Nancy Dickerson, the First Lady of TV News Before Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer, there was Nancy Dickerson. In 1960, Dickerson broke through TV journalism's all-male fortress to become the first female reporter on television. In a new book, her youngest son, John Dickerson, chronicles her impressive career and her troubled family life.
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Nancy Dickerson, the First Lady of TV News

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Nancy Dickerson, the First Lady of TV News

Nancy Dickerson, the First Lady of TV News

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MADELEINE BRAND, Host:

This is DAY TO DAY, I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, Host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. It's very recent that American network television got its first solo female anchor of an evening news broadcast. Here she is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

KATIE COURIC: Hi everyone. We begin with the worst kind of news. American forces...

BRAND: Katie Couric took over at CBS last month. That breakthrough came 46 years after CBS hired its first female TV reporter.

CHADWICK: She was Nancy Dickerson. She later went on to work for NBC. Her youngest son, John Dickerson, is chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate and a regular guest on this program.

BRAND: Unidentified Woman: Nancy Dickerson's on line two asking for two minutes of your time.

JOHN DICKERSON: I'd never heard my mother sound nervous until two years after she died.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

NANCY DICKERSON: Next time I need a new swimming suit, I'm going to consult you.

LYNDON B: What is it?

DICKERSON: I said the next time I need a new swimming suit I'm going to consult you.

JOHNSON: How you doin', honey?

DICKERSON: Fine, thank you.

DICKERSON: I was sitting in the LBJ Presidential Library listening to a scratchy recording of Mom pitching President Johnson some stories she wanted to do for NBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

DICKERSON: Listen, what do you think of (unintelligible) going on The Today Show with me just talking about life in Washington?

JOHNSON: I think that'd be all right. I don't have any objections.

DICKERSON: You don't?

JOHNSON: No.

DICKERSON: I'm going on for the first time on The Today Show and I thought it would be great fun if they could just sit there and talk about how they like living here.

JOHNSON: Yeah, I think that'd be all right.

DICKERSON: It was the start of a journey to find my mother, a journalist whom America knew long before I did.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

DICKERSON: Nancy Dickerson, NBC news, New York. Good night.

DICKERSON: Before Katie Couric, before Diane Sawyer or Barbara Walters, there was my mom, Nancy Dickerson, chatting with Walter Cronkite about Linden Johnson's campaign in 1960.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

DICKERSON: He started out sort of like a lamb. He was rather mild. And the last time I saw him, he was a real tiger on the campaign trail. You just couldn't stop him.

WALTER CRONKITE: Doesn't he need any extra rest because of the heart attack some years ago, Nancy?

DICKERSON: Well, you would think so.

DICKERSON: And reporting from Andrews Air Force Base, her voice cracking as John Kennedy's body returned from Dallas.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV BROADCAST)

DICKERSON: Behind the casket is Mrs. Jacqueline Kennedy. To her right is her brother-in-law, the attorney general, Robert Kennedy. They are helping her down out of that carrier that has just brought down the casket.

DICKERSON: The day before I was born, in 1968, my mother followed her usual routine. She visited the hairdresser and anchored her morning newscast.

DICKERSON: This is Nancy Dickerson in Washington.

DICKERSON: The next day, she went in to labor and I was born, to the great surprise of her viewers. The network brass already doubted that a woman had enough authority to present the news. But a pregnant woman? Forget it. They filmed mom in such a way that no one knew she was with child. But viewers liked her and Nancy Dickerson became a journalistic star, influencing not only a generation of young women but at least one young man as well. Here she is at a news conference with President Nixon.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

RICHARD NIXON: Ms. Dickerson.

DICKERSON: Mr. President, getting back to the polarization question. Your administration has been charged with the failure to reach the young people, both those who protest and march and those who don't.

DICKERSON: Three decades later, I found myself in the same room asking questions of a different president.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

DICKERSON: You've looked back before 9/11 for what mistakes might have been made. After 9/11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have you learned from it?

GEORGE W: Hmm. I wish you'd have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it.

DICKERSON: It wasn't certain that I would follow my mother into journalism. We had a rocky relationship during my adolescence. When my parents divorced, I left her and moved in with my father. Mom and I later reconciled and became pals for a few years, before she had a severe stroke. After her funeral I received 20 boxes of material from her life: journals, newspaper clippings, and even some old thin reel to reel tapes of reports in which mom was still using her maiden name.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)

DICKERSON: This is Nancy Hanschman again in Paris with your man in Paris, CBS news correspondent David Schoenbrun.

DICKERSON: I'd been born after her career was largely over, and I'd never seen or cared to ask about most of this material. But in those boxes I discovered a woman I never knew. You can't really understand how hard it was for her to break into the all-male world of broadcasting until you listen to an interview she did with CBS colleague David Schoenbrun. The tape is from September 1961 and CBS had just named mom their first woman television correspondent. She faced rampant sexism, but as a pioneer she just had to accept it. Mom idolized Schoenbrun and wanted to be just like him. Yet listen to the dismissive way the Paris correspondent describes the proper role for woman.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)

DAVID SCHOENBRUN: In France the women are really not pretty women, but they're exciting women, and they walk as though they were beautiful. They act as though they were beautiful. And they, above all I think, are happy to be women. They don't want to run things, they don't believe in equality of the sexes. They believe that the sexes are unequal, as indeed they are. They would argue for equality of rights, that women have the same rights as men. But certainly they're not equal. They're different, and as we say in France, vive le de France.

DICKERSON: I was just going to quote that.

DICKERSON: I'd never heard these recordings while mom was alive. Even her voice seemed unfamiliar. Especially in this whimsical piece about the theft of a Goya painting in Britain.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)

DICKERSON: Bought by the British government, it was grandly displayed in their National Gallery until it was stolen right out from everyone's collective nose.

DICKERSON: Why does she have that sugar coating in her voice, I wondered?

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)

DICKERSON: It intrigued me that such a theft could occur and I had a morbid fascination to see just where the picture used to hang. I asked an American businessman, Mr. C. Wyatt Dickerson, to go with me. Since he's also and art expert, he raised some objection to an excursion, the purpose of which was to visit an art gallery to see where a picture no longer was.

DICKERSON: She's flirting on the air with the man who would become my father.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)

DICKERSON: And just that quick, the guard was gone, which caused Mr. Dickerson to comment, Well, now they've stolen him too. Not getting anywhere...

DICKERSON: That radio piece is from the fall of 1961. Now, almost exactly 45 years later, I sit here taping another radio story, a tribute to the woman I rediscovered while writing my book. Appropriately, this week is also the ninth anniversary of her death.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)

DICKERSON: I'm leaving the British National Gallery. I asked Mr. Dickerson if he had ever been tempted to steal any paintings, just to get away with it, you understand. He rather disdainfully said no. But he did admit he had been tempted to straighten quite a few, and I must say...

BRAND: John Dickerson is chief political correspondent for the online magazine Slate and a regular guest here on DAY TO DAY. His new book is called On Her Trail, and that report was produced by Andy Bowers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHADWICK: History on line. You can hear one of President Johnson's secretly taped conversations with Nancy Dickerson and read an excerpt from "On Her Trail" at npr.org.

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