Friday, December 6, 2013

A Hairy Situation for TV News

So, we're heading into one of the worst times of year for news gatherers, the ten days or so encompassing Christmas and New Year's. The only other time of year that's equally slow for journalists are the dog days of August.

And this past August, a rather hairy situation arose across the pond in Great Britain, involving a TV news personality—and they are personalities, after all, whether they are qualified as journalists or not as well, or else we wouldn't be having this discussion.

The story was covered by Palash Ghosh of the International Business Times, and it went by the name of, Jeremy Paxman’s Beard: Why Are Television News Presenters Almost Always Clean Shaven?  It was posted back on August 13th, and yeah, I'm quoted in it, why else would I be bringing it up here, after all?

Here's how it begins:

Jeremy Paxman, one of the most well-known and controversial of Britain’s television news presenters, has made some news of his own -- he appeared on the air wearing a mustache and beard. The 63-year-old, who has hosted ”Newsnight” since 1990, explained on the air that he grew the beard while on summer holiday and didn’t feel like shaving it off when he returned to work.

Paxman's unexpectedly hairy appearance on Monday night on BBC2 sparked a tidal wave of commentary (mostly cheeky) on Twitter as well as by other members of U.K. media. Lauren Laverne, a BBC music DJ, liked the beard, calling it “Fawkesian,” an apparent reference to Guy Fawkes, the early 17th-century man who tried to blow up the House of Lords and assassinate King James I. Kevin O’Sullivan, the TV critic for the Sunday Mirror, beamed: “Facial hair becomes him [Paxman].”

So, this is a story that did not get much coverage, facial or otherwise, over here in the United States. The reference to Guy Fawkes may summon up images of V for Vendetta, from the graphic novel and film adaptation, and the Guy Fawkes mask that the title character wore:

As for whether this was a fair comparison with Jeremy Paxman, I'll let you be the judge:

Personally, I can't help but see a resemblance to a more clean shaven and less nonfictional newscaster:

But hey, that's just me. Of course, this might make for an interesting plot point for the next season of the HBO series, The Newsroom, with Will McAvoy, the character played by Jeff Daniels, depicted above, growing a beard; his producer and paramour MacKenzie McHale, being British, saying she loves the new look; and Jane Fonda, who isn't given much of a workout playing broadcast CEO Leonia Lansing, demanding that he shave it off. Sam Waterson's character, news division president Charlie Skinner, can say that he doesn't think a beard looks good on a news anchor, but that he will nevertheless defend McAvoy's right to refrain from removing his whiskers.

But I digress, so back to the article:

Others were less than thrilled by the follicles. Paxman’s BBC colleague Emily Maitlis sarcastically tweeted: "Right that's it, I'm working on a mustache for Thursday's Newsnight." Jenny Éclair, the comedienne and actress best known for her role in “Grumpy Old Women” television series, commented: "I like Paxman's beard. Looks like he might ride a Harley [Davidson motorcycle] come the weekend."

Ian Rankin, the Scots crime novelist, quipped: "It is 1973 and I'm really digging the new album by Paxman's Beard." A presenter on Channel 4, the decidedly dark-haired Kirstie Allsopp commented: “Paxo [Paxman] with a beard is like me going blonde; there are just some things that are not meant to be.”

Similarly, according to the Daily Mail, broadcaster and journalist Danny Baker boldly declared: “I really do not think Jeremy Paxman should be granted a beard. It's corrupt. Disney had it right. Hey BBC: no news beards.” Baker added: “Do you think a single person in the news room had the balls to say 'Hey Jeremy. The beard. You look f__king ridiculous.” Perhaps the best comment came from political blogger Guido Fawkes, who joked: “Paxo looks like he’s making one of those ‘hostage pleads for release’ videos.”

It does seem that some of these folks are piling it on a bit thick, doesn't it? But the Brits are known for their sharp put-downs. And what does Mr. Paxman have to say about all this (it wouldn't be peace, man, now would it?)?

Paxman himself conceded that his hirsute appearance is highly unusual for BBC television. "Unless you're lucky enough to be Uncle Albert on ‘Only Fools and Horses [a popular British sitcom];’ [Greek rock singer] Demis Roussos or [convicted terrorist] Abu Hamza, the BBC is generally as pogonophobic [fearful of beards] as the late-lamented Albanian dictator, Enver Hoxha," he said.

For now, Paxman seems enamored with his new look, despite the jokes and criticism. "I have grown a beard for the last few summers, and suddenly wondered whether I really needed to shave it off to present Newsnight," he said, according to BBC. "I may keep it or I may shave it off, but I think I'll make my own decision."

BBC’s stance on its star’s new look is unclear. A source told the Guardian: “Yes, he has grown a beard. It's fair to say there will be no action as a result of this.” Interestingly, last year, Paxman derided the Liberal Democrats party by noting that the “beard quotient seems to be down” at their annual conference.

But Paxman has found very strong support from a British organization called The Beard Liberation Front, which campaigns for the right of men to wear beards in the workplace. The group said that Paxman has made “broadcasting history”. “It had previously been thought that the BBC had an informal beard ban on news anchors,” BLF said in a statement. “Paxman’s beard is a blow against pogonophobia in public life.”

Pogonophobia? The Beard Liberation Front? Is this for real? Well, there do have a Wikipedia entry, if you can believe it, and here's the first paragraph:

The Beard Liberation Front (BLF) is a British interest group which campaigns in support of beards and opposes discrimination against those who wear them. It was founded in 1995 by socialist historian Keith Flett who continues to organise and represent the organisation. Apart from its numerous campaigns in support of beards and against discrimination in the workplace and discrimination against those who wear beards as part of their religion, it currently hosts the annual Beard of the Year award.

Beard of the Year Award?  Errr, hmmm, ahem, ahhh..

(hint, hint)

So is this all a big put-on?  Well, here's what the Wikipedia entry continues to relate:

On the face of it, the campaign is semi-humorous, with its outwardly frivolous aims, its occasionally outlandish claims of discrimination and conspiracy and its founder, who is also the spokesman for the Campaign for Real Conkers. However, the organisation has drawn attention to more serious issues, having spoken out against, among other incidents, the suspension of a fireman for refusing to shave off his goatee and the banning of beards among ExxonMobil oil workers (in both cases employers claimed that beards interfered with breathing apparatus). Flett believes that an issue of "real discrimination" exists against men with beards. Although he admits that a beard, unlike race and gender, is a matter of choice, he has claimed that beardism is associated with more serious forms of discrimination:

Beardism? Well, I suppose I'm lucky to be in a profession, academia, where beardism is simply not considered politically correct. If anything, there may be some bias against the clean shaven look. Perhaps that's why Al Gore grew a beard after losing the 2000 presidential election and going off to teach at Columbia University's Journalism School:

Now c'mon, mine is better, don't you think? Anyway, enough about the Brits, let's turn to American TV news, shall we, as the article continues on:

In the United States, leading television news anchors are typically clean shaven, although it in unclear if this is dictated by station policy or not. The CBS Evening News, perhaps the most dominant of all American news broadcast programs, has had five major male anchors over the past 60 years, Douglas Edwards, Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Bob Schieffer and Scott Pelley -- all were clean shaven, aside from Cronkite who sported a neatly-trimmed mustache. (However, Ed Bradley, an African-American news presenter who sometimes anchored the CBS Evening news and later became a member of the “60 Minutes” team, usually sported a moustache and beard.)

Walter Cronkite

Ed Bradley

On NBC News, going back to 1949, all male anchors, including the latest two, Brian Williams and Tom Brokaw, had no whiskers at all. On the ABC Evening News, only one anchor, Max Robinson, the first African-American network anchor, wore a conservative mustache, in the late 1970s. Among cable news presenters, Wolf Blitzer of CNN has a neatly-trimmed grey mustache and beard, while Geraldo Rivera, now at Fox News, has always worn his trademark thick mustache, but no beard. In the 1990s, another African-American anchor on CNN, Bernard Shaw, did sport a trimmed mustache.

Max Robinson

Wolf Blitzer

Geraldo Rivera

Bernard Shaw

But these are rare exceptions – as with politicians and corporate executives, facial hair seems to be a big no-no.

And now, the moment you've all been waiting for, as I descend from the hairy heavens to impart my wisdom upon the world on this weighty matter (you do detect the note of sarcasm in my tone, don't you?):

Dr. Lance A. Strate, professor of Communication and Media Studies and associate chair for Graduate Studies at Fordham University in New York, told IB Times that television newscasters have been referred to not only as “talking heads,” but also as talking “hair-dos,” due to the fact that their appearance is carefully prepared for broadcast, from the application of hair spray and make-up, to the choice of clothing. “Credibility on television is all about the look and sound of the newscaster, as opposed to their credentials or the content of the reports they read off of a teleprompter,” he said. “While there still are individuals devoted to serious journalism involved in TV news, the needs of the camera come first, and dictate what will follow.”

This means that newscasters tend to be attractive, but not so very attractive as to undercut the serious image that they are trying to portray, Strate added. “The best look is not too distracting, the kind of look that is almost transparent, a look that viewers can relate to and identify with,” he noted. “For male newscasters, this means that they typically are not bald or overweight (unless relegated to some specialty niche like weather or commentary). They don't have long hair because that conveys an image of being outside of the mainstream, rebellious, independently minded, etc.”

Beards have a similar connotation, often associated with “intellectuals” and “artistic” types, while mustaches are more mainstream in being associated with a masculine look, but less common today than in Walter Cronkite's time, so we're more likely to see them on sports reporters than news anchors.

The main problem, he explained, is that on television anything that calls attention to itself, be it facial hair, long hair, a bad toupee, hair dyed an odd color, even hair that's unruly, will attract the viewer's attention, distracting and detracting from the intended message. “Broadcasters, being in the business of attracting the largest possible audiences and selling access to those audiences to advertisers, naturally prefer the least objectionable content, the result being a fairly homogenous set of types presenting the news on TV, which includes men with deep pitched voices, and Asian women whose stereotype of seriousness and intellectual achievement are consistent with the image TV news organizations want to convey,” Strate concluded.

And so, there is a serious point to be pulled out of all this silliness about facial hair, but I have to admit that it was not easy responding to the query about this issue without turning it into one big joke. So if I managed to avoid that trap, I guess you could say that it was a close shave...

1 comment:

uAJSdudAUD said...

Marshall McLuhan had something to say about beards in relation to image, specifically political image:
[Canadian Prime Minister Pierre] Trudeau once told an interviewer that philosopher Marshall McLuhan — who famously coined the maxim, “the medium is the message” — had written to him about the beard, providing what Trudeau felt was counter-intuitive advice.

“He said, ‘You’ve cooled your image several degrees’ — which is what I wanted, I suppose, subconsciously because I was in opposition and I was trying to keep a low profile,” Trudeau told the CBC in November 1980.

“I would have thought a beard attracted more interest but (McLuhan) had reached the contrary conclusion. And I think he probably was right because he went on to say: ‘And you can keep that in mind if ever you want to hot up your image again.’”

It worked, Trudeau recounted.

“In effect, when I cut my beard off people say, ‘Oh my gosh, Trudeau’s back in politics.’ I was no longer retiring, just because I’d cut my beard off.”

A clean-shaven Trudeau was swept back into office in February 1980.

See the full article on the McLuhan Galaxy blog:
- Alex Kuskis