'News Lady' Carole Simpson's Career Of Firsts

After 15 years as the anchor of ABC's World News Sunday, Carole Simpson said goodbye in 2003. From her first day on the radio in Iowa City in 1964, Carole Simpson had to regularly deal with racial and gender discrimination in the broadcast news business. Host Liane Hansen talks with former ABC News journalist Carole Simpson about her new memoir, News Lady.

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(Soundbite of theme song, ABC News)

Unidentified Man: From ABC, this is "World News Tonight Sunday."

Ms. CAROLE SIMPSON (Former News Anchor, ABC News): Good evening, everyone. Im Carole Simpson.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

After 15 years as the anchor of ABC's "World News Sunday," Carole Simpson said goodbye on October 19, 2003.

From her first day on the radio in Iowa City in 1964, Carole Simpson had to regularly deal with racial and gender discrimination in the broadcast news business. She now teaches journalism at Emerson College in Boston, and has written a memoir of her long, hard road to the network anchor chair. It's called, "News Lady." And Carole Simpson is in the studio at member station WBUR in Boston.

Welcome to the program. It's so nice to talk to you.

Ms. SIMPSON: Thank you, Liane. Nice to talk to you.

HANSEN: Are you familiar with the film, "Ron Burgundy: Anchorman?"

Ms. SIMPSON: I am.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: All right, I want to play it. It's the movie - it's the Will Ferrell movie. It's set in the '70s. So, you know, we're supposed to be looking back at this sort of funny time in broadcast history. And there's a scene where the new woman, played by Christina Applegate, gets the chance to anchor the evening news when Will Ferrell's character, Ron Burgundy, is late.

(Soundbite of movie, " Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy")

Mr. FRED WILLARD (Actor): (as Ed Harken) There's never been a woman anchor.

Ms. CHRISTINA APPLEGATE (as Veronica Corningstone) Mr. Harken, this city needs its news.

Mr. WILLARD: (as Ed Harken) Oh.

Ms. APPLEGATE (as Veronica Corningstone) And you are going to deprive them of that because I have breasts?

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: She gets her chance, but the reason I bring that scene up is when she is delivering the news for the first time, she sits there and goes: Power, power, power, power. And then her colleagues start like mooning her, and trying to grab, you know, her attention. It's comedy in the film, but that stuff really happened to you.

Ms. SIMPSON: It did, indeed. I was mooned when I was in the radio studios. My first job was in radio in Chicago and the men were not happy that I had been hired, and felt I'd been hired because I was simply a black woman and not because I might be qualified to do the job. But they set out to try to make me mess up on the air. And aside from mooning me, I had a big rubber tarantula thrown on the desk; my papers were set afire. And you're on the air live so you can't say anything.

And you know what they did, Liane? By trying to make me mess up, they gave me focus. And to this day, there could be an explosion in this studio right now and I would continue talking to you like nothing happened.

HANSEN: Was there ever a time when being an African American woman in broadcast news helped you?

Ms. SIMPSON: Yes, it helped me in the mid-'60s when the Civil Rights Movement was at its height, and news directors and news editors could not get the stories because black people would not talk to white reporters. And it was because of those people saying, hey, send a black reporter and we'll talk to them, that they had to go out and higher a bunch of us to cover what was then the biggest story in the nation

HANSEN: You were the first woman and minority to moderate a presidential debate between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. Were you surprised to have been chosen?

Ms. SIMPSON: I was absolutely surprised because had it been up to ABC, it would have gone to Peter Jennings or Ted Koppel or Diane Sawyer. But I was chosen by the Bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates. There had been some criticism of the first debate because there hadn't been any minorities represented. It was the highlight of my career to be in that position and to premiere a new kind of debate - a town hall meeting, where average voters could get a chance to ask the candidates questions.

HANSEN: You had covered Mr. Bush when he was vice president, but when he won the election in 1988 you didn't get the White House correspondent job and that's sort of customary.

Ms. SIMPSON: Yes. I covered him for eight years and I had to read in the newspaper that it was given to Brit Hume. And I was asking management why are you changing the rules when it's my turn? You can't see me as a senior White House correspondent? But they had made a decision and I think it was a decision that a white male can just do a better job than a black female.

HANSEN: Why were you let go from the anchor desk?

Ms. SIMPSON: I fought racism; I fought sexism and I decided ageism is going to rear its head soon, I know. So, I fought it to the length of having plastic surgery in 1998 when I noticed my eyes starting to droop a little bit on the air, and double chin creeping in. I think it was ageism. They would say things like, you know, we need to bring other talent along and the weekend shows is a place to teach them how to do it.

So, they just decided that it was time for me to move. And it's their toy store. I was just one of the little toys in there, and they said this toy can't play anymore.

HANSEN: Uh-huh. And then you sang "I Will Survive" at your going away ceremony. So, good for you.

Ms. SIMPSON: Yes, I did. I wanted them to know, you may take me off the air, but I will survive, and I have.

HANSEN: You made a lot of noise about the discrimination and the disparity that was going on at ABC News. Did that work against you? Were you treated as some kind of agitator that maybe overlaid what you were actually doing, you know, as the work?

Ms. SIMPSON: Yes. It's funny. I hadn't thought of myself as an agitator. I associate that with the South. But I was a troublemaker. I was a thorn in the side of ABC News. I know that. Because my experience in Alabama, I wasn't demonstrating and I wasn't taking part with Dr. King, so I decided that I was going to do what I could to change things where I was.

So, I paid a price. I'm sure they're much happier without my being there, but then I worry. I see things slipping backwards. Where is me? Where is the person like me who is going to challenge them?

HANSEN: Former ABC News anchor Carole Simpson now teaches broadcast journalism at Emerson College. Her new book, a memoir, is called "News Lady." She joined us from the studios of WBUR in Boston. Thank you so much.

Ms. SIMPSON: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "I Will Survive")

Ms. GLORIA GAYNOR (Singer): (Singing) I know I'll stay alive. I've got all my life to live and I've got all my love to give and I'll survive, I will survive, I will survive.

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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