Hair Apparent

The lesson of Couric's new 'do (hint: not sexism!)

It puts the “ew,” some say, “in the evening news.” The new ‘do, apparently, is a fashion don’t.

Yep, Katie Couric’s new haircut. The one she debuted on the CBS Evening News this week. The one that sparked a small controversy, not to mention several slideshows detailing Couric’s Hair Through The Years and Similarly Controversial Coifs, not to mention an online poll from US Weekly asking readers “Who has the hotter new ‘do?” between Couric and celebutante Kim Kardashian. The one that received, in its review in the New York Daily News, the unkindest cut of all:

The coif, a boyish pixie cut that channeled some of Hillary Clinton’s bad ‘do days, was a striking departure from the signature bob viewers associate with the 51-year-old anchor.

The dramatic chop did little to flatter and even caused Couric’s face to appear different. Sideswiped bangs - that shifted throughout the newscast - first made one eyebrow arch menacingly, then hid it altogether.

Well. Enter the hand-wringing. And the anxiety. And the judgment. Because Lady Anchor plus Hair Talk must equal…sexism! “Would we report this if Brian or Charlie got a haircut?” TVNewser asked itself. “The answer was no and no.” “No word, somehow, on the Gibson and Williams coifs,” Howard Kurtz noted. “Isn’t it sad, that on a day when India is struggling with the aftermath of a despicable terrorist attack and America is reeling through a depressing recession, CBS News anchor Katie Couric’s new hairstyle would create such a national stir,” the Huffington Post’s Joe Peyronnin remarked. “I guess I was wrong. Women are still viewed differently.”

Now, sure, it’s easy to dismiss the fixation on Couric’s hairstyle as sexist. But crying sexism all too easily verges into crying wolf. Before we whip out our scarlet-S decals and fling them at the nearest Y-chromosome, here’s a wild thought: the it’s-sexist-to-talk-about-a-woman’s-hairstyle arguments, valid though they may be in other contexts, are also overly simplistic in this case. Television is a visual medium; to dismiss any comment on an anchor’s appearance—yes, even a Lady Anchor’s—as out-of-bounds is to be either misguided or naive about the thing. Because, really, the media’s fixation on news personalities’ hairstyles—and on the superficial in general—is all too often an equal-opportunity affair. Danny Shea suggested as much in his write-up of the Couric Coif in the HuffPo:

“CBS Evening News” anchor Katie Couric debuted a new, shorter haircut Monday night — and before you even start wondering whether it’s sexist to report on Couric’s hair, read this: our coverage of Chris Matthews’ hair from earlier this year.

Cover Matthews’s hair the HuffPo most definitely did, noting in May that “the normally bleach blond Matthews, host of “Hardball,” now has noticeably darker hair,” going on to specify—details! zesty details! —that Matthews’s new ‘do has “more of a russet/rusty coloration and is a bit shorter.” And then there was Politico’s write-up of the David Gregory-to-host-Meet the Press intelligence, which breezily noted (emphasis mine): “Enjoying a gravitas boost from his prematurely salt-and-pepper mane and friendships with Tom Brokaw and other of the legendary figures of NBC News, [Gregory]…quickly became one of the hottest personalities in network news.” In other words: hair, hair, everywhere. And the male reporter’s hair treatment actually goes a step further than mere description; Gregory’s mane isn’t just there-hair; it’s hair that gets things done. You know, career hair.

When it comes to levels of offensiveness, I’d argue that your hair helped you get a promotion is probably more insulting than your new haircut sucks. So it would seem that, actually, the guy is getting treated more unfairly here. You could say that, sure, there’s something in the fact that, when it comes to TV personalities, Manly Hair tends to be either a non-issue or an asset, while Lady Hair skews more toward the non-issue-or-liability side of things. But, again, focusing on gender when it comes to Questions of Hair, valid though it may be in other contexts, largely misses the point when it comes to Couric.

The point is that a television anchor’s personal appearance isn’t, in the end, personal. It’s public, and therefore subject to the intense scrutiny our tabloid culture extends to its public figures. Anchors are celebrities, in this sense, in the same way that Angelina and Brad are celebrities. The media’s fixation on Katie’s hair is a bit like their fixation on Angelina’s latest tattoo—they’re reporting on a visual change in a commodity that is itself inherently, if not primarily, visual. They’re tacitly suggesting what even the most casual of news consumers can sense: the blurring of the line between News Anchor and Celebrity, and, more broadly, the blurring of the line between news and entertainment.

The blurring of those lines hardly needs proof, so self-evident has it become. And it’s not merely in the fact that the Oxford English Dictionary features the word “infotainment.” It’s in the subtler, more figurative portmanteaux: the constant appearances of Brian Williams and the like on the late-night shows, Comedy Central programs, and Saturday Night Live; the fact that the beats of The New York Times “media” reporters Jacques Steinberg and Brian Stelter encompass both Hollywood and the news; the ongoing tabloid obsession with CBS reporter Lara Logan’s love life; the fact that the Media page of the Huffington Post—a publication widely considered to be a rough template for future online news operations—features, as of this writing, a story about David Gregory’s Meet the Press negotiations with NBC next to a story about Kelly Ripa’s divorce next to a story about Eliot Spitzer’s new Slate column next to a story about Susan Lucci’s salary cut. Blur, blur, blur.

The Couric haircut treatment, though, suggests a lack of equilibrium in the information/entertainment dynamic—the notion that anchors are vehicles for entertainment more than purveyors of information. It suggests that anchors somehow transcend their work, rather than the other way around.

Indeed, celebrifying our anchors suggests (and, perhaps, proves the fact) that all anchors have to sell are their images—in the broader sense of their reputations, to be sure, but also in the more immediate sense of their appearance. Because, if anything, anchors are figureheads for news. (That’s nothing new, of course; so, in many ways, was Murrow; so, in many ways, was Cronkite.) Sure, that’s unfortunate, particularly so nowadays, when survival for news organizations often demands demonstrating why they are relevant in the new media era. And there are ways to improve, as it were, “the way it is.”

But, for now, as long as image is the defining aspect of TV news, we can’t really be surprised when other media platforms focus on, you know, the image aspect of TV news. Just as we can’t really be surprised when a hairstyle becomes A Thing. Image-based branding, for better or for worse, is part of the game we all play when we passively consume TV news—and when we treat “entertaining us” as a viable expectation for serious news coverage. It’s what we can expect, in short, when we don’t expect better.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.