01.04.11

Carole Simpson's Network Battle Scars

She was the first black woman hired by NBC's D.C. bureau, and became an ABC anchor. Her new book chronicles a career marred by racist and sexist attacks. Howard Kurtz on TV's undercovered story.

Carole Simpson got her first big break from Martin Luther King.

She was a rookie radio reporter in 1966 when she conducted an all-night stakeout of the visiting civil-rights leader, blurted out that “I’m the only Negro female reporter in Chicago” and got him to tell her why he was there (to challenge Mayor Daley—the original Mayor Daley—on segregated housing).

A drunken NBC producer told her at the Republican convention: “You think because you’re black and you’re a woman you can get anything you want. And you slut, you don’t deserve it.”

Race has always loomed large for the scrappy South Side native—larger than we knew, in fact, according to her new memoir News Lady. Simpson reveals a slew of race-related battles with ABC News, including her account that she was pushed out the door after a 25-year career.

What’s most striking about the book is that some of the most cringe-inducing incidents occurred not just in the early phase of her career, when black women were a rarity in the senior ranks of television news, but years after you would assume that the fried-chicken jokes had stopped. Even if Simpson is enlarging these episodes through the mists of memory, her anger—and sometimes her tears—shows they left an indelible mark.

Her troubles began at NBC in 1974 when she became the first black woman to work in the Washington bureau. After a long stint when she couldn’t get on the air, word got back to Simpson that she was deemed “lazy.”

“To me that was a racial epithet,” she writes. “Black people—to ignorant people—don’t want to work, are stupid, and unqualified.” After threatening to quit—and go public about the racial and gender reasons—Simpson was suddenly back on NBC Nightly News.

Two years later, a drunken NBC producer—the likely culprit for her earlier problems—told her at the Republican convention: “You think because you’re black and you’re a woman you can get anything you want. And you slut, you don’t deserve it.” Searing words that would affect anyone’s outlook on life, and yet, Simpson has to admit that she has also benefited from affirmative action.

A few pages later, recounting her decision to leave NBC, she writes: “My color and gender may have played a role in ABC’s strong interest, but I also had the experience and the skills.”

The impact of the anecdotes is blunted a bit by Simpson’s decision not to name the offenders. She reports, for instance, that she left NBC because the news division president removed her from Capitol Hill—saying he needed more "heft" on the beat—and exiled her to the Energy Department. It’s not hard to figure out that the NBC News chief in question—who was forced out soon after she left the network—was William Small. We expect hard-hitting journalists to name names.

Given her testy relations with management, it would be easy to label Simpson a troublemaker. In 1985, ticked off that no woman in the bureau had a top beat and that the executive ranks were all male, Simpson led a delegation that seized upon a ceremonial luncheon in New York to protest to Roone Arledge. To his credit, the news division president told her that “I never really thought about it”—but ruined the moment, for Simpson at least, by repeatedly telling her, “You are so articulate.” That is a loaded phrase for blacks, as Joe Biden learned when he used it in a clumsy attempt to compliment his 2008 campaign rival, Barack Obama.

It often seems, in this retelling, that Simpson can’t catch a break. Although she covered Vice President Bush through the 1988 primaries, she had to read in The Washington Post that she was being bounced from the campaign in favor of Brit Hume. Her consolation prize: She would anchor the Saturday edition of World News Tonight, and get a raise. But even that felt tainted: To her colleagues, Simpson writes, she got the job “because of affirmative action and my big mouth.”

Despite the book’s strong racial theme, Simpson says the sexual harassment was actually worse, describing male colleagues brushing against her breasts, pulling down a dress zipper, commenting on her butt or saying, in one case, “The way you’re looking I could fuck you on the spot.”

Simpson’s professional high point was moderating a 1992 presidential debate between Bill Clinton, Ross Perot, and Bush (whom she liked although “I personally didn’t care for his policies”). She got some hate mail afterward, some of it using the N-word.

Her low point was when the network suspended her for two weeks for telling a luncheon, after the 2001 anthrax attacks, that an ABC producer had been hospitalized with a case of suspected poisoning; the information was not public and Simpson misstated one of the facts. The next year, ABC refused to extend her as an anchor, offering instead a contract as a roving ambassador to work with young people. She signed, left in 2005, and now teaches at Emerson College in Boston.

Interestingly, Simpson is bringing out the book through the self-publishing firm AuthorHouse. She says she began sending her proposal to literary agents before leaving ABC. “All of them turned me down over a three-year period and said things like, ‘it wasn't sexy enough,’ ‘I could get sued and publishers are fearful of that,’ and similar rejections… I think there was concern about the people and institutions I criticized.” So she decided to do it herself.

Despite the setbacks, slights, and outright racism, Simpson had a remarkably successful career. The obstacles she faced have not entirely disappeared; there are still no black hosts in primetime cable news, and the only African American to have broken the barrier on the network evening newscasts, Max Robinson, was part of an ABC triumvirate in the late 1970s and early ’80s.

A more insidious legacy lingers as well. There are black journalists who are promoted too quickly for racial reasons; some survive and others sink. There are also tremendously talented African Americans who don’t deserve the whispers that accompany their rapid rise, and still others who can’t get a crack at jobs for which they’re well qualified. Much of this isn’t discussed in polite company, but Carole Simpson is as forthright about these nettlesome questions as she is about one other admission in the book: undergoing plastic surgery as a network anchor.