Outside Voices: Margaret Lowrie Robertson on an Eye-Opening 'Evening News'

(Margaret Lowrie Robertson)
Each week we invite someone from outside PE to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week, we turned to Margaret Lowrie Robertson, who was an International Correspondent in CNN's London Bureau from 1993 to 2002. Robertson, one of the first female reporters to broadcast live from inside Iraq during the Allied bombing campaign, worked as a reporter in CNN's Chicago Bureau from 1989 to 1993 and also covered the Middle East for CBS News in Cairo. She is the author of Season of Betrayal. Below, Robertson discusses her surprise at the number of women on the "Evening News" – a stark contrast to when she worked at the network. As always, the opinions expressed and factual assertions made in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours, and we seek a wide variety of voices.

On a visit to New York last month, I watched the CBS Evening News, along with millions of other people.

The anchor told the top story: A mass kidnapping in broad daylight at a center of higher education in Baghdad. Next, the Baghdad reporter popped up live on the screen. The anchor interviewed an Iraqi academic, then voiced over a couple of related topics before tossing to the correspondent on Capitol Hill.

And all of the above were women. The anchor, the Baghdad reporter, the Capitol Hill correspondent. Even the Iraqi academic. It was practically the ad break before the first sign of testosterone appeared.

An average night, perhaps, for CBS viewers now.

An eye-opener for me.

Having hardly seen CBS since we moved to London in 1993, finding this proliferation of women on the Evening News was akin to emerging from a Rip Van Winkle-type sleep to find an uber-race of intelligent, brightly-clad creatures had taken over Earth's airwaves.

To be fair, my impressions are, apparently, at odds with the facts. Under the headline "Women Scarcer On CBS Evening News" Broadcasting & Cable revealed recently women were getting fewer assignments under Katie Couric's stewardship than that of her predecessor Bob Schieffer.

Statistics I can't dispute. Blame my impressions on the CBS-less time warp from which I emerged. B&C aside, it seemed there are women, women everywhere on Planet CBS. Just check the Bio pages on the CBS News website.

In the interest of full disclosure: I am a woman. I used to work for CBS. But that was long ago and far away, and I hardly watched CBS even then, because I lived and worked in the Middle East at a time when CNN was the only network available by satellite.

So the last time I looked, CBS air seemed full of gray suits and beige trench coats, somber men of a certain age and gravitas, with the occasional dash of distinguished war correspondents. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's just that it seemed, well, full of gray suits and beige trench coats.

Oh, there were women of high profile at CBS -- Lesley Stahl, Susan Spencer, Meredith Vieira and Connie Chung come immediately to mind -- just not as many.

I left broadcast journalism several years ago, to write Season of Betrayal, a novel published last month. It's about journalists and war zones, set in Beirut against the historical backdrop of the disastrous U.S. Marines peacekeeping mission of 1983. I was a stringer for CBS radio there the following year, and while the book isn't autobiographical, it does pull together thoughts and observations from that time and place – among them, an abiding admiration for the women of the Beirut press corps.

Thus, in Chapter 10, you'll find a mini-tribute to some real journalists in the middle of an otherwise fictional strand:

If the only picture you have of Beirut in 1983 is the one sketched by me so far, it might seem all the journalists were men. They far outnumbered women in the press corps, and as far as Mac's small circle went, predominated. But the women, too, formed a remarkable sorority, bold and brave in equal measure – whether Armenian like Katie, Lebanese like Nora, French Like Francoise, American like Jane and Robin and Cynde, or British like Julie.
Agneta, Eileen, Earlean, the list goes on. "Bold and brave" and a lot more. Professional equals of the male colleagues they joined on journalism's front lines. Pioneers for today's crop of war correspondents. Of both sexes.

For CBS overseas, Martha Teichner graced the world's war zones, as did Cinny Kennard who was Moscow Bureau Chief and covered much of the war in the former Yugoslavia a few years later. Betsy Aaron was another globetrotter. CBS had two female bureau chiefs in the Middle East in the 1980's: Lucy Spiegel, who surely was one of the first women to run a TV office in a war zone, as Beirut Bureau Chief, and Scottie Williston in Cairo.

Most of CBS' foreign correspondents at the time, however, were men, including some of the best in the business, whom I was privileged to work with and learn from: Doug Tunnell, Alan Pizzey, Richard Roth, Larry Pintak and Bob Simon.

Moving to CNN in 1989 proved a real contrast. Perhaps because it was a young, startup network, there were almost as many women behind the camera as in front – like Jane Evans and Margaret Moth and Ingrid Formanek, who got started in war zones and never seemed to be out of them.

Living in London, most of the great debate about CBS' new anchor has passed me by. Thank goodness. Analyzing is for analysts; I'll cling stubbornly to my own impression. There may, in fact, be fewer females on the screen in the opening months of Katie Couric's tenure than in the months preceding it, but I'm pretty sure there are nonetheless a lot more females on CBS air in general than last time I looked.

Does that necessarily make it better? Certainly, different.

Oh, and Katie Couric wore red.