The Craft case: a goad to better TV news

Few could fail to be heartened by the federal jury finding in the case of Christine Craft. This is the attractive Kansas City anchorwoman who said she was demoted on a television news program because she was ''unattractive, too old and not deferential to men.'' The jury awarded the anchorwoman damages in her lawsuit. It also recommended that the federal district judge find that Metromedia Inc., the former Kansas City TV station owner, had committed sex discrimination in its treatment of her.

Strictly speaking, the issue is one of fraud. Miss Craft claimed that she was hired for the job on the basis of her journalistic skills and had warned that she did not want to be ''made over'' into a beauty queen. When she was removed as co-anchor, she said, it was for the reasons cited above. In other words, she was hired under a set of expectations that turned out not to be fulfilled.

Whatever the decision of the federal judge on the complaint of fraud, the case has broad social implications. For it goes beyond a breach of contract in the workplace to the heart of society's values and standards in the field of employment. Certainly enormous progress has been made in the past decade in the hiring of women in television. As a result of action by the Federal Communications Commission, the TV networks have increased the number of women employed on camera in news programs. Yet there is ample evidence that the women are judged more by appearance than are their male counterparts. They have to give more attention to wardrobe, makeup, hairstyle. With a few exceptions, local stations also tend not to employ women on camera over the age of 40. There have been no female Walter Cronkites.

Is this discrimination? And does the television industry have a right to ''discriminate'' if audiences prefer female glamour and if the industry stands to lose profits if it does not oblige? This is a whole area of case law that has yet to evolve and the consequences could be far-reaching. The familiar path in civil rights law has been to abolish discrimination on the basis of race, then sex, then handicaps.

No one can say whether this will be the future course of law in the television news industry. But certainly it is right that a woman should wish to be judged for her professional talents and not her beauty. It would also be a welcome development if television began shedding its fascination with pulchritude - male as well as female. The fact is, TV news broadcasting - for all the benefits of swift communication and vivid portrayal - is marred by the overemphasis on personality and charm. Too often it seeks to entertain rather than inform and enlighten. Too often networks and stations worry more about Nielsen ratings than about genuine public service and integrity of news content.

Instead of fretting about the Christine Craft case, the television industry should see the jury finding as an opportunity to reevaluate its news delivery and coverage. Fresh approaches need exploring. Who knows. By selecting anchorpersons for their wit, intelligence, and down-to-earth naturalness - whatever their looks - it may find a whole new audience of watchers out there who are weary of the superficial.

In short, what should the TV industry, which has such an influence on society , want to convey? A glittering, often meretricious image that amuses? Or solid ideas and worthy qualities of thought that educate and elevate? There is no question what benefits the public - and what the public should demand.

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