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Linda Wertheimer  Radio Journalist

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©2006 NPR, by Steve Barrett
 
When Linda Wertheimer began covering politics in Washington for National Public Radio in the early 1970s, she was one of handful of women engaged in such work: broadcasting—like the political world Wertheimer covered—was largely a boy’s club. Since then, in her roles as roving correspondent and host of NPR’s flagship All Things Considered, her cool, measured tone has been permanently imprinted in the minds of millions of loyal NPR listeners as the sound of civilized, intelligent reportage. Listeners have depended on her coverage of national events from Watergate to the Iran/Contra scandal to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and she has become synonymous with top-shelf domestic political reporting, anchoring a staggering ten presidential nomination conventions and twelve election nights. In fact, Wertheimer was the first woman to anchor network coverage of the electoral events. Of such distinctions, Wertheimer has observed, “Any working woman my age can probably tell you the times she was first woman to do something in her workplace: make partner, work through pregnancy, become chief of surgery, curator of painting, the first woman in a newsroom, the first woman hired.” The present generation of female broadcasters owes much to Wertheimer for being an important one of those “firsts.”

Wertheimer was born March 19, 1943, in Carlsbad, New Mexico, to Miller and June Cozby, who owned and operated a grocery store. A good student, Wertheimer won a scholarship to Wellesley College, which she continues to cite as a key experience in her development. “I think going to a women’s college made a big difference,” Wertheimer remembers. “It gave me the sense that women could run things…And I just never thought that it made sense to give that up.”

Wertheimer graduated in 1965, and, inspired by the work of pioneering female NBC reporter Pauline Frederick (a 2005 She Made It honoree), began an internship with the British Broadcasting Corporation in London, England. There she learned radio production and writing, and she returned to the U.S. in 1967 to apply for a position at NBC—following in the footsteps of Frederick. She was rebuffed by an NBC executive who held the opinion that women were not suitable on-air reporters because they lacked credibility. Wertheimer did find work at New York’s WCBS Radio as a researcher. She continued to hone her writing skills, and she was eventually promoted to news writer and producer. Wertheimer was the only woman in the organization to hold those titles.

Wertheimer married in 1969 (to Washington, D.C.–based lawyer and lobbyist Fred Wertheimer) and spent the next two years away from journalism and concentrating on family life. In 1971, Wertheimer joined the fledgling National Public Radio network, which featured an unusually broad range of opportunities for women. Nina Totenberg, who would also go on to become a major presence on the air, was among this inaugural group of female hires. According to Totenberg, NPR’s female-friendly hiring policy was not entirely altruistic; their wages were so low that they had difficulty attracting qualified male applicants.

NPR premiered its signature news and features program, All Things Considered, in 1971, with Wertheimer as director. In a matter of weeks, however, she left that position to pursue her true passion: reporting. As NPR’s congressional correspondent, Wertheimer covered such volatile stories as the House Judiciary Committee Hearings in 1974 on President Richard Nixon’s impeachment. Her adroit handling of complex legal matters and fearlessness in confronting politicians soon established her as a political reporter of the first rank. In 1976, Wertheimer broadened her scope to become a general political correspondent, traveling extensively while following the campaigns of presidential candidates during four election periods. Wertheimer’s coverage was distinguished by its comprehensiveness, complexity, and focus on the issues—rare traits in a field increasingly dependent on the easily digested “sound bite.”

In 1989, after eighteen years reporting in the field, Wertheimer came full circle at NPR by becoming one of the hosts of All Things Considered. In addition to hosting, Wertheimer took on editorial and news writing duties. Under her aegis, All Things Considered’s audience grew from six million to ten million listeners by the end of her tenure in 2002—making it one of the top five shows on U.S. radio. During this time, she also edited and wrote essays for Listening to America: Twenty-Five Years in the Life of a Nation as Heard on National Public Radio (1995), a retrospective tome on NPR’s impact on journalism. Wertheimer left her post at All Things Considered in 2002 to become NPR’s first senior national correspondent—again traveling tirelessly to report the major events of the day.

It is a career that has earned much recognition. She was awarded the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Silver Baton Award for her comprehensive coverage of the Senate Panama Canal Treaty and was recognized by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting for her coverage of the Iran-Contra affair; by the American Women in Radio/TV for her story "Illegal Abortion"; and by the American Legion for her participation in NPR’s coverage of the Panama Treaty debates. She has been named one the top fifty journalists in Washington by Washingtonian magazine and one of America’s 200 most influential women by Vanity Fair. Wellesley College, Wertheimer’s beloved alma mater, bestowed its highest alumna honor, the Distinguished Alumna Achievement Award, on Wertheimer in 1985.

In 2003, Wertheimer delivered the commencement address at Wellesley, and she urged the graduating women to consider a career in public life, noting, “There are still some big firsts out there: the first woman president or vice president, the first woman to serve as joint chief of staff or chief of staff for the Army or the Navy or even the Air Force. But we all know that. Here’s one I’m hoping somebody will crack: The first woman in television news to be working at the age Mike Wallace is now.”

 

 


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