Guest Commentary

KMBC said I was too old and too ugly. Newswomen today are still fighting discrimination

Christine Craft
Christine Craft

No regerts. That’s not a typo — it’s just the tagline from that funny candy bar TV commercial where a biker’s new tattoo is misspelled by an artist distracted by the Milky Way she’s eating. It makes me chuckle. But the phrase still describes me.

More seriously, now that I’m twice as old as when the bosses at KMBC, Channel 9, told me I was too old, too ugly and not sufficiently deferential to male colleagues, I’m also reflecting on the sudden spate of discrimination lawsuits being brought by other newswomen.

It sounds all too familiar, particularly the case of Karen Fuller, who settled her age and gender discrimination lawsuit against the owner of KCTV-5 late last year. Her bosses contemplated her replacement’s girl-next-door appeal and ability to look more credible through clothing choices.

My experience included having to follow a “fashion calendar” and a TV consultant from Dallas who unflinchingly insisted that one creates credibility through the proper combinations of texture, fabric, makeup and the quality of chat time between you and your co-anchor. Real ability to develop sources and pose uncomfortable questions to the powerful didn’t matter.

When I told my story to The Kansas City Star’s Barry Garron in 1981, management types in TV news clutched their hearts. No one ever thought a female TV “personality” would admit she’d been called “unattractive.”

They were playing with the wrong person. As a former competitive surfer, I had seen real sharks. The corporate ones just didn’t scare me.

The bigwigs at Channel 9 tried to staunch the flow of my public outrage by scheduling a meeting at the Kansas City Club on a Wednesday, the only day of the week that the all-male club then admitted women — but only to the mezzanine floor. There, I was told that Metromedia, the company that owned KMBC, could afford to keep my “back against the wall forever.” I wasn’t intimidated. It made me even more resolute.

African-American reporter Lisa Benson Cooper’s unsuccessful recent discrimination case also rings true. When I came to Kansas City, my predecessor Brenda Williams was African American. She was told that her anchoring stints would end as she recovered from cancer surgery in the hospital. Did they figure that a black woman could be treated that way without consequence? Yes, they did.

I was told that because I had rocked the boat, I would never work in the industry again. That wasn’t true. I went on to anchor a newscast in Sacramento, do lots of talk radio there and in San Francisco, go to law school and practice employment and disability law in my 60s. I’m currently 74 and finishing a documentary about 10 nasty deaths.

So life does go on. Being on TV is not the most important thing in the world. It isn’t brain surgery. By the same token, if the male anchors can be a decade older than the women and still be on the air — jowls, balding pates and all — then we have not come nearly far enough.

That’s the thing about lasting social change. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the notorious Supreme Court justice and champion for American women, put it simply: “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.”

As other groups in American society have discovered, the fight for hard-won rights doesn’t stop with a court victory. You’ve got to support each other. Racism, ageism and misogyny still bedevil this country. All too often, if I turn on local TV news, it seems that the basic requirements for females are breast implants and tight bandage dresses.

So I salute these genuine women who fought back. Long after the plastic bosoms have sagged and the high-heeled shoes have become unwearable for your less-substantive counterparts, you will have much to be proud of.

In the meantime, I can only tell you that I have no regerts … er, regrets — seriously. Anybody got a Milky Way?

Christine Craft is an attorney, radio talk show host and former television news anchor.