THE ASCENSION OF KATIE Couric to the anchor desk at CBS on Tuesday and of Meredith Vieira to her place on the Today show gives us a prime-time look at the status of women in the workplace.
When it comes to women, it is still about looks, age and clothes. The Wall Street Journal picked over Couric's wardrobe as if it were hanging in a secondhand shop. And women's magazine writers keep making the point that Vieira looks great without makeup and doesn't care a fig about what she wears.
Television reporters asked ABC's Charlie Gibson about his anchor-chair clothing choices as a joke because they had asked Couric about hers. He bristled.
And when it comes to their work, it is still about whether women have what it takes to do the job -- and still take care of things at home.
We are talking about what we consider to be one of the most senior leadership positions in the information age, and Couric has to explain herself by telling us she has "help" at home.
"It's not like I leave the dog door open and food in a bowl," she said to USA Today.
Did we ever know if Dan Rather had kids? I don't even know if Brian Williams is married. Did anyone ever ask Peter Jennings who cooked?
The central fact of Meredith Vieira's biography is that she walked away from her unyielding bosses at 60 Minutes to go home to take care of her kids.
Her $10-million-a-year spot on the couch on the Today show is seen as -- what? An affirmation that women can stay home with the kids during their formative years and re-enter the work force at full strength at the age of 52?
What a joke.
Gibson got the anchor job at ABC after Bob Woodruff was struck down in Iraq and co-anchor Elizabeth Vargas -- here's the rumor, anyway -- played the maternity leave card to give herself a graceful out just as her bosses were trying to dump her.
Call me crazy, but when I started in this business, men didn't want to hire women because they would get pregnant and leave. Now getting pregnant and leaving is a career move.
One of the reasons Couric isn't considered serious enough for the anchor job is all the silly things she did during 15 years on morning television.
But nobody has suggested that Gibson's credibility has been damaged by his goofy stunts on Good Morning America. (Although everyone is calling him Charles now.)
Couric took a terrible beating when it was reported -- out of context, it turns out -- that she'd said she didn't want to travel to hot spots because she was the only parent her two daughters had left.
I can't think of anything more sensible, but Couric was forced to clarify that position by saying, of course she would travel to hot spots for the right interview and if the news warranted it.
Walter Cronkite's trip to Vietnam convinced him that the war could not be won, and it changed the way he reported on it. His conversion experience is considered a central moment in the tide-turning of American support for the war.
Clearly this kind of reporting can be important, but it became a machismo stunt in 1995 when Dan Rather lashed himself to a lamppost to report from the midst of a hurricane.
In any case, I don't recall anybody asking either of them to defend their recklessness to their families. Did Cronkite have kids? I don't even know.
You can attribute the intrusiveness of the reporting on Couric and Vieira to the new cult of celebrity that surrounds our news readers. People magazine has taken care of that.
But it is different with the women. The headline from Anderson Cooper's autobiography is that he is Gloria Vanderbilt's son and his brother committed suicide.
But is the CNN anchor married? Does he color his hair? Does he have great legs? Is he a clothes horse? Does he have kids? If he does, who takes care of them when he is hip deep in flood waters?
Do we know? Would we even think to ask?
NBC boss Jeff Zucker told The New York Times that he wanted to hire Vieira precisely because her family was her highest priority, and he knew viewers would glom onto that fact.
Imagine. A woman's work-life balance as a ratings ploy.
To hear an audio clip of this column and others, go to baltimoresun.com / reimer.