With all the talk about sexual harassment in business and politics, veteran newswoman Cokie Roberts told host Marvin Kalb on April 1 that conditions for women in journalism are much improved now compared with how they were when she launched her career in the mid-1960s.
“It is night and day different from when I went into the news business,” said Roberts, a mainstay in National Public Radio since 1978 and ABC News since 1988, as well as a contributor to PBS NewsHour. “At that point, you had men saying to you, ‘We don’t hire women to do that,’ with their hands on your knee.”
All women know about women’s rights legislation known as Title IX of the 1972 Education Act, she said. But, few women are aware of Title VII in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The act prohibited employment discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, and color. Almost unnoticed, two women legislators—Rep. Martha Griffiths, D-M.I., and Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, R-Maine—added “sex” to the list.
“That’s what changed employment for women in America,” she said. “That did it.”
She recalled sitting next to a senator at a head table during an event and the senator put his hand on her knee.
“I picked it up, put it on the table and said, ‘I think this belongs to you.’ It was so blatant. And the discrimination was so blatant,” Roberts said. “So honestly, we cared less about the harassment than we did about the discrimination. Give us the job, and we will escape you.”
She said it is great now that women feel the power to say, “Don’t do this. It’s inappropriate. Stop.”
While Roberts is appalled that President Trump would use the phrase “enemy of the people” to describe the news media—citing its Stalinist origin—she said she is not surprised at the divisions now in American politics and among the news media.
The camaraderie among legislators came out of World War II when many of the legislators had “literally been in foxholes together,” she said. It lasted until the end of the Cold War. “You had this sense that the enemy was not the guy across the aisle, but the dictator across the sea.”
But American politics was much more divisive throughout much of its history and the press was much more biased, and that’s what the country is returning to, Roberts said. “I’m afraid it’s more like the norm.”
The country is going through an extraordinary period of turmoil, economically and socially, that has left large parts of the population wishing they could return to the good old days, she said, adding that Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama ran promising campaigns to bring the country together, and they couldn’t. Donald Trump did not invent these divisions, she said, but he has exploited them, and he could get reelected.
Roberts said that during the days when the news media was supposed to be unbiased, it was far from inclusive.
“The people telling the story were almost entirely—99.9 percent, 99.9999 percent—white males, and they were telling the story from their perspective,” she said. “It might not have been politically biased in their views, but it carried the bias of their privileged existence.”
The Kalb Report, now in its 25th season, is a joint project of National Press Club’s Journalism Institute, the University of Maryland University College, the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs, Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, the Gaylord College of Journalism at the University of Oklahoma, and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. It is underwritten by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation and Maryland Public Television serves as presenting station for national distribution.