Media veteran Cokie Roberts speaks at MVC

Interviewing a professional interviewer can be a little intimidating, especially if she is one of the most well known journalists in the country. But Cokie Roberts’ poised yet friendly demeanor put me at ease. Her favorite part of journalism is that is gives her a “license to snoop,” and that is what I like best too, so why should I be afraid? The guests on ABC’s “This Week with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts” were not always as comfortable as I was, though.

Roberts, chief Congressional analyst for ABC News and news analyst for National Public Radio, spoke to an audience of about 50 women Friday about balancing career and family at a Mount Vernon campus women’s leadership conference. Her talk included many references to women in American history, who were able to balance work and family without the convenience of “an air-conditioned minivan.”

After her talk, Roberts sat down to speak with me about opportunities for women in journalism and her impressions of the media’s coverage of the war in Iraq.

Hatchet: You talked a lot today about being a mother, besides that, are there any other challenges women journalists face versus their male counterparts?

Cokie Roberts: Sure, but it is nowhere near as bad as it once was. When I started out they said out loud “we do not hire women to do that.”

H: Is that different today?

CR: It is still true. You find fewer women in the most attractive beats. You look at the three network nightly newscasts and it’s still three white guys. For a long time I thought that is because they are there and when they go, it will different. But everyone who is being talked about as their successors are white guys.

H: What do you think women have to do to change that?

CR: We have to really keep making the point over and over again. But what has happened in local television (is that networks have) learned they have to have female anchors or women don’t watch, and that affects their pocketbooks. That’s the best thing that can happen. And it is also true journalism schools are mostly female, so you are going to see change.

H: In your talk today you said how this war has given women soldiers many new opportunities. Do you think the war has opened the same doors for women journalists? I looked at the war insert of the Washington Post today and there were only a handful of female bylines.

CR: You never know how much is self-selection. People said they did not want to go. But I do think when networks or newspapers think about whom they are going to send, the first person to come to mind is not a woman.

H: What is the reason they think that way?

CR: Because they think war … guy … macho.

H: What do you think of the war coverage in general?

CR: I think it is very good. I think all this argument about embedded reporters is silly. We had no coverage at all of Gulf War I. There were reporters sitting in briefing rooms looking at pictures of smart bombs hitting their targets. In Afghanistan people would try to get close to where the troops were but couldn’t get close enough.

H: So you think the embedded journalism program works well?

CR: I think with the combination of people actually with the troops in a real time war, with people who are over there not with the troops and with reporters back here putting together the big picture at the Pentagon everyday, I think you get a really good picture.

H: Do you think it is surprising, considering the Bush White House, which known for being relatively tight-lipped, to use embedded journalism? Do you think there is a pressure because of it on networks to seem patriotic in their coverage?

CR: I think that pressure is totally from the buying public and that no news organization wants anybody to think they are not being patriotic.

H: How can reporters be careful of not alienating their audience and still be objective?

CR: Well, that does not mean in terms of shaping the story, because a good reporter is going to report what he or she sees and report it straight. I mean 99.9 percent of the time that is going to happen. But it is the music, it’s coming up on the screen “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” It’s all that, a sense of point of view about it.

H: Do you think all that stuff is appropriate for a free press?

CR: I don’t think that is necessarily inappropriate at all. This is a time of war and there is “us” and “them” at wartime. We know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are. But, there was an appalling story in the Post yesterday where broadcast consultants told media organizations not to cover anti-war protests.

H: Yes, I read that. They said dissent doesn’t sell well. What did you think of that?

CR: I couldn’t believe it and that was saying, “shape the story, don’t cover demonstrations.” That’s horrible. I mean you should tell the story, whatever the story is.

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