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The Fawning of American TV : Some Critics See the Reflection of Sexism in American Society Behind the Interest in Hall's Televised Congressional Testimony

June 11, 1987|NIKKI FINKE | Times Staff Writer

Fawn Hall and attorney Plato Cacheris knew where every camera, every congressman's eyes and every TV viewer would be focused in a packed Capitol Hill committee room.

"Naturally, we discussed what she should wear. And she did look like we wanted her to look--like a businesswoman," the lawyer said.

Throughout her day and a half of testimony on Monday and Tuesday, the public and the press seemed almost as concerned with how Hall looked as what she said. Now the issue is being raised as to whether all this "Fawning over Fawn" is indicative of some not-so-latent sexism in American society. Was Fawn Hall a spectacle at the Iran- contra hearings because she is a key figure in the investigation? Or was it because she is an attractive 27-year-old woman?

'Very Distasteful'

"Frankly, I find the sensationalized coverage of Fawn Hall very distasteful. If she had been 53 years old and dowdy, no one would have cared," asserted Mickey Kantor, the veteran Democratic Party political operative and Los Angeles attorney. "The emphasis on her looks is trivializing to women in general and to this particular investigation."

Hall herself was indignant that she had become an object of such national attention, according to her attorney. She especially disliked being "lumped" with two other attractive women who gained notoriety at the same time--Jessica Hahn and Donna Rice. "I think she feels resentful of that because it's a different story," Cacheris said. "She is no part of a sex scandal."

That's why Cacheris and Hall decided that she should make a point of saying "I can type," in her opening statement at the hearing Tuesday to emphasize to the congressmen that she was a professional secretary and not merely a showpiece. "That was put in there deliberately to distance her from anything else," the attorney explained.

"I think the limelight went on her because of her pretty appearance at a time when the public and press didn't know the full measure of her testimony. Now they have to see her as more of a complete person."

But do they? The fact is that Hall's black-and-white jungle print blouse, her aquamarine eyes, her willowy figure and her Farrah Fawcett-like hairdo logged as much media time and words as all the shredding, altering and hiding of documents she testified she did as secretary to her boss, Lt. Col. Oliver North.

She also wasn't accorded much dignity. USA Today called her simply "Fawn" in its headlines, while they never referred to former National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane as just "Bud."

There also were the titillating references and sexual innuendoes piled on Hall. The media jumped on a cryptic message sent last year to the White House from one of North's secret warriors in the jungles of Central America: "Send Fawn. Can't continue on milk and cookies."

And, even though the secretary carefully demonstrated to the committee how she had smuggled out important documents in the back of her skirt (and not in her brassiere as Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.) had suggested last month), several respected newspapers including the Washington Post persisted in writing this week that she had hidden the papers in her "underwear."

NBC broke into its regular daytime programming to present live coverage of Hall's testimony--the first time the network had done that since the opening of the hearings. And Cable News Network announced that 1.3 million homes--the highest number yet--tuned in Monday afternoon to watch Hall.

Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred, who frequently takes on national sex discrimination cases, especially objected to the early assumption that Hall was "only an ornament" in North's office. "Sometimes if a woman is very attractive and working in an office, some people will rush to a conclusion that she couldn't be competent. But there is no relationship between looks and professional abilities."

Kathy Spillar, president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization for Women, also was "greatly disturbed" by Hall's treatment overall. "She had a lot of important information and yet people spent a lot of time making that seem superfluous. I don't think she's being taken seriously. It reflects a general bias in this country against taking women seriously with regard to foreign affairs issues."

No Women on Panel

She notes, for instance, that no women were selected to sit on the investigating panel "though there are certainly good women in Congress." Nor were women making policy in the Iran-contra affair itself except on the peripheral edges, just as they weren't making millions from the Wall Street insider trading scandals. This is not to say that women are more ethical than men, Spillar notes. "This really drives it home for me that, for all the gains and advances we've made, women are still not participating in insider networks."

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