Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Jennifer Livingston: Courage

By now, if you’re the kind of person who reads this blog, you’ve heard the story of WKBT-TV La Crosse news anchor Jennifer Livingston.  Above is a picture of her as she appeared on Channel 8 yesterday, delivering her response to a viewer who wrote in and told her, essentially, that she’s too fat to be on TV, is a poor role model, and that her “choice” to be obese was disgusting.

Just to give you a bit more perspective, here’s a photo of Jennifer taken four years ago, covering an Obama rally at UW-LaCrosse with Professor Joe Heim.

And here’s another picture of Jennifer, from Facebook.

I speak to the subject of the appearance of TV people with some authority, having been married for the past 15 years to a woman who spent the first decade of our marriage as an on-camera TV reporter for Channel 3 in Madison, and having done on-camera TV myself for many years.  During her decade of being on TV every weeknight, my wife summoned great discipline to keep her weight lower than what her body and metabolism “wanted it” to be.  During her TV years, no one ever implied that she was overweight, because she wasn’t.  I’m overweight; like Jennifer, I’m “obese” on the doctor’s charts.  But in my 7 years of being on TV every weekday morning, I never heard one word about “being fat”.

The first thing they did with my wife, when she traded in her desk job as Assignments Manager at Channel 3 for an on-camera reporter’s job, was to direct her to change the color of her hair.  The Dallas-based consulting company that Channel 3 used back then said there were already too many blondes on the air at Channel 3.  So she became a brunette with dark red accents in her hair.  At least they paid for that, through an arrangement with a local salon.

They told her what kind of clothes to wear.  Oh, and that business about TV people getting “free” wardrobes?  Maybe in New York and LA, but in markets like Madison, you used to get a SMALL amount of money every month as a “clothing allowance”, which probably doesn’t even exist any more.  When the consultant said “wear scarves”, my wife bought scarves.

My wife was on the receiving end of nasty, anonymous comments about her appearance, the color of her hair, the color of her lipstick, the kind of clothes she wore, and other superficial things, which very seldom had anything to do with the content of her stories.  (But there were those complaints, too.)

How many women over 50 years of age do you see doing news on your local station?  Rhetorical question.  For a while, it was fashionable in the TV news industry to have the local nightly news anchored by “a grandfather and his granddaughter” – pairing a 50+ year old man with a 20-something woman.

My point is, TV news, whether anyone will admit it or not, is as much about appearance as it is about journalism.  And it’s grossly unfair to women.

So when Jennifer Livingston pushed back, the story quickly went viral.  Like any other woman on TV, she said she’s gotten plenty of unsolicited feedback about her appearance.  But when she shared the “bad role model” e-mail with her newsroom colleagues, they were angry, and encouraged her to speak out.  She did, and she did so eloquently.

Anyone who thinks TV is a glamour business is only partly correct.  It’s a very brutal business for women, who are constantly judged by their appearance alone.

As Oprah would say, “you go, girl”!  Good for you, Jennifer.  Nobody should have to take that kind of crap.


  1. Great Post Tim. A great look behinds the scenes into world that judges women in such ways that we'd have hoped were things of the past.

    1. Thanks, Sarah. There's still so much objectification of women;some day.....we can only hope.

  2. Terrific Tim! So correct. Now that we've moved, I keep getting asked "will you go back into news here?" My response is, at 41, I'd be the "grandmother" and no one hires grandmothers to do the news. I cannot tell you how many times I was attacked in voice messages and emails from viewers from everything from my outfit, hair and eventually how many children I had. Any other woman or person in a "regular" job - would not receive such venamous personal attacks on their appearance. I'm not sure why viewers feel they can share these hurtful things with on-air personalities. I doubt they'd tell the teller at the bank or the flight attendant how horrible she looked in person. I applaud Jennifer for standing up and speaking out.

    1. Angela, it's so unfair; with your experience, proven ability, and knowledge, it would seem you would be in GREAT demand to bring those skills to the screen again; you should be picking and choosing from offers from all the TV's in your new market. When Tom decided to have all the reporters station e-mail addresses up on the screen every time they were on camera, I knew it would open the floodgates of the anonymous snipers who would just say horrible things...things, as you pointed out, that they'd NEVER say to their hairdresser/barber, banker, grocer, or anyone else. Things they would NEVER have the gall to say to you face-to-face. I have no idea what gives these dweebs their sense of entitlement about this, but it's disgusting. Best of luck in the new digs - I really enjoy seeing your kids grow up from your Facebook pics!

  3. A similar thing happens on Youtube now, too. Watch almost any video by/including a woman, and you can scroll down to comment after comment of either "you're hot" or "you're ugly", regardless of the content of the video.

    1. And it's young people doing it; there is no hope.

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