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Christine Craft: AN ANCHORWOMAN'S STORY by Christine Craft (Capra: $8.95, paperback; 204 pp.)

September 14, 1986|Kay Mills | Mills is a Times editorial writer

Christine Craft held a mirror up to television "news" and confirmed what many had long suspected: All too often, it's just interested in pretty faces. Especially when they're female faces.

For her willingness to sue a Kansas City station for sex discrimination, Craft has become an American heroine. Like astronaut Sally Ride, she just wanted to be judged on her professional abilities. Like Billie Jean King, she just wanted to be paid the same that men got for the same work. And like Geraldine Ferraro, she broke new ground with an amazing grace under pressure.

For her trouble, she had to endure two trials in which her looks and her wardrobe--but rarely her ratings-lifting abilities--were the constant subject of testimony. She saw judges overturn both jury verdicts in her favor and the Supreme Court, with the notable exception of Sandra Day O'Connor, refused to hear the case. She questioned her own looks, getting so depressed at one point she couldn't even bring herself to flirt with a man who resembled actor Sam Shepard. She wondered if she shouldn't get out of television altogether.

Fortunately, Craft is a survivor. Now employed at a small Sacramento station, Craft credits her buoyancy to two things: to the restorative powers in just the right curl in an ocean's wave and to people all over the country who understood the principles for which she was fighting.

A Linda Ellerbee, Christine Craft is not. Among the anchorwomen throwing out their lines these days, Ellerbee has a corner on the crackling wit. You will not find in Craft's book the kind of tale Ellerbee tells about the disastrous live interviews that colleague Andrea Mitchell had with a Chinese defector who spoke no English and a Salvadoran hiding behind a big straw hat. Well, you had to be there, but I laughed so loud in a hospital waiting room that I glanced around to make sure I hadn't offended anyone to whom life was not so funny that day.

Craft does come close when she hisses out the story of the makeup consultant who clogged her pores with such guck that she could barely move her mouth, let alone deliver the news. And she gives back as good as she got in descriptions of the way spittle formed in the corners of the mouth of the KMBC news director when he talked, or the "simian features" of the station's general manager.

Why, you find yourself asking, does television show such contempt for both the complexities of the news and the people who view it that it values looks over intelligence? You won't find much analysis of that here. But what Craft's book does deliver is a matter-of-fact recitation of the terms under which she thought she was hired by KMBC--then a Metromedia station, in Kansas City--and the way television consultants with no apparent expertise and less tact produced anchorclones and determined which of them to put on the air. She also details the blatant biases against her throughout the court proceedings once she rebelled against her treatment. Both the judge who heard her two trials and the leading appellate judge were Reagan appointees; one fears they are the ghosts of Christmases yet to come.

I can still remember reading with disbelief the words in one of Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg's stories that Craft had been fired because, as it was explained to her, she was "too old, too unattractive, and not deferential enough to men." How dare anyone say that to a woman trying to do her job! Especially one working at a station, it now turns out, that had so little concern for professionalism that often it didn't have working two-way radios and wouldn't send camera crews out on major stories after hours. Later, I met Craft and hoped that if I ever owned a television station, I could hire someone that smart, that dedicated--and, yes, that attractive.

Craft's story gives fair warning to those USC students of mine who wanted to go into television news. It's show business and you'd better wear a pretty costume. With armor underneath.

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