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Developments in Journalism from 1970 to Today: An Interview with Joan Lunden (Part 1: Women and Journalism)

Image via Executive Speakers Bureau

Joan Lunden is a bestselling author, motivational speaker, and former co-host of Good Morning America. Lunden is the host of the PBS television series “Second Opinion with Joan Lunden,” host of the Washington Post podcast series “Caring for Tomorrow,” and ambassador to the Poynter Institute Mediawise for Seniors. Recently, she served as a visiting professor at the Lehigh University College of Health. After her diagnosis and recovery from breast cancer, Lunden became an advocate for women suffering from cancer, and she has worked as a national spokesperson for the American Heart Association, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, American Lung Association, American Red Cross, American Academy of Pediatrics, and Colon Cancer Alliance. 

Sophie Jaeger: To start, can you tell me a little bit about your background as a journalist, why you were interested in journalism originally, and how you got involved?

Joan Lunden: Let’s just set the tone: This was 1973. Just to give you a sense of where we were as women in this country, it wasn’t until 1974 that the Equal Credit Opportunity Act got passed so that a woman could have a credit card and a bank account in her own name. Gloria Steinem started the National Organization of Women, and they were really putting a ton of pressure on broadcast media to hire more women. The wheels were grinding up, starting up that time that would eventually be headed toward more equality for women, but it was in its infancy.

This [NBC] ad salesman came to dinner at our house. He was a family friend and he said, “You should really consider television news.” The next morning, I woke up, and I thought, what the heck. I picked up the phone and I called the local station. I went in, and I had a bunch of questions. I was asking them, “Tell me what might a future as a reporter on TV look like,” and were they really gonna be hiring more women? About five minutes in, he said, “Well, clearly you know how to write an interview.” He said, “I really think you have potential but [the] bottom line is I don’t have any job openings here.”

I walked out the door and a man followed me. He was the big weatherman in my hometown. He stopped me, and he said, “I was back behind the set getting the maps ready for the news. I saw your audition. A few stations around the country are hiring weather girls, and I’d like to make you Sacramento’s first weather girl.” My first thought was, “I don’t know anything about the weather.”

I started working as an intern. I’d been there for not that long [when] the weatherman went into the news directors and the station manager and said, “I wanna put Joan on the air.” They were like, “Nah, we’re not ready for that. We’re not ready for a woman to go on and do the weather.” But he thought it was [time], so the next day he called in sick and he had his other weather guy call in sick. He called me, and he said, “You’re on the air today.” It was baptism by fire, but I owe a lot to that one weatherman and also the station manager. They backed me up. They felt that there was something there that I had. I catapulted to an anchor position in two years. Then, I got this call to go to WABC because remember all the stations were trying to put on women. It’s the number one station in the number one country in the world, and I had figured out by then, whenever someone asks you if you could do something, just say yes and then go figure out how to do it.

SJ: How do you think being a woman in the field of journalism has changed from when you began your career to now? Do you view yourself as a trailblazer?

JL: Well in 1973, it was a man’s world. You had to stomach a lot of insults behind your back and sometimes right to your face. I remember the first time the news director at WABC in New York called me in, and he said, “I’m gonna ask you to anchor next week.” Roger Grimsby, the co-anchor, got right in my face and said, “You don’t deserve this. You haven’t been to the school of hard knocks.” But you know what? He was right—he was absolutely right in everything he said. I didn’t really deserve it, but it was just kind of a product of the time of women coming into their own. 

I co-hosted with David Hartman for about 10 years [at Good Morning America]. When I [first] went to work at Good Morning America, I was actually required to go visit David Hartman’s agent. This is so unheard of, but men could get away with this back then. So I went to his agent’s office, and this agent said to me,“Would you be willing to change your hair color?” I was like, “What’s the origin of that question? I don’t even know how to answer that.“ And he said, “Well, you’re very blonde and young looking, and I don’t really want you to make David look older.” I said, “Well, if the network thought that somehow I would be more credible or something if I darkened my hair, I guess I would entertain the idea.” To say that men called the shots is the understatement of the decade. 

When I started on the show, I had just had my first daughter, Jamie. My daughter was seven weeks old, and I was breastfeeding. I said, “I have to bring my baby with me. I don’t know what else I could do; the baby needs to be there.” ABC wanted me back so bad that they just said, “Okay, fine. You can bring her with you. We’ll give you a little room next to your dressing room where you can [breastfeed]. We’ll put a crib in there, and you can put her there.” I don’t think that they really understood completely what they were saying yes to. I don’t think that they ever had the ability to imagine how that decision would bode so well for them because America took to this. A million articles were written. Introducing the new co-host of Good Morning America was not a big story, but the first woman to be allowed by a television network to bring a baby to work with her? That was a headline. As soon as it got out, it was in Time, Newsweek, Good Housekeeping, Ladies’ Home Journal, you name it. It was a huge story. The fact that I had the audacity to ask the network to let me bring my baby to work by just virtue of living my life and figuring out how I could do both things at the same time, I changed the atmosphere in companies and big corporations across America in the ensuing years in a huge way just by living my life. 

When I [was on] Good Morning America, I was scheduled to interview Barbara Walters. I idolized her because she was one of the only women on television news. She took me aside and said, “I wanna just say something to you, don’t fight for equality here because that time has not come yet, so my advice to you is to take every small assignment that they are willing to give you and make them shine.” I followed that advice, and that is what made my stature as a woman grow. It allowed the executives there at Good Morning America to be able to have confidence in me and be comfortable in giving me bigger assignments. 

Today, I’m not gonna say that it’s all fair. I think certainly in upper management, in corporate positions, both at the networks and in every other business, it’s still for the most part, very much a man’s world, but when it comes to on-air, I think it’s fairly gender neutral. And was I a trailblazer by virtue of coming up through the ranks when I did? Yes, I was. If you asked somebody was Joan Lunden a trailblazer? They would probably tell you that I was a trailblazer because I was one of the most visible working women on-air and that I was the first to be allowed to bring my baby to work.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.