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"Good Hair" on the TV News Set

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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Women tell the Washington Post's DeNeen L. Brown what "good hair" means to them.

Few Women Go "Natural" on America's Anchor Teams

Comedian Chris Rock travels to far-flung parts of the globe in the new documentary "Good Hair," opening in five cities on Friday, but he doesn't hit television newsrooms.

The movie about many African Americans' obsession with straight hair could have found rich material there.

When the National Association of Black Journalists in 2005 sought to spotlight 30 "Influential Moments in Journalism" that had occurred since its 1975 founding, this was one of the finalists:

"In 1981, award-winning reporter Dorothy Reed of KGO-TV (San Francisco) ends up suspended for two weeks after wearing cornrows on air. After public protests and union intervention, station agrees to reinstate Reed, who charges racism is involved. She returns with modified cornrows, without colored beads interwoven into the braids' ends." It added that in 1971, Melba Tolliver, a correspondent for WABC-TV in New York, sparked a dustup when management threatened to keep her off the air if she didn't change her Afro, or cover it with a hat or a scarf, after covering the wedding of Tricia Nixon. The station relented after public pressure.

Today, spokesmen for ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox and CNN told Journal-isms, there are no guidelines preventing black women from wearing their hair in natural styles. And a small number do. But that doesn't mean restrictions aren't still in place.

From top, left: Kathy Times, Linda Jones, Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Second row: Michel Martin, Dorothy Bland, Monica Pearson Third row: Farai Chideya"I can't wait to see the movie," the current NABJ president, Kathy Times, an investigative reporter and anchor at WDBD-TV in Jackson, Miss., told Journal-isms.

"That's always been an issue for black talent in newsrooms. I would love to wear my hair natural, but so many anchors and reporters conform with the majority's expectations. I could go on all day! Even our own peers discourage us from wearing our hair 'natural'."

Linda Jones, a former Dallas Morning News reporter who operates a Web site called A Nappy Hair Affair, put together a workshop on the subject at the NABJ convention in Dallas in 2003.

"Women spoke much about how they really wanted to go natural but feared the feedback from the public," Jones recalled. "It was revealing. I never thought that so many of the permed anchor sisters really wanted to be natural on the air. But from what I heard at that panel, many wished that they could. So provocative. We were stumped as to what to do to make it possible to wear natural and African-inspired hairstyles without repercussions that would affect the networks' bottom line."

And it is about the bottom line, says Renee Ferguson, who retired last year as an investigative reporter at NBC's WMAQ-TV in Chicago. After completing a Nieman fellowship at Harvard University in 2007, Ferguson wrote how "I had spent most of my Nieman year happily liberated from the tyranny of straight hair." But, she wrote, "Returning to work, my news director, an African-American woman, insisted that I return to my straight, neat, corporate (whatever you want to call it) not-nappy, hair again. Thirty years have passed since this same issue was raised with me and, while the messenger was decidedly different, the message was the same: 'Welcome back, but leave the Afro at Harvard.'"

"Broadcast journalists operate inside a medium designed to sell products to the viewing public," Ferguson told Journal-isms in an e-mail.

"For TV personalities to appear outside of that 'norm' goes against the TV zeitgeist if you will. When I began working in TV in the early 70's my black face also went against that norm. My Oklahoma accent was not acceptable in Chicago so I took voice lessons to get rid of it. When my news director at Channel 13 in Indianapolis told me my afro scared white people he was reflecting his concern for advertising revenues that paid our salaries. Hair, clothes, plastic surgery, weight issues, aging issues - American women are brainwashed. I worked for 35 years in one of the main vehicles of that brainwashing . . . done mostly to sell products. I include myself among the happy hairweave wearing, fashion loving, spanx buying, brainwashees."

Brainwashed or not, it's important to note that as in the general black population, many of those who bring us details at 11 are happy to be able to sport the styles that work well for their white counterparts. The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), which represents many of these women, reports no complaints of discrimination because of hairstyle. Still, on television news sets, one doesn't see the variety visible in the general population of African American women.

Cornrows and dreadlocks, for example, are virtual no-nos.

"For most of America, dreads are not seen as clean, not as professional, as something you can relate to," Monica Pearson, an anchor at Atlanta's WSB-TV who has worn her hair in many styles, told Journal-isms. "It's not fair," she conceded, but she repeated this truism about viewers: "If it is a distraction, they are not listening to you. Your job has to come first."

Black women who admire natural styles point to two role models: Michel Martin of National Public Radio, who wore a short Afro while a correspondent for ABC-TV's "Nightline," and veteran Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who covers Africa for NPR and other outlets and for many years was a correspondent for PBS' "The News Hour."

"At industry conferences," Martin said, "the young women tell me they cannot get jobs with natural hair, they cannot even get an interview. . . . By the time I came in to the network I was a known quantity from the Sunday talk show circuit; it would have been very odd for me to change my hair. And I even asked my soon-to-be EP," or executive producer, "if my hair would be an issue because I told him during the interview process that I was not open to changing it. He said it never came up and everybody knew my look when they came looking for me.

"But if you are asking me if I think there's a deep seated cultural prejudice against natural hair I have to say that yes I do . . . are there really no great reporters out there with natural hair? I find that hard to believe . . . Remember that Glamour Magazine editor or consultant who did a workshop for the women at a major New York law firm? What's the first thing she said? Lose the natural hair." The then-associate editor, Ashley Baker, resigned after an uproar.

Renee Ferguson in 1987 at WBBM-TV in Chicago, left, and in 2007 before her retirement from WMAQ.Hunter-Gault recalls being the first to wear braids on a national show.

"I got my hair braided in Kenya on the way back from Somalia when I was still at the NEWSHOUR," she told Journal-isms via e-mail. "And while no one on the Newshour had any objections - it actually was never discussed once I pitched up with braids. But the reaction from some in the Newshour audience was surprising. We had a higher than usual intellectual base and yet, some wrote: what can we expect next: Robert MacNeil with a ring in his nose?

"But even today, after a long time away from The NewsHour, I still encounter people who remember me for what I contributed, rather than how I wore my hair. And my position was I didn't want to take voice lessons because I wanted to be me and as an African-American woman, I also wanted to be me and hoped that our audience would focus on what I could do to inform them rather than how I wore my hair. And most did. But again, no one at The NewsHour said a negative word. They had fun with it when I left and they did a video showing my different hairstyles."

It is all about the work, these women stress. That's what Dorothy Bland, director of the Division of Journalism at Florida A&M University, says her students are taught.

"Students who are anchors and on-air reporters for Florida A&M University's student media are encouraged to practice neat grooming habits and behave professionally. We've had students sport a variety of hairstyles including braids and short afros. We have a strong professional development component in our program," she told Journal-isms.

"Frankly, it's not about the hair. It's about developing solid communication skills so that our students compete on multiple platforms. Core news values such as curiosity, credibility, context, courage, cooperation, managing change and customers are more important than hair."

Pearson, who as Monica Kaufman became a staple in Atlanta, says her advice to students and other beginners is, "You have to get your foot in the door. I knew when I interviewed for the job, I wore a wig. I knew I was coming to the South, and I knew it was an opportunity to be a black star. I needed to look middle class and reliable. If people were distracted by your hair, then they weren't listening to what you were saying. The decision I made: I wore my natural on my weekends and wore my wig on the air."

Later, as viewers got to know her, Pearson could change her hairstyle. Not that all were pleased. "The majority of my complaints are from black women," Pearson said. "They said, 'You need to get a wig. You represent us.'"

Viewers' familiarity also helped two on-air journalists who struggled with breast cancer, Pearson's former WSB colleague JaQuitta Williams and, nationally, Robin Roberts of ABC-TV's "Good Morning America." Each underwent or planned to undergo chemotherapy treatments that affected their hair. Roberts at first wore a wig, then sported a short, natural-style hairdo. WSB showed Williams shopping for a wig.

"For my reporters, I say, you've got to know your market," Pearson said. If you're trying for a job in a small market where natural hair won't fly, don't try it there.

Also, she said, "Know your news director. If you're wearing a 'fro, a close one, you need to be the queen of Sheba," meaning wearing all the right accessories and makeup.

And: "Pick your battles. If you're trying to get a job, this is not a battle you need." The television news business is one where "You have to almost look like everybody else. Long, voluptuous hair is in. Look at Diane Sawyer's hair, very long and blonde. Katie Couric was always described as 'perky.' But when she went to the anchor chair, she had long hair. Now it's back short - to who she is.

"If you're near the end of your contract, go to your GM or news director and say, 'Hey, I'm thinking about doing this.' If you ask, they'll tell you what they think,'" she said, referring to the general manager.

"And then you have to decide."

Despite all the money and time spent on wardrobe and hair, dressing up to be on television is fun. "Black women get bored with their hair," Ferguson says. And although black women spend more on weaves and the like, white women have their beauty issues, too. They simply have more home products available, she said.

She also notes a diversity issue: Just as it took having African American lighting directors and other behind-the-scenes technicians to light dark skin correctly, the same is true for making natural hair look good.

Farai Chideya, who hosted "News & Notes" on National Public Radio and has done television work on CNN and ABC, followed the generations that produced Pearson, Hunter-Gault, Ferguson and Tolliver.

"I've never had any problems wearing natural hair on television," said Chideya, 40. "In fact, I think it's one of the things that made me stand out, and helped create a brand," she told Journal-isms. "That said, I realize this wouldn't have been possible 20 years before I started my career, and for some people in some markets still may be denigrated today.

"May I add, good hair is what's on your head. Though I haven't had processed hair in decades, I believe each woman has a personal choice as to what suits her."

"Good Hair" opens Friday in Los Angeles, New York, Washington, Atlanta and Chicago on almost 200 screens, according to Veronica Bufalini, a spokeswoman for Roadside Attractions, which is distributing the film. It goes national on Oct 23.

Short Takes

  • The National Association of Black Journalists will monitor radio commentator Don Imus' return to the air as part of the Fox Business Network, the association said on Wednesday. "Imus returned to the national stage Monday, two years after insensitive and racist comments about the Rutgers University women's basketball team led to his firing from CBS Radio and his program being dropped from MSNBC after 11 years of simulcasting. NABJ led the charge in calling for his firing, and Imus eventually apologized for the comments." NABJ quoted Eric Deggans of the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, its former Media Monitoring Committee chair: "Despite Imus' much-ballyhooed addition of two black performers to his crew in December 2007, the all-male team on the air this morning was middle-aged and white," he wrote. Imus' debut was a success. He brought in 177,000 total viewers in the 6 a.m.-9 a.m. ET slot. "The most recent previous numbers for FBN showed a business-day average 5 a.m.-9 p.m. ET of 21,000 viewers,"according¬† to RadioInk.
  • "Corporate media don't just fail to seek out stories of structural inequality; they run from them when they're offered, as seen recently in the widespread effort to dissolve questions of racial profiling, raised by the controversial arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, into a matter of differing perceptions ('The Great Divide: He Said, He Said,' Boston Herald, 7/26/09) or some people's feelings ('Suspicions of Police Bias Haunt Black Men,' Baltimore Sun, 7/26/09)," Janine Jackson wrote¬† in this month's issue of Extra!, issued by Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting. "That lack of serious reporting didn't leave a void so much as fill it - with the inaccurate idea that racial profiling is a matter on which the jury is out."
  • "Which country is most routinely miscovered in the U.S. press? There are clearly many candidates, but for me one stands out: Mexico," Michael Massing wrote Wednesday for Columbia Journalism Review.
  • Former Washington Times reporter Rob Redding, who runs the online Redding News Review, said in an interview, "While at The Times, I developed important contacts for my scoops and learned how to write a biased story, which helps me recognize biased news. The problem with newspapers now is that no one believes that they're neutral anymore. This lack of neutrality is why papers like The Times, Fox News and talk radio continue to grow and other so called 'nonbiased' news sources continue to see an erosion in their popularity, because old media are not being forthright from the perspective of the people being served. . . . The answer for newspapers is to recognize that the 'news' environment has dramatically changed into a climate where people actually want newspapers to be biased toward their individual perspective."
  • Pittsburgh businessman Eddie Edwards has filed paperwork to purchase that city's 660 WPYT-AM for $500,000. Pending approval from the FCC, Edwards hopes to launch a news-and-talk format on the station by January, Rege Behe wrote in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "In May, WAMO-AM/FM and WPGR-AM were sold by Sheridan Broadcasting Corp. to St. Joseph Missions, a religious broadcast entity, leaving a void in stations dedicated to the black population."
  • "Republican opposition is mounting as federal regulators prepare to vote this month on so-called 'network neutrality' rules, which would prohibit broadband providers from favoring or discriminating against certain types of Internet traffic flowing over their lines," Joelle Tessler reported for the Associated Press. "Twenty House Republicans - including most of the Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee - sent a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski on Monday urging him to delay the Oct. 22 vote on his net neutrality plan."
  • In England, "The Guardian feature writer and Gary Youngecolumnist Gary Younge has won the James Cameron prize for his on-the-ground reporting during the runup to and aftermath of the election of Barack Obama," the Guardian reported on Wednesday. "The honour is bestowed each year to a journalist judged to have 'combined moral vision and professional integrity' and is given in memory of the renowned foreign correspondent and author, James Cameron, who died in 1985." Younge is the first black journalist to win the award.
  • At North Carolina A&T State University, DeWayne Wickham's Institute for Advanced Journalism studies has posted reports on the black-white achievement gap, which includes stories about the education system in Cuba and Barbados, which it says have the world's highest literacy rates. Wickham led a six-day reporting trip to Cuba.
  • Richard Prince discussed Monday's "Journal-isms" with Keith Murphy Wednesday in the first segment of XM Satellite Radio's "The Urban Journal "."¬†
  • "Univision fans can now access the Spanish-language programmer's content while on the move thanks to a new software application for Apple's popular iPhone and iPod devices, which provide wireless access to broadband content," Glen Dickson reported¬†Monday for Broadcasting & Cable.
  • Zuri Berry, staff writer and online community manager for The Union in Grass Valley, Calif., has been hired as multiproducer at at the Boston Globe. He is a 2007 graduate of the Sports Journalism Institute, a nine-week training and internship program for college students interested in sports journalism careers, and was a 2006 participant in the Freedom Forum's Chips Quinn Program.
  • The Institute of Southern Studies has raised nearly $2,000 toward the $10,000 it is seeking to create a Freedom Journalism School - "a pioneering program to train an army of 50 new media muckrakers across the South. Modeled on the Freedom Schools of the civil rights movement, our team of award-winning reporters will train 50 bloggers and citizen journalists in hands-on investigative reporting skills - and give them the tools they need to shine light on the power-brokers and hold our leaders accountable," the institute says.

Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.

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I was offended

I don't know why but the whole Chris Rock documentary really offended me.  I am a natural and I was genuinely irritated by the way the movie made most people feel as though African American women wanted to be white.  I think a lot of African American women, myself included, felt better about ourselves when the whole world didn't know our beauty secrets.  We spend a lot of time, money, and effort on our hair for many reasons.  I used to relax religiously but I never wanted to be white.  Maybe I envied how easy it was for them to do their hair, lol, but that was it.

Also, I think all women have their issues.  White women have hair issues as well.  For instance...a lot of them want to be blonde.  Our society has taught them that that is a sign of beauty.

I loved the vid.  That lady at the end was correct in that she/we have to change our definition of good hair.  I am from the South where many people used to talk about good hair/bad hair and dark skin/light skin.  It is horrible to hear things like that as a child. 

The vid said that good hair was straight hair.  I have never heard of was always loosely curled hair when I was growing up.

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