05/17/2010 11:39 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Critic Regrets 'Clinton's Lap' Crack

It's hard to be pretty.

I know, cry me a river. But in TV news, being a beautiful woman is as much a burden as it is a blessing.

When Alison Stewart, former MTV VJ, CBS , ABC, MSNBC, NPR and Peabody-winning reporter debuted two weeks ago in her new show -- Need to Know on PBS, critics were not impressed with the program. But one in particular -- Tom Shales of the Washington Post -- seemed to have crossed a line that has been violated again and again by male TV critics and executives.

The show's at best semi-competent anchors were Jon Meacham and NPR veteran Alison Stewart. He looked forlorn, as if having been left out in the rain, and she looked as though she would have been much more comfortable in [President] Clinton's lap.

My reading of this quote "...she would have been much more comfortable in [President Clinton's lap" is the same as many of my colleagues: He apparently thinks it's funny to critique a female reporter by accusing her of secretly desiring to be a slut.

The outcry could be heard round the television news universe. Keith Olbermann (whose show often had Stewart as a substitute anchor) named Tom Shales one of the "Worst Persons in the World" in his nightly segment in which Olbermann recounts a recent news story involving people saying or doing something that Olbermann finds objectionable.

Stewart fired back on

"Dear TV Newser,

Since you posted Tom Shales' crude, crass and sexist comment about me that I'd be "more at home in President Clinton's lap" -- I feel I should respond, for myself and for other hard working female journalists. Mr. Shales' is certainly entitled to his own views about our program but in most work places it would be simply unacceptable to make this kind of public suggestive insinuation about a colleague. I'm surprised it got by his editor. Jon Meacham and I are really hoping to raise the level of discourse with our new PBS program, "Need to Know." It's a new show. We're the first to admit we have some bugs to work out. And we will. And we welcome constructive criticism but not a raunchy rant."

It took him a week, but today Shales got the message and gave this apology in an online chat:

"Kathy Lee never whimpered about the reviews, I don't think friends of the "Need to Know" gang should claim grievous bodily harm either. I do however want to apologize to cohost Alison Stewart for the line about her looking as tho she'd have been more at home in Bill Clinton's lap. That was seen by some as a graphic sexual reference (it was not meant that way, but c'est la vie); I was talking about cozying up, nothing more sinister than that."

While the apology is valid, it still raises questions about how men in power treat female journalists.

Among my colleagues in the business, we are hard pressed to find a female reporter in our orbit who hasn't been on the receiving end of this kind of sexist, lewd, and incomprehensibly inappropriate commentary.

Yes, there are women who use their sexuality to get ahead. I don't know them personally. And maybe those women give the rest of us a bad name. But that doesn't give anyone the right to malign all of us.

When I was first considering getting into the tv news business almost 20 years ago, I asked Katie Couric at a rooftop party overlooking the Capitol: "What advice do you have?" I've repeated her answer to the dozens of tv reporter wannabes who have asked me for guidance. "It's a sleazy business. Make sure you really want to do it."

Couric was right. A year later, in Harrisburg, PA, after one of my first-ever live reports aired, I was immediately called into my news director's office. My story about the latest exploits of a serial killer beat out the competition and led the six o'clock news. I had worked sources, given a good live report for a newbie, and was proud of my accomplishments. I was sure my boss would be, too.

Once in his office, he closed the door. "Lauren," he said, "you have to cut your bangs." That was it. I was dismissed from the office.

This mild example of people in power focusing on looks instead of brains was the first in a long line of egregious comments that are seared in my memory. At another job, one executive insinuated to my boss - in front of me - that the only reason I had a job was because of my cleavage. Surely, I couldn't have my job because of my education at Columbia University or my doggedness in the field.

There was another snarky comment as recently as last week. After I appeared on the CNN show Reliable Sources, a blogger had this to say: "Really, the most illuminating conversation of the day was an exchange between/among Lauren Ashburn (Sweater-filler-outer for USA Today), David Frum (ex-Bush speechwriter...)."

Carol Costello, reporter for CNN, and a former colleague of mine at Washington's ABC affiliate WJLA-TV, has said on national television that she has been pressured by some managers to appear sexier, fix a crooked tooth, or to dress a certain way. She refused, as others have.

When a man posted a nude video of ESPN reporter Erin Andrews on the Internet - one he filmed her through her hotel peephole -- there were those who said she deserved it because she must have used her looks to get her job in the first place. The man was sentenced to federal prison for 2 and 1/2 years. At his hearing, Andrews made the case women who have been similarly maligned. "I did nothing to deserve it."

All of us love a good, tasty critique. One that oozes with sarcasm and drips with disgust. One that makes you think, whew, glad this isn't me he's talking about. As a journalist, I'm all about freedom of speech. But when "freedom" means using your highly influential position to malign a colleague based on her looks, or, as it seemed in the case of Alison Stewart, sleazy desires you imagine her to harbor, count me out.

Lauren Ashburn is the President of Ashburn Media Company and a former Managing Editor for the Gannett Company.