Roach: Double standards in the news industry

Pressure on a woman's appearance is constant
Roach: Double standards in the news industry

Amid the madness of these political times, it is almost mandatory to flip to a cable news channel to garner breaking information and context. But it’s a vain attempt to make sense of what’s coming out of Washington, D.C.

As news anchors deliver breathless updates or sage counsel, I find myself distracted, not by the information I am receiving, but by a fundamental injustice I am seeing.

By any standard, newswomen in front of the camera are required to work more on their appearance than their male counterparts. This has absolutely nothing to do with their journalistic credibility or pure, raw intelligence, which is often more impressive than their male counterparts, given that the female of our species is, for the most part, smarter than the male.

As a broadcast producer, I’ve seen men prepare to go on air. They put on a dark suit, shirt and a tie. They put on a little powder and comb their hair. The end. The biggest appearance challenge for male broadcasters is making sure their tie is straight.

But network news puts our cultural expectations under a powerful microscope. Female journalists must juggle the full array of beauty products — foundation, blush, mascara and whatever lipstick strategy they choose to employ. Plus, they often have more total hair mass to manage.

And unlike men, there doesn’t seem to be a simple blue suit default for the women on set, so their wardrobe is more complicated. It all seems unfair, at least to this writer who takes five minutes to throw on a suit and tie while his wife has to start getting ready an hour before a charity dinner, which never fails to garner a comment from her on the fundamental inequity of it all.

This goes to a deeper issue. The cultural pressure on a woman’s appearance is constant and costly. According to data from Euromonitor, for every $100 a woman spends on beauty products and services, men spend $8.60 on their grooming. If you were to translate this into beer, women buy four cases of Miller Lite to every six pack purchased by men.

Network news brings this into sharp focus. Take a look at CNN analyst David Axelrod. Does it look like he’s spent an hour working on his makeup, hair and wardrobe? No, it doesn’t. But look at Erin Burnett on the same channel and you know her cosmetic demands are greater, even though, by any standard, she is a naturally attractive and intelligent person.

The same is true on Fox. Does anyone think Bret Baier takes as much time to look presentable as Megyn Kelly did in her days on Rupert Murdoch’s network? Not even close. And let’s remember, it was the late Roger Ailes of Fox who wanted female anchors to show lots of skin, to the point that he changed the Fox News sets to reveal more of the female anchors’ legs. How wrong is that?

A young female writer in our office observed, “And they wear sleeveless dresses. As if being a mom and news anchor isn’t enough, they have to worry how their arms look.”

Think about it. Have you ever been subjected to Wolf Blitzer’s biceps? Or Sean Hannity’s legs? No, thank every saint in heaven, you haven’t.

This gets to the emotional core of the issue, one that saddens me. Why is it that society expects women to work on and worry more about their appearance than men?

According to psychologists, makeup is used to make its wearer more enticing to the opposite sex, or more presentable and powerful in general. Some psychologists even argue that makeup and heels are primal fertility cues.

Surely there is nothing wrong with a woman wanting to look her best, any more than it is for a man to do a little strutting.

But do I care about the fertility of a person giving me the latest on the Mueller Report? Must I see bare legs to comprehend the legal definition of obstruction better? No, I don’t. Nor do I need those cues from a female compatriot at work.

And that is the reason for a reflex that I have long had. There are times when I see a woman who looks to have spent a lot of time and money on her looks, and I want to say to her quietly, “You look wonderful, but you don’t have to work that hard if you don’t want to. You are smart and beautiful without Maybelline.”

Of course if I did that to Erin Burnett she would punch me. Or accuse me of being Joe Biden.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at