Last month, Connie Chung did the seemingly unthinkable: She decided to give up the hard-earned luster of a weekly prime-time news series for the chance to become a first-time mother. Since her debut 20 years ago on a station in Washington, D.C., Chung had worked her way up through the ranks of TV journalists, from CBS Washington correspondent and L.A. anchorwoman in the 1970s to weekend anchor on NBC. Just last year she achieved her crowning success by returning to CBS with her own show, and now she was going to leave the fast track behind. ”Time is running out for me when it comes to childbearing,” said Chung, who turned 44 on Aug. 20. ”I (have) asked CBS News, for the time being, to lighten my workload.” Her statement came dressed up with an unusual set of supportive comments from her bosses-the implicit assumption being that skepticism would greet any woman who stepped away from a high-profile on-air job.
The struggle to make time for home life and a career is familiar to millions of women who don’t have the financial and professional clout of TV journalism’s working mothers. The perks of stardom can make things easier, of ! course. But like other working mothers, newscasters with children face long days and tough balancing acts — and they have a nation of viewers checking up on them.
In recent months, a number of such women have started fighting to reshape and repace their careers. Jane Pauley has departed the daily grind of Today for a promised weekly series based on this summer’s Real Life specials. Maria Shriver has quit Sunday Today to spend more time with her family and create four prime-time specials. These acts of independence may signal a change in the rules for women in TV news. Here is a progress report from five of the best-known: Today‘s Faith Daniels, former network newswoman Linda Ellerbee, Good Morning America‘s Joan Lunden, Lifetime’s Jane Wallace, and CBS This Morning‘s Paula Zahn.
At home in Miami, former CBS correspondent Jane Wallace is trying to balance the demands of two needy infants: Zachariah, the 9-month-old son she adopted in December, and The Jane Wallace Show, her 10-month-old weekday series on Lifetime Television. In 1987, Wallace decided to leave her hard- driving job as a reporter on CBS’ newsmagazine West 57th and take a sabbatical from her profession. Last fall, when she was ready to return to TV, Lifetime — which seeks a primarily female audience — beckoned as a place where she could explore women’s issues. But if Wallace expected the network to make it easier for her to juggle work and single motherhood, she quickly realized it wouldn’t happen. When she signed on as a ”freelance contractor” rather than as an employee, she found she wasn’t entitled to a day of unpaid maternity leave.
”At the beginning, I was so sleep-deprived I was ready to join a cult,” Wallace says. ”A new infant is a 24-hour-a-day, three-person job. I would bring Zach with me to the office, but there was grumbling whenever I took him on the set. If it hadn’t been for my executive producer, Jane Oakley, who held the baby so I could do my work, I would have had to quit. She was supportive in ways the company was not.” To survive, Wallace whittled her days ”down to Zach, the shows, and sleeping.”
Though Wallace, 34, is all for maternity leaves, she doesn’t think Chung’s decision will have an immediate impact on other women in TV journalism. ”I don’t think it’s likely,” she says. ”Everybody talks a great game — family values, blah, blah, blah — but when it comes down to it, there still isn’t much respect given. I don’t see anyone at the networks holding the door open to . women and saying, ‘Have children, have a happy life, and then come back and work for us.’
”It’s tough for me, and I have resources. Most of the women in this country don’t. It’s time we quit viewing having and raising children as a personal indulgence. Right now, a few women with muscle have to use all the muscle they’ve got to spend time with their children. And when they do step back to raise kids, that raises the god-awful mommy-track specter. It’s not my impression that things are getting better.”
At 3 in the morning, while their children sleep nearby, Joan Lunden, Paula Zahn, and Faith Daniels are getting ready to leave for work. By 7 o’clock, they’re in millions of other people’s homes. By early afternoon, barring breaking news or unexpected crises, they’re back at work in their own. Their schedules are among the most punishing in network news. The three women call their TV jobs ideal.
”The only reason I do morning television is because of my children,” says Daniels, a mother of two who recently left CBS’ 6:30 a.m. news to become the news anchor on NBC’s Today show. ”They’re perfect hours for a person who wants to have it all. I can get in four hours of work while my children are sleeping.” But Daniels is well aware of the compromises parenthood entails: ”Once you make a commitment to having children, it precludes you from being a globe-trotting correspondent. You can’t do it.”
When Daniels had her first child, there were times when ”we couldn’t find a baby sitter and my husband and I handed off my son at work. I’d have him fool around in the office and create havoc, and I’d try to get some work done.” Daniels says long maternity leaves are practically impossible for an ambitious TV journalist: ”The reality may be the same when you come back, but (the network’s) perception of you will have changed, which is scarier in a way.”
Zahn, who balances her job as co-anchor of CBS This Morning with the needs of her 1-year-old daughter, Haley, agrees. When her baby was born, Zahn, 34, took a three-month leave from being anchorwoman of ABC’s World News This Morning, but she says she couldn’t have done that after moving to her more prominent role at CBS. ”I couldn’t have come and then left, because I was so new to this job,” she says. ”There’s no shutoff valve to what I do — you get home early, but then you have three or four hours of reading to do. So there are now points in the day when the baby and I simply disappear. Look,” she adds, ”you have to realize that I’m very lucky. I make a very good living, I have a great support system, and because of these ungodly hours, I get to be with Haley all afternoon.”
Joan Lunden, who has shared three on-air pregnancies with viewers of ABC’s Good Morning America, argues that ”attitudes may have changed, but they certainly haven’t changed enough. You have to be incredibly committed to your priorities, enough to stand up to a network and risk losing.”
Lunden, 39, learned she was pregnant with her first child (Jamie, now 10) only three days after she signed a contract to become GMA‘s cohost. ”I was timid about telling ABC,” she recalls, ”and I stayed on the job until a week before I delivered. A month later, they were hot on my tail — they wanted me back.” Her return, in 1980, wasn’t completely harmonious, however. She got the network to install a nursery at the studio, as well as a crib and changing table at her office. But when she brought her newborn to a press conference, she was approached by a worried member of ABC’s public-relations staff. ”He said, ‘Try not to talk too much about having a baby — they’ll think you’re not really serious about the work you do,”’ she recalls. ”Of course, the first question was about the baby, and the second. After the fifth one, I saw the PR guy motioning to me that they wanted to bring the baby out. So they learned, gradually, not to lose sight of what’s important-people want to see you as a professional, but also as a human being.”
Lunden says the networks have come ”a long way from Florence Henderson in the early days of the Today show, where she couldn’t stand up because God forbid anyone should see she was pregnant.” (When Lunden’s daughters Lindsay, now 7, and Sarah, now 3, were born, GMA used her on-camera pregnancies to its advantage.) But she adds that much of the TV business ”still has to realize the upside of accommodating mothers.” Recently, Good Morning America‘s producers asked her to spend two weeks on the road, leaving the kids behind. ”I said, ‘You want to use me because I have this wonderful image of being a mom? Fine. Guess what goes with that image? Three kids.”’ She won her point, and ”ABC won, because they had a happy Joan Lunden.”
Though Connie Chung’s decision has been widely praised by her colleagues, most also echo syndicated columnist Linda Ellerbee’s belief that Chung’s ability to get her way ”speaks mainly to the issue of clout.” Ellerbee, 46, whose two children are grown, entered the news business in 1973 ”as part of the first wave of women broadcasters. We didn’t dare say, ‘Gee, I need some time off to be with the baby,’ and we probably should have. It took us this long to be able to ask for it. The role model for men was always: Your family will come second, your job first. We thought when women got into power, they’d show us a new way to do things.” Now she thinks maybe they are, and she is optimistic that the network’s acceptance of Chung’s choice will affect others. ”If an ordinary correspondent walked in and asked for what Connie got,” she concludes, ”it would be very difficult for CBS to say no without risking a lawsuit.”
Paula Zahn believes that the news business will continue to change as more women gain the power to define their jobs, whether that means maternal leave, more flexible hours, or walking away from a five-day schedule. ”We all fantasize about that,” she admits, but the newswomen say it still becomes reality for only a few. Chung ”realized that her family came first,” Zahn says, ”and she was prepared to tell that to CBS, and for the possibility that CBS might say no. Right now, the second generation of women — the ones who broke into the business 10 and 15 years ago — are childbearing. And many of us realize, as we’ve made this trip through the local trenches, that there is life after network news. The system has never been tested before. Connie is the first. But as time goes on, we’ll see more and more women who have that leverage.”