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'Fresh Air' Remembers Broadcast News Pioneer Marlene Sanders

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Marlene Sanders, a pioneer for women in broadcast news, died earlier this month at the age of 84. She never became a network star, but she managed to do serious reporting filing dispatches from Vietnam in the '60s and eventually became vice president at ABC news. Sanders is also the mother of CNN and New Yorker legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin. In his article, "My Mom, Top Journalist," he wrote that she made her name covering the glory days of the women's movement but continued to confront appalling sexism at many stages of her career.

Sanders tried acting early in her '20s, then met a regional theater producer named Mike Wallace and went on to work as a junior producer for his news programs. She was hired by ABC in 1964 hosting a five-minute broadcast called "News With The Woman's Touch." She went to Vietnam in 1966 and later covered the assassination of Robert Kennedy and the riots during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. She eventually made it into the executive ranks at ABC. In 1978, she moved to CBS and returned to reporting. Here she is on a CBS Newsbreak.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CBS NEWS")

MARLENE SANDERS: Good evening, from "CBS News," this is Newsbreak. Soviet President Brezhnev told 12 U.S. senators that the Soviet Union had once tested a neutron bomb but never put it into production. That's the bomb that kills people but leaves buildings standing. William Kampiles, a 23-year-old former CIA employee, has been convicted of selling top secret government documents to the Russians. Winter moved in on the Midwest today - 11 inches of snow in Minnesota. Also hard hit - parts of Michigan and Wisconsin. It was some nine months ago when the blizzard of '78 hit New England and the medical community predicted this would be a busy time for maternity wards, but it hasn't happened. One nurse said most of the men must've been out shoveling snow. I'm Marlene Sanders "CBS News" New York - more news later.

DAVIES: Terry spoke to Marlene Sanders in 1988 when she'd co-written a book about the experiences of women in journalism called "Waiting For Prime Time." In 1964, Sanders made broadcast history when she was the first woman to anchor a network evening newscast. Terry asked how she was chosen to fill in when Ron Cochran suddenly lost his voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

SANDERS: Well, I was the one that did the news in the afternoon; he was the one that did it at night. And the man who was the vice president of news, Jesse Zousmer, who was a great supporter of mine, he thought I was good and all that, and I don't know how they decided. They said - they called and said, can you substitute for Cochran tonight? He lost his voice. And I had about three hours to - yeah, certainly, yes, I said certainly. I ran home and figured out what I should wear. And I came back, and I just did it.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

What kind of notice did it get, either in the press or from viewers? Was there a lot of attention paid to the fact that this was a woman anchoring an evening newscast?

SANDERS: Well, The New York Times wrote it up as a first. Jack Gould who was a television critic - I can remember that review almost verbatim. He called me a courageous young woman with a vaster smile who had a no nonsense manner, which is always the way I've done the news. And there was that. There was no bad response. But on the other hand, nothing else happened. I went back to the afternoon into the stories I usually did. And it wasn't - nobody said, great, a breakthrough for women. It's a good idea, let's do it. So nothing happened.

GROSS: In 1970, you did a documentary called "Women's Liberation" on the women's movement. This was for ABC, and you say in your book that you didn't like the way the men reporters were covering the women's movement. What did you think was wrong with their coverage?

SANDERS: Well, they didn't understand it. I mean, they literally didn't understand it. They thought it had something to do with chivalry that oh - and that everybody hated - the women involved hated men, that it had to do with a - do you open the door for someone? Do you light the cigarette? All this nonsense, and they really were putting it down. And I knew of course it was about equal opportunity, jobs, all of that kind of thing. So I went to the head of the documentary unit, and I said, listen, I'd really like to do a half hour on what this is all about. And he was a very intelligent, good person. He said, go do it, which I did. And then I did a number of them afterwards.

GROSS: But you were surprised that you encountered a degree of distrust among the feminists who you were covering.

SANDERS: Well, because there were a lot of factions in the feminist movement. And for one thing, they suspected me because I worked for the media that was the enemy in many respects. And that I - how could I really understand if I worked for these people? And so I had a lot of hassles not only with the management of getting to do these things, but actually some of the women involved. So that made it - how shall we say? - interesting and a challenge.

GROSS: Feminism had its effect within the networks as well. There was a lot of organizing going on in the '70s inside the networks for equal pay for women and for other women's rights. You founded - co-founded a group called the Women's Action Committee at ABC. And I guess I'm thinking about how hard it must be in a very, very competitive field like broadcasting to have a sense of solidarity with people who you're working with when you're also competing for the limited number of good jobs.

SANDERS: Well, the interesting thing about that was that at that time, there were almost no women in news. I was one of the few. The rest were from public relations. They were at the corporate end. We didn't even know each other. I was not competitive with any of these people. We were all women from very different kinds of jobs who had looked at the women at the magazines Time, Life, Newsweek, Fortune, All, AP - there were all sorts of activities going on. And somehow we all found each other, got going and got it started.

Now, 10 years later at ABC, there now exists a group of all news women and that means producers, writers, correspondents. They could have a whole group of news women. Well, I couldn't have a group of news women. That would have been a group of two maybe. So we were not competitive. We were wonderfully supportive of each other, and it was a terrific feeling at that time.

GROSS: What do you think were the greatest gains that you got from organizing?

SANDERS: Well, first of all, making the managements aware of their bad record and the fact that women were kept out of certain jobs. What I think is the permanent accomplishment is that the doors are open from the very bottom almost to the top. In other words, women can get into the pipeline. They can be not only desk assistants, but tape editors and members of camera crews and reporters and producers and a few in management; that still remains to be solved - that particular area. But every - you know, all the networks now have a lot of women in a great variety of jobs. And that was not happening not too many years ago.

GROSS: For a while you anchored the CBS Newsbreak which is a short - what? - minute-long newscast...

SANDERS: About that.

GROSS: ...In prime time in the evening. And I remember my reaction the first time I saw you doing a Newsbreak. I was like, gee, a real woman (laughter). I mean, I was used to seeing women anchoring but mostly on the local level, and frequently the women were chosen it seems as much for their looks as for journalistic skills. And you just struck me as a real person, a real, skilled person as opposed to someone who was hired for being young and attractive. And it was very exciting for me.

SANDERS: Well, I've heard that from other people, and it really makes me feel good too because I - you know, it's a peculiar skill to reduce the news of the world to, you know, 10-second stories.

GROSS: Right (laughter).

SANDERS: And also it was live, and it was in front of 30, 40 million people. And I felt that, you know, it had some symbolic benefit. So I'm happy to hear that your reaction was what I would've hoped.

GROSS: Do you know why you lost of the Newsbreak spot?

SANDERS: Well, actually what happened was I was doing Sunday morning and a lot of other things when they had the cutbacks of a year and a half ago. And they asked me to move to radio full time basically doing hourly newscasts, which I had also been doing. No, I don't know. I don't know whether they just - I think what they - what this is all about is that they wanted to feature in major spots their designated stars that - why bother with somebody like me who's, you know, a good reporter and all that, but not anybody that was going to be on the rather news, not anybody who was on their A team rather than the B team. So I think that was probably part of the decision. Ironically, shortly afterwards they canceled Newsbreaks altogether. They don't do them anymore.

GROSS: I want to read the way that you end your new book. And I'll preface this by saying that you left the CBS network when you agreed mutually to terminate your contract. You end your new book by saying, (reading) to all who choose to meet the challenge, one final word - do not mistake a job for home and family or a trusted friend. It cannot be counted on. It can turn you out in an instant. However you decide to live your life, it is important to have personal involvements separate from your profession that will sustain you when, for whatever reason, your work comes to an end.

Is that advice you took yourself when you were at the network?

SANDERS: That's advice I took all of my professional life. I was very fortunate, I had a long marriage. My husband died nearly five years ago, but I also raised a son who is a very accomplished young lawyer working on the Iran-Contra investigation. I had a personal life. I had a family. And believe me, I had a lot of ups and downs in my career. And that was very important; I think it is vital.

Now, not everybody is going to get married in this world, but there are other ways you can have relationships and have other interests. It's just the kind of business that consumes you. People become workaholics. It's a very demanding and interesting life. But I saw people who were fired a year and a half ago who had spent their entire careers at CBS. They were single women. It was their home. It was their family. And they were devastated - terribly, terribly sad.

GROSS: OK, I want to thank you very much.

SANDERS: Thank you.

DAVIES: Terry spoke to Marlene Sanders in 1988. Sanders died earlier this month. She was 84. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film "Phoenix." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.