Journalist Marlene Sanders is one of the true female pioneers in broadcasting. Her accomplishments include being the first woman to cover the Vietnam war from the field; the first woman anchor of a nightly newscast for a major network, in 1964 (subbing for an ailing anchorman); and the first woman vice president in the news division at ABC. As importantly, she reported on many of the most crucial news events in the medium’s history: “My nearly forty years in television news coincided with some of the best stories of the twentieth century: the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the Vietnam War and its domestic turmoil, to name just a few of the stories that I have been privileged to cover.” Sanders began her broadcast journalism career in 1955 working for another groundbreaking journalist, Mike Wallace, as his local producer, and went on to work in every facet of the news business. Sanders once described those early years, when women were only in the newsroom to type and fetch coffee: “At each of these places, I was the only woman in my category of work.” Sanders went on to break barriers as an Emmy Award–winning correspondent, producer, writer, and news executive.
Growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, Sanders attended Shaker Heights High School where she excelled both academically and in extracurricular activities. Fascinated by the stage, Sanders decided to pursue an acting career after graduating from high school in 1948. She went to Ohio State University where she majored in speech, but only for one year, because she ran out of money to pay the tuition. Sanders then moved to New York City and, after three years of temporary work and trying out for plays, she started thinking about another career path.
While working in a summer theater in Rhode Island, Sanders met Mike Wallace, who helped her break into broadcast journalism. She began her career working as Wallace’s producer in New York at WNEW-TV in 1955. In 1982 she reflected on those early days: “I worked there in a small unit, where everyone had to learn to do everything, and we each developed all-around journalistic skills: we became utility players who could dig for facts, edit, write and produce.” While working for WNEW-TV, Sanders wrote, produced, and reported on many programs including, Newsreel 5, My Country and My People, and Operation Heart Saver.
From 1961 until 1962, Sanders wrote and produced an innovative television show called P.M. for Westinghouse Broadcasting Corp. P.M. became a pioneering information series, according to Sanders, because “there were few precedents and few limitations except tight budgets, so we had an exciting time, experimenting and developing new concepts and techniques.” The first executive position she held was at WNEW Radio as the assistant director of news in 1962. For the next two years, she covered major news stories, including President Kennedy’s assassination and the 1962 newspaper strike in New York.
ABC News noticed Sanders after hearing her radio coverage of John F. Kennedy’s funeral, which resulted in her joining the staff of ABC News in 1964 as a New York correspondent. Sanders was the first woman to report from Vietnam during the war in 1966. Among the other important news events she covered were President Lyndon B. Johnson’s inauguration, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir’s visit to the United States in 1969, and the mine disaster in Farmington, West Virginia, in 1968. Sanders became the first woman to anchor a nightly newscast for a major network. Ron Cochran lost his voice and could not do the news one night in 1964, and Sanders took over for the night. In 1971 she took over for Sam Donaldson for three months, anchoring ABC Weekend News on Saturdays. She was named the vice president and director of documentaries in 1976, the first woman news vice president at a major network.
Sanders has produced award-winning documentaries such as The Right to Die, Women’s Health: A Question of Survival, and Lawyers: Guilty as Charged? “She has written and produced documentaries on our way of life, unparalleled in their scope and realism, profound in their presentation and far-reaching in their consequences,” said Saidie Adwon, former president of American Women in Radio and Television, Inc. Sanders joined CBS News in 1978 as a documentary correspondent/producer, where she remained until 1987.
In 1987, Sanders stated, “I’ve had 30 years of experience. I’m at the peak of my ability. I’m going to explore other things, perhaps including something other than broadcasting.”Since then, she has written a book called Waiting for Prime Time: The Women of Television News with Marcia Rock and has taught journalism at Columbia University and New York University. Sanders has also narrated documentaries for public television and HBO, as well as anchoring the series Profiles in Progress, a show about the Third World. She is a member of many professional journalism groups, including the Council on Foreign Relations. Recently, she also served as chairman of the George Foster Peabody Board.
Sanders continues to agree with an assessment of women’s role in network news that she wrote in 1982: “Until women are in top management positions in large numbers, we will never have our fair share of the jobs. That may take years to happen. How long probably will depend on the progress women make in our society as a whole. Until many more women occupy positions of authority in industry and government, it is unlikely that women will be seen as authoritative and fully competent in this business of broadcast news.”
Sanders has been awarded many honors over the years, including three Emmys, a Writers Guild of America Award, and a Silver Satellite Award.
Additional reading: Waiting for Prime Time: The Women of Television News by Marlene Sanders and Marcia Rock