Had Pauline Frederick, the first woman in television news, listened to advice she received after early attempts to work in broadcasting, her career would not have been as long and illustrious as it was. “When I was being blocked from going on the air early in my career,” she recalled, “I was told a woman’s voice does not carry authority; therefore, people wouldn’t listen to her.” Frederick did not listen to the naysayers and eventually racked up a list of firsts unparalleled in the broadcast news business: she was the first woman to cover politics for ABC (1946), the first woman to cover a national political convention (1948), the first newswoman on staff full-time for a TV network (1948), the first newswoman to win a Peabody Award (1954), the first woman to moderate a presidential debate (1976), and the first woman to be elected president of the United Nations Correspondents Association. She covered the United Nations for nearly three decades, including twenty-one years at NBC, and finished her career at NPR as host of an international affairs program. By the time Frederick retired, few voices in news carried more authority than hers.
Born in Gallitzin, Pennsylvania, Frederick was raised in nearby Harrisburg. Her journalism training began in high school, when she worked as a reporter for local newspapers. However, her career goal upon entering American University was the law. Though she ultimately earned a BA in political science and an MA in international law, a professor advised her to “leave the law to others.” Back she went to journalism, but, because international affairs would become her reportorial specialty, her academic training was not for naught.
Though Frederick frequently said that she did not believe in the existence of “women’s news” (“I think news is news, that’s all.”), she got her break at a major newspaper by interviewing the wives of two diplomats in Washington and selling the stories to the Washington Star. She worked at newspapers for six years before taking a part-time job writing for ABC radio reporter H. R. Baukhage, who discouraged her from pursuing an on-air position. “Stay away from radio,” Baukhage warned. “It doesn’t like women.” Despite such admonitions, in 1939 Frederick began doing occasional interviews for NBC radio.
While at this point she had amassed a substantial news resume, Frederick was forced to freelance for the next decade, having to prove herself over and over again, before finally being offered a full-time job in broadcasting. Frederick’s career is confusing to follow during this period, as she reported both for newspapers and for radio, and for more than one radio network.
In 1945, Frederick, who was in San Francisco as the assistant to an NBC commentator, talked her way into an Air Force press junket to Asia and Africa. She eventually globe-trotted through nineteen countries, filing stories for the North American Newspaper Alliance and for network radio.She filed her first overseas radio report on that trip in 1945 from China, where she herself was interviewed by two local newspaperwomen fascinated by her status as an unwed career woman. Frederick was startled to hear this translation of one sentence in their story: “She’s an old maid and a spinster and isn’t married because she hasn’t felt the need of it.” When Newsweek ran a short profile of her in 1947, the headline was “Spinster at the News Mike.”
Frederick’s gender prevented her from a regular assignment covering the Nuremberg trials, but she filed freelance stories. Only once was she permitted on the air for ABC, when Hermann Goering took the stand. “That was because their regular correspondent wasn’t around,” she noted later. After the war, neither NBC nor CBS had any interest in hiring Frederick because of the “lack of authority” problem. However she was able to secure freelance radio assignments for ABC, mostly covering her bête noire, women’s stories, including a seminar on how to find a husband. (Frederick herself married when she was in her sixties.)
ABC told her they would only use her voice on the air if she came up with exclusives, which of course, she did. Even some of the junkets she took—the sort of “soft” assignments in which men had little interest—produced news. Sent by ABC to cover the Queen Mary’s last voyage as a troop ship before returning to luxury liner status, she scored an exclusive interview with General Dwight Eisenhower, who happened to be on board with his wife. In 1946, when ABC refused for the umpteenth time to give her a full-time job, Frederick went back to both NBC and CBS radio and once again was turned down by both. At CBS, Edward R. Murrow himself rejected her, commenting in a memo that “her voice is pleasing, but I would not call her material or manner particularly distinguished.”
In 1948 ABC posted a notice that it was looking for reporters to cover the political conventions for television for the first time. “I got in that door because in those days the men didn’t know any more about television than the women,” Frederick commented. She initially was not interested, in part because of her concern about having to look a certain way. (That concern never disappeared; Frederick was always bothered by having to fuss with hairstyles and wear contact lenses rather than glasses.) In the end, she took the job, which consisted mostly of interviewing the wives of candidates and other prominent women. With a case of cosmetics provided by Elizabeth Arden, she did her own make-up—and that of the women she interviewed too.
Finally, after this assignment, Frederick was offered a contract by ABC, and with it became the first newswoman to work full-time for a TV network. She worked on both television and radio shows for ABC and also hosted a fifteen-minute show called Pauline Frederick’s Feature Story. In 1953 she joined NBC, doing regular radio broadcasts for both local and network stations and filing international news reports for a wide variety of NBC television programs, including Today and Chet Huntley and David Brinkley’s nightly news broadcast.
Frederick found her métier when the United Nations was formed and, on her own initiative, she traveled numerous times to its first site at Lake Success, New York. She was devoted to her job and once went on the air to report developments at the UN regarding a major India-Pakistan conflict despite having fallen and shattered her kneecap earlier in the day. As soon as she was off the air, she said, “They took me to the hospital and I was operated on.” Frederick was so identified with the UN that visitors to its New York headquarters often expressed disappointed that she was not a stop on the official tour.
In the sixties, Frederick was twice included on a list of the world’s “ten most admired women” as compiled by Gallup, the polling firm—an annual compendium that at times included Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Queen Elizabeth. She was the only journalist.
In 1975 Frederick left NBC. She learned of her imminent departure in the New York Times. “If a man is old, he’s called interesting,” she said. “When a woman is old and shows wrinkles, it’s terrible. She’s finished.” Frederick wasn’t. She approached National Public Radio and from 1977 until her retirement in 1981, her solid and respected presence as host of Pauline Frederick and Colleagues, an international affairs program, helped boost NPR’s profile. She died of a heart attack in 1990.