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Local news has long been considered a breeding ground for dumb, shallow fare. For San Diego’s newest station, throw in anti-woman.
I was content to let U-T TV fall like a tree in the woods that nobody was around to hear.
But then the biggest publication in town called U-T TV nothing less than a “new frontier for news,” which meant people had to be watching. That publication was … the U-T itself.
U-T San Diego’s big write-up of U-T TV, the paper’s effort to roll out continuous TV programming, is written by an outside freelancer, to give it the guise of an objective news story. The piece uses words like “ambitious” and “bold” and says the station is attracting “measurable amounts of viewers” (whether that’s six, or 6 million, it doesn’t specify).
It’s hard to ignore “measurable amounts of viewers,” so I knew what I had to do. I had to watch.
I embarked on a non-scientific dive into U-T TV, including full episodes I DVR’d and watched at home, and clips I pored over online.
I’ve been a reporter and editor at an array of outlets in California and D.C., and I could tell right away that U-T TV’s early hires, marketing and programming signaled an effort that was far outside the norm — even for an industry that still grapples regularly with sexism.
There had been red flags from the start that the new-school endeavor was embracing some of the old school media’s worst habits, like this early ad that was mocked as “sexist and silly.”
There was the fact that the venture signed on, in its effort to be fresh and innovative, an aging, white, former mayor.
And there was the fact that another star hire was Scott Kaplan, a man fired from his previous gig for calling a female colleague an “animal” and a “sasquatch of a woman.”
The videos I watched were no better: an endless line of horribles, like a female host who recommended that ladies eat fish on Valentine’s Day, so as not to feel “full or bloated” during sex. One interview asked the female district attorney whether she wears a thong.
Degrade the Female Host
• On “The Sports Page With Acee & Annie,” co-host Annie Heilbrunn is often treated like a prop, a dynamic perfectly captured in a recent segment on the NFL Combine:
Acee: “Welcome to the final segment of ‘The Sports Page,’ and we’ve brought in a guest, Annie Heilbrunn.”
Annie: “Not really a guest. I also host the show. But it’s good to be here.”
• “Night & Day” Co-host Chris Cantore, in introducing the Mastiff Sausage Company (I know, how could this go wrong?) subtly tosses to co-host Michelle Guerin: “All right Michelle, you ready to get your sausage on? Michelle loves sausage.”
• In this segment on massage, co-host Amber Mesker lays on a massage table, presumably naked but for the sheet, while Kaplan stands, fully clothed, conducting interviews.
He asks the massage therapists, “What are we doing with Amber today?” as if Mesker, like Heilbrunn, is just an elaborate visual aid.
Banter Gone Awry
• A recent “What’s Trending in San Diego?” segment on “Night & Day,” highlights an embarrassing moment in which rapper 50 Cent tries to give sportscaster Erin Andrews a greeting kiss, which she dodges.
Cantore: “Fitty likes the blonde ladies … Yeah, he likes the white women, that 50.” …
Guerin: (As footage of Andrews rolls): This is Erin Andrews, she’s very beautiful.
Cantore: She definitely is.
• Mesker appears on an episode of “Overdrive” with host Mark Maynard, and remarks, “I’m such a cheap date he doesn’t even have to take me anywhere.”
After Mesker and Maynard finish a mechanic competition (cue lots of dumb-blonde-can’t-put-on-tires tropes), Maynard leers at Mesker, saying, “You little rascal,” and proceeds to hug her and paw at her on camera.
Not every segment was so tone-deaf. In one “Front Page With Scott & Amber” segment, both hosts question a special education teacher who overcame cervical cancer with relative care and concern.
But the ease with which off-the-cuff banter slides into offensive territory is unnerving.
And one episode of “The Roger Hedgecock Show” was just as telling, though it didn’t include any overt forays into sexism.
The episode was guest hosted by U-T editorial writer Chris Reed. On top of Reed, five experts (including four U-T staffers) were brought on to offer commentary on various news items. All were men. One female U-T reporter, Teri Figueroa, called in to the show, but she never appeared on camera. Another woman did appear on the set, but she appeared alongside her husband, who answered most questions, and she was cut off as she tried to speak at the end of the segment.
That reinforces some of the most damaging media tendencies outlined in a recent report on the status of women in the media by the Women’s Media Center, which found that in the past year, “Men were … far more likely to be quoted than women in newspapers, television and public radio.”
To be sure, there’s only so much fretting one can do about this stuff — a point encapsulated brilliantly last week by Lindy West, and Jessica Valenti. They call it sexism fatigue. Here’s West describing this exhaustion:
I am tired of trying to have an intellectual discussion about dog-whistle sexism in a culture where prominent politicians are still trying to grasp what rape is … And if my fatigue sounds defeatist, it isn’t. It’s the opposite. It’s an internal rallying cry that reminds me how bad things are.
Ultimately, if U-T TV wants to make a naked (sometimes literally) play for lowest-common-denominator programming, that’s U-T TV’s prerogative. But let’s call it what it is.
Forcing viewers who want to glean real insight from your content to wade through a sea of blonde stereotypes and penis innuendo is not “bold,” it’s banal. Treading the well-worn path of hosts who favor sexist jokes — one of the most tired fallbacks that exists in media — is not “ambitious,” it’s lazy. And showcasing an endless parade of “Anchorman” impersonators does not constitute a “new frontier” — it’s a shtick that proved embarrassing and outdated even by fictional 1970s standards.
Valenti, in her column on sexism fatigue, counsels: “Spend energy wisely.”
For me, that’ll include switching U-T TV back off.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified who was speaking in a segment of a “The Sports Page.”
Sara Libby is VOSD’s managing editor. She oversees VOSD’s newsroom and its content. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0526.
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