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Is the anchor job top prize any longer?

Is the anchor job top prize any longer? — As Connie Chung leaves CBS, women journalists question what?s the ultimate job

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Diane sawyer sent tequila. Katie Couric poured a glass, rubbed salt on her thumb, and demonstrated how to do shots. Barbara Walters quoted from an old telegram from John Wayne telling her ”not to let the bastards get you down.” Phyllis McGrady, executive producer of ABC’s PrimeTime Live, sent a card bearing CBS’ logo and the words: ”CBS has a black eye.” But it was ABC correspondent Renee Poussaint — one of 30 top TV news-sisters invited by 60 Minutes‘ Lesley Stahl to Manhattan’s Gabriel’s restaurant on June 1 to rally behind an embattled Connie Chung — who best captured the mood. Despite Chung’s recent dismissal from the CBS Evening News, a giddy sense of empowerment prevailed at the lunch. Poussaint gave Chung four T-shirts, one bearing an especially pertinent slogan, given Chung’s vigorous protest of her ouster: ”I can go from zero to bitch in 4.3 seconds.”

True, it had taken 17 years for a second woman to ascend to an evening anchor chair after ABC’s disastrous pairing of Barbara Walters with Harry Reasoner in 1976. But given the increasing clout of women in TV news, it might take closer to 4.3 seconds the next time around. ”I don’t think what happened to Connie will have much of a negative impact on any of us — or even on Connie herself,” says CBS News correspondent Jacqueline Adams, 44. ”At CBS alone, there’s been a tremendous increase in hiring women both on- and off-camera.”

Since Chung’s firing, media types have been compiling their shortlists of who could become the next woman to anchor the nightly news. ABC’s Sawyer, 48, is at the top of most of those lists, closely followed by NBC’s Couric, 37, and Jane Pauley, 44. Also mentioned are lesser-known network newswomen like NBC Nightly News correspondent and rising star Giselle Fernandez, 34, and CBS chief White House correspondent Rita Braver, 47. ABC special correspondent Cokie Roberts, 51, is also deemed a contender, as is CNN senior international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, 37, one of TV’s most widely respected reporters. But the Chung departure has raised another important question: Do women even want the anchor job anymore?

Even though the nightly news lineup is once again three white guys in suits, the big surprise is that many TV newswomen no longer see the anchor position as the pinnacle of broadcast journalism. Women like Sawyer and Walters, two of the three highest-paid network stars (Sawyer and ABC’s Peter Jennings each make $7 million a year; Walters, more than $10 million), may prefer their high-profile berths on prime-time newsmagazines to reciting the news to an ever-shrinking early evening audience. Since 1985, the number of viewers of the Big Three nightly newscasts has dropped 22 percent. ”Growing up, I always looked to the nightly news chair as…the ultimate,” says NBC’s Fernandez. ”I no longer feel that way. It’s become so formulaic and cost-conscious that the anchor for the most part has been reduced to a half-hour reader.”

But leave it to Don Hewitt, the tough-talking executive producer of CBS’ 60 Minutes, to give a blunter explanation of why many newswomen might prefer their current positions. ”Anchoring the news is a bullshit job,” says Hewitt. ”The Christiane Amanpours of the world are too good for it. They want to do real reporting.” One female CBS producer, who had a close-up view of the Dan Rather-Connie Chung disintegration, thinks Chung might be better off in a situation that offers her more flexibility and exposure. ”The anchor slot is not the most coveted place to be anymore — for a woman or a man,” says the producer. ”For all the prestige that goes into it, it can be a pretty boring job.” Deborah Norville, 36, who, after a rocky stint at Today and various other network news shows, eventually became host of the syndicated Inside Edition, agrees: ”The 6:30 p.m. news is no longer so vital.”