Legendary TV 'Newslady' Recalls Racism, Sexism

She was a tenacious cub reporter in Chicago when she broke the story of Martin Luther King taking his civil rights campaign to the North. Veteran broadcaster Carole Simpson went on to make news with a number of firsts, including the first African American woman to anchor a major TV newscast and the first woman to moderate a presidential debate. Her new memoir, entitled "Newslady," documents the good, the bad and the very ugly in her 40-year career. Simpson speaks with host Michel Martin about her book and work.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

We'll take a look back on the fascinating life of a man of faith, Harvard's Peter Gomes. He died Monday, and we'll learn more about him a bit later in the program.

But first, Carole Simpson. She was a tenacious cub reporter in Chicago when she broke the story of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.'s taking his civil rights campaign to the North. Beyond that scoop, Ms. Simpson has compiled an impressive list of firsts: the first black woman hired by NBC's Washington bureau, the first woman to moderate a presidential debate and...

(Soundbite of TV show, "World News Tonight")

Unidentified Man: This is "World News Tonight," Sunday.

Ms. CAROLE SIMPSON (Reporter): Good evening, everyone. I'm Carole Simpson.

MARTIN: Carole Simpson has made news and been where the news is being made. Now, after a stint out of the public eye, she is back with a new memoir called "NewsLady." Her book documents the good, the bad and the ugly in her 40-year career in news. And she's, of course, my former colleague at ABC News. And she's with us now in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Carole Simpson, news lady, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. SIMPSON: I'm so happy to be with you, Michel. I miss you.

MARTIN: I miss you, too.

Now, this is a fascinating, and I have to say, a painful book to read. I'm going to get to the pain part in a minute, but I want you to start by asking you why you wanted to be a journalist. How did you get bitten by that bug?

Ms. SIMPSON: I think I was always a curious child. And I was smart in school. I had good grades. And I had a teacher that liked my writing and said, you ought to join the high school newspaper. And my job was to go around and talk to the teachers: Who won the science fair? Who won the spelling bee? And I had my own little column with my byline, and it just hit me: I love this.

MARTIN: And you talk in the book about how you took the message from your parents very seriously that education's really important, and you worked very hard to prepare yourself at every level, not just getting a bachelor's, but also getting a master's from a top-flight institution, the University of Michigan. Despite that, it was constant no. No, no, no. And you couldn't get a job.

Ms. SIMPSON: No. At the University of Michigan, I was the black among 60 graduates, and everyone had a job but me. And every campus interview and placement bureau, I got the same story. I had three strikes against me. I was black - well, they didn't say black then - I was a negro, I was a woman and I was inexperienced. And there was nothing I could do about any of those things.

MARTIN: But people would say to your face we don't hire negros?

Ms. SIMPSON: Yes. This is pre-'64 Civil Rights Act. So people felt free to tell you all kinds of things like that.

MARTIN: Well, now we get to the pain part, because at some point, you do get, you know, a break and you start getting, you know, more and more scoops and more and more recognition. But behind the scenes, you write about some truly disturbing things. You write about a colleague of yours literally pulling down his pants and mooning you while you're on the air to try to distract you. What was that about?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SIMPSON: Being the first, you know, you have to go through a lot. They resented the fact that I was hired and felt I was hired because I was a black woman, you know, and not as serious as the rest of them. I got all of the women's stories, the health stories, the celebrities in town, and I had to fight to get Mayor Daley's city hall to cover the gangland murders, of which there were many in Chicago when I was coming along.

It was a struggle, and made all the more difficult because I have a conspiracy of males that I'm working with, white males, who were determined to make me fail.

MARTIN: Before we move on to the question of the conspiracy issue, though, you describe when you were hired at NBC in their Washington bureau - which had been your dream. You had been a very highly recognized local reporter in Chicago.

Ms. SIMPSON: Local reporter.

MARTIN: But you wanted to make it to the nationals, and you finally got there. You're nine months in Washington, can't get on the air. What was going on?

Ms. SIMPSON: Someone had put out the word to the entire NBC News network that Carole Simpson had come to Washington and gotten lazy. And so I began calling everybody that I had worked with in Chicago that knew my work and said, have you heard this? They all said they had. And I went to the bureau chief and I said, you know, somebody's put out some damaging lies about me, and I want to leave. I want to go back to Chicago.

MARTIN: You just said look, I quit. I can't make it. I'm not going to get on the air.

Ms. SIMPSON: Yes.

MARTIN: I'm not going to sit here for nine months and not get on the air. I quit.

Ms. SIMPSON: And he said Carole, you let me investigate. And it turned out it was a white male producer who was very upset that I had been hired and told people I was lazy. And that night, at 9 o'clock at night, I got a call with an assignment of a big story that I knew was going to get on the news the next day. And I did it, and I was on the news, and it ended after that.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm speaking with the news lady, Carole Simpson, formerly of NBC and, of course, ABC News. She's written a new memoir titled "NewsLady," and she's a former colleague of mine.

You went on to ABC - well, actually, I think that's where many people will remember you, because you anchored the weekend news for 15 years. But one of, I think, the anecdotes in the book that I think some people might remember, because it involves a number of other correspondents, a lot of people have talked about the whole pay situation. People remember when Barbara Walters was big news when she finally got, you know, a certain...

Ms. SIMPSON: A million dollars. Yeah.

MARTIN: A million dollars. That was a big deal. But behind the scenes, you and a number of the other female correspondents at ABC investigated the salaries, and you found out that you were actually, as a group, being paid far less than your male counterparts.

Ms. SIMPSON: You know, ABC management was shocked that we had the facts that we had. And it's like, we're reporters. Isn't that what you hired us to do? What they didn't know was that we had women in the business office that could look through salaries and gave us the disparity. And it turned out that women, on average, were making $30,000 a year less than men doing exactly the same job. And they ended up paying for a pay equity study and equalizing the salaries so that no woman was not on par with a male (unintelligible).

MARTIN: You know, in the book you actually say that you suffered more from gender discrimination than from racial discrimination, although you do describe some really disturbing things. I mean, somebody at - once at a luncheon, what was the thing that he told you to do? Get the - served the chicken or something?

Ms. SIMPSON: No. I...

MARTIN: Get the chicken and collard greens or some nonsense like, what was that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SIMPSON: I came to one of those working lunches we'd have upstairs on the seventh floor. You remember those. And this particular time, instead of the Caesar salad and the grilled chicken, we had baloney and salami and white bread and cans of Coke. And I was like, is this what we're having for lunch? There wasn't a second between a white producer telling me what do you want, barbecued ribs and fried chicken? I said it may come as a surprise to you, I don't even like it. Why would you say that? And everybody turns around, and they turn red and oh, nothing was happening. I was just kidding with you.

MARTIN: Which people say well, why don't you have a sense a humor?

Ms. SIMPSON: Yes. You don't have a sense of humor.

MARTIN: Well, what about that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: When people say well, why, you don't have a sense of humor. I was just joshing with you. What do you say to that?

Ms. SIMPSON: And I say no. I don't think it's funny. And I do have a sense of humor. You're not funny.

MARTIN: Well, go back to the gender-versus-race piece, because, you know, Shirley Chisholm famously said the same thing in her memoir.

Ms. SIMPSON: I did not realize that.

MARTIN: She did. Why do you say that?

Ms. SIMPSON: I was told more times you can't do this because you're a female. I always heard, no, you can't anchor because women don't like to hear other women on the air. Or you can't be a boss because men will never listen to you. You can't go to Three Mile Island to cover the nuclear accident there because of your reproductive organs. We want to protect your reproductive organs. And it's like, let me protect my reproductive organs. My husband was a nuclear engineer at the time, and I knew something about what was happening there.

MARTIN: Well, I wanted to say, though, that I appreciate everything you have to say as a person who did not have to be first. I didn't have to be the first at "Nightline," because you were first. I didn't have to - you know, part of it is you came at a time when you were probably the only African-American woman who some of these people had ever been on an equal par with. So those particular circumstances are no more. But you clearly feel that there's something that needs to be learned from this right now. What is that?

Ms. SIMPSON: That it never ends.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SIMPSON: It's not as gross and overt as it was when I was coming along. But I talk to women in news that are still having things said to them that are inappropriate. I still feel that black people are still never going to be viewed as good as a white person. That's just my feeling of 40 years of dealing with this. There's still work to be done, and that young people need to be aware of it when they enter the business. And one of the things that I tell them is you've got to be excellent. It's hard to slam the door in your face if you're the best one. If you're the best reporter, if you're coming up with exclusives, they're going to want you.

MARTIN: But to that point, what if the through line for these executives is a white audience, which is still the majority audience, is not ready for this? They don't want to see black people in these jobs. They do like black people in the soft news, the lifestyle, doing sports, you know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: What if that is true?

Ms. SIMPSON: You know, when I went into journalism, it was the '60s, and those of us that did go into the profession felt that if we got in and told them why people were against the war, why people were demonstrating in the South, that America could change for the better. That's why I went into the profession. And it seems we've lost that.

MARTIN: When you look at all the stories that you covered, I mean, you were, you know, you were everywhere. You were in South Africa you...

Ms. SIMPSON: Presidents. Yeah.

MARTIN: ...presidential debate, of course. Is there one story that stands out?

Ms. SIMPSON: You know, not one story, but what did stand out for me is that people that we would think would not have good opinions or good ideas actually do. I remember going to Kentucky and being in the hollers with people that haven't been to a town larger than 8,000 people, and yet, they know what's going on in America. They know what the country needs. They - that always amazed me, that we think of those people as uneducated and ignorant, but they actually are thinking people and they know what's up.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go - and we do appreciate your coming to see us - we call this segment Wisdom Watch because we hope that you will impart some wisdom. Do you have some wisdom to share?

Ms. SIMPSON: Yes. The struggle goes on. The issue of race is still the nation's unresolved business. Men, I don't think, ever want to treat women as equals. So for you to succeed, you're going to have to deal with it and try to get around it and over it and under it and however way you can avoid it, to progress and to be excellent and to see your dream come true.

MARTIN: Carole Simpson, longtime network correspondent and anchor. She is author of the new memoir, "NewsLady," and she was here with us in our Washington, D.C. Studio.

Carole Simpson, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. SIMPSON: It was great to be here, Michel.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.