When Cokie Roberts became a journalist, employers could still say, "We don't hire women as broadcasters. Their voices aren't authoritative enough." Roberts, a former National Public Radio congressional correspondent, is now coanchor of This Week with Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts on ABC and the chief congressional analyst for ABC News. So much for authority.
Roberts came to Brown in April to deliver the second annual lecture in memory of Casey Shearer '00, an aspiring sports journalist who died May 23, 2000, of a virus that had infected his heart. Roberts, a longtime friend of the Shearer family, focused her remarks on the need in today's newsrooms for people of more diverse backgrounds and interests.
Her speech was a history lesson on pioneering women in journalism, beginning with Anne Newport Royall, a reporter in Washington, D.C., during the early nineteenth century who was once jailed for the crime of "being a common scold." According to Roberts, Royall got an interview with President John Quincy Adams one day by sitting on his clothes while he was swimming in the Potomac River. The most famous female journalist of the late nineteenth century, according to Roberts, was Nellie Bly, who feigned insanity in order to witness and report on the horrors of Blackwell's Island asylum in New York City. In 1889 Bly traveled around the world in seventy-two days for the New York World and went on to cover the Eastern Front in World War I.
"The history's fun," Roberts said, "but I bring it up because I want to talk about why it matters." Women, she said, bring a different perspective to newsrooms: Bly, for example, wrote about divorce and slum life, and appealed for aid to Austrian war widows. "Her advice column became a social-service clearinghouse," Roberts said, which was "something men in the business just didn't do."
Before Roberts spoke, Casey Shearer's mother, Ruth Goldway, explained that the family had chosen Roberts as this year's speaker because they wanted "the women's side of the picture." She added that her son had grown up listening to Roberts on NPR. "We like to think that this event keeps him and his spirit alive," Goldway said.