When Carole Simpson began her career in the 1960s, there was little diversity in newsrooms. Hoping to carve a path for women and minorities, Simpson became the first female to broadcast radio news in Chicago, the first African American woman to serve as a correspondent for national network television, and the first woman or minority to moderate a presidential debate.
But the former ABC News anchor says she faced both gender and racial discrimination along the way. In her self-published book “NewsLady,” Simpson chronicles these challenges and describes how they affected her as a journalist and woman of color.
In advance of her appearance at the National Association of Black Journalists’ conference this week, I talked with Simpson about MSNBC’s possible hiring of Rev. Al Sharpton, presidential debate coverage, and what’s changed for women and minorities in broadcast journalism.
Here are some highlights from our phone interview.
On MSNBC’s possible hiring of Sharpton:
[Sharpton] was not a journalist. It seems like having a name is more important than your credentials and the news you’ve covered, and how well you did as a reporter and how much you did as a thinker and writer about the issues of the day. Who’s going to get the eyeballs? … That’s the bottom line. It’s all about eyeballs. It’s the drive for ratings.
I have nothing against the Rev. Al. I’ve known him for years. I’ve covered him, but he doesn’t sound like a professional broadcaster. Somebody sounding like that wouldn’t typically be hired by any station. Yeah, as a pundit. He’s an intelligent man. I give him credit for that. But he doesn’t sound like a professional broadcaster.
But he’s controversial, he’s provocative, he yells, and so they’re looking for personalities and not journalists. The problem that I have, as NABJ has, is fine — hire somebody of color — but how about a journalist? Not a reverend. I don’t get it.
On presidential debate coverage:
I had the unique opportunity to moderate the first town hall meeting debate format, which was designed by the bipartisan commission on presidential debates. I didn’t have anything to go back and look at; it hadn’t been done before. It was like, geez, what the heck am I going to do? What if these people, these ordinary voters, don’t ask questions? What if they freeze up? I had all kinds of worries about it. But I thought that debate, and scholars in political science felt that debate, absolutely turned the election.
There was a moment in which a young black woman asked President Bush how the recession was affecting him personally. I love George Bush the father and I covered him for years and years.
And I’m thinking, “OK, you can hit this out of the park.” I’m forming his answer in my own mind: You can say, “Well, it doesn’t affect me, I’m fortunate that I have money. But I understand that people are suffering” But he didn’t. He was like, “I don’t get it.” He didn’t get what she was talking about. And people heard these words, “I don’t get it,” and they realized he doesn’t get it.
…And right after that, Bill Clinton walked up within arm’s length of that young women and did that “I feel your pain” kind of thing, and it turned the tide for him. It absolutely turned the tide for him and he won the election.
On whether things have changed for women and minorities in newsrooms:
They have changed drastically. … I think the presence of people like me and Ed Bradley and Robin Roberts on “Good Morning America” — I think African Americans are still coming to the field. I think we have more numbers of people of color that want to follow this profession despite all the turmoil in it right now.
The numbers have improved remarkably, and at the local level there are black news directors. They tend to be male, but they are having input and so on. I would think that would be the greatest and most positive change is that there are more people that want to get into the business and tell stories.