friends Hotline," following professional wresting, attending televangelist revivals, or watching "Larry King Live."

Quite simply, over the past two decades television news people have been chosen by a process that places attractiveness far above any other attribute. News directors are usually inundated with hundreds of tapes every time there is an opening. They then give each applicant MAYBE thirty seconds of their time. What else are they possibly going conclude about someone in that short span other than what they look like?

With the increased competition of a 100 channel cable universe, news outlets are forced to do anything they can to get us to stop the clicker on their station. With our television viewing attention spans frighteningly low, the easiest way to do that is to have extremely attractive people on the air at all times. While it would be ideal if these people also had a clue about how to report the news, that concern is a distant second to more "important" factors. In reality this phenomenon is the fault of the viewers because, if we watched the most "credible" news instead of the most visually appealing news, that is exactly what they would give us. But we don't, so they don't.

As a consequence, model-like "personalities" such as Matt Lauer (who, when he hosted an inane morning show in Boston the news department there wouldn't even let him near the newsroom) and Ashleigh Banfield (who is known more for her glasses and ever changing hair color than for her alleged interviewing skills) somehow find themselves covering the biggest stories in the world, on a national stage, under the bastardized heading "journalist."

On the local level this farce is even more transparent. Female anchors especially are routinely replaced once they are no longer, as one consultant once said, "Good looking enough for men in the 25-54 demo to want to sleep with." (Interestingly, the former "anchor babes" who sue over their age-related ouster never seem to remember that they got the job in the first place because they once attracted those men.)

Here in Philadelphia, Fox recently replaced its long time anchor Jill Chernekoff with the younger and strikingly beautiful Dawn Stensland. My guess is that their ratings will go up and Stensland's journalistic background will not have anything to do with the increase in viewership.

As the Zahn promotion flap illustrates, this trend of placing beauty over brains in the news business is getting stronger every day as outlets become far more brazen about flaunting the sex appeal of their personalities. In Los Angeles (where else?) a local news anchor actually did a story in which she was scantily clad in the costumes of the WB network series "Charmed" and acted out some the of the sexier scenes. I have been predicting for years that someday soon at least the women doing the weather on the local news will be wearing bikinis, or even less.

What seems strange to me about the reaction to Zahn (who will turn 46 later this year) being called "sexy," is not only does it deny a basic reality of television, but it also seems to imply that sexiness is a "bad" attribute. Are sexiness and journalistic integrity really mutually exclusive qualities? Shouldn't forty-something women be thrilled that someone of Zahn's age is still considered by men to be attractive enough to make them stop changing the channel for a few minutes?

I have no problem with good looking people of both sexes being chosen to read the news as long as every one admits that this is why they are hired and realizes that, in general, they are no more worthy of respect than the mere actors/models they have become.

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