Shattering the Glass Ceiling: An Interview with Lynn Sherr
Lynn Sherr spent more than 30 years with ABC News, reporting on everything from national political campaigns to social issues. But it was her time covering the space program that provided the grist for her latest book, a biography, “Sally Ride: America’s First Women in Space.”
Following a career in print journalism, primarily at The Associated Press and then a career in local broadcast TV in New York. Sherr, 72, was one of the first hires when the iconic Roone Arledge, famously of ABC Sports, took over and revolutionized the news division. She was at ABC from 1977 to 2008.
At a time when the already few women in network news were generally not assigned a science beat, Sherr was assigned to the shuttle program in 1981 and met Sally Ride shortly thereafter.
In many ways, Sherr was as much a pioneer as Ride. In her 2006 memoir, “Outside the Box,” she wrote about being asked in 1980 by one of her ABC bosses to address the Radio-Television News Directors Association, which had specifically requested a woman. This upset her because they had not requested her but just a woman, as though women were all interchangeable. Sherr went on to deliver a blistering speech.
Recently she spoke to the Forward’s Curt Schleier about that assignment, her best story ever and her basketball playing dad, a 6-foot Jew who jumped center.
Curt Schleier: Do you think you got the job because the ABC powers-that-be felt you’d be able to relate to Sally Ride?
Lynn Sherr: I don’t know. I actually asked the guy who assigned me why I got that wonderful assignment. He said it was because he liked the way I explained things. I was a good explainer.
Do you have war stories?
There was the time [in 1973] at WCBS-TV when I suggested a story on the only three women in the New York State Legislature — apparently a very radical thought to the men in charge. I knew it would be a good piece, but I had to wrangle the bosses to get it approved.
Then I proposed doing a story on how police officers’ wives were reacting to the news of the first female police officers on the job. Again, I knew this was important. And the time I dragged my cameraman, an ex-U.S. Marine — one of the toughest, most macho guys in the crew room, to film a group of feminists preaching the virtues of do-it-yourself gynecological exams. Have you ever seen an ex-Marine blush? And when I got to ABC News and proposed a story on the new phenomenon known as sexual harassment — such a new idea in 1977 that I literally spelled out the words on screen, then sat at a desk and defined it for viewers. To ABC’s credit, they devoted about 15 minutes to the issue over three nights — a healthy chunk of airtime. To our credit, it then won awards.
Getting back to Sally Ride, how did you actually meet her?
The ABC team of correspondents and producers went to the Johnson Space Center as part of the run-up of the first shuttle launch, to do pre-interviews. I was assigned to interview the so-called new breed of astronauts, the mission specialists, the non-pilots. Sally was one of five made available, and she and I hit it off immediately.
Why do you think that was?
I think it was a few things. We were both committed feminists in jobs, hers more than mine, that used to be strict men’s clubs; we both believed deeply — not as ideologues, but as practitioners and concerned citizens — that gender should not be an obstacle to success. Sally was familiar with my work — doing so many stories about women’s issues and women’s history — and recognized that kicking in doors came naturally to me; by the same token, she acknowledged unequivocally that she wouldn’t be at NASA without the women’s movement and the social changes that had taken place.
One of the things I really liked about her was that she didn’t say, “Well, I’m not a feminist, but….” The “but” usually leading to things like, but I believe in equal rights for women, and I believe that women should have every opportunity men have, etc., the kinds of sentiments often spouted by less savvy souls.
Also, we both appreciated (and knew how to tolerate) the overblown egos that accompanied our very exciting professions. And we just had fun. Sally was smart and funny and playful and mischievous — a crossword puzzle fanatic like me, able to get your drift without a long explanation. An athlete who dragged me onto the racquetball court at NASA and let me drag her onto the tennis court in East Hampton.
Obviously you’ve covered a lot of different stories. Do you have a favorite?
When I got to 20/20 with a producer named Alan Goldberg [and] I did a series on anorexia, which at the time was groundbreaking in many ways. I had no interest in doing that story until I met the woman we were profiling, who ran a clinic in Victoria, British Columbia, and was doing great work. I think we saved lives with that.
If the Golden Age of Television were embodied in the form of Edward R. Murrow, what would you say your age was?
I would call ours the golden age. We had huge budgets and didn’t have to worry about the bottom line that much. We were only concerned about getting the story and telling the story and breaking news. I had a full day to work on my pieces. I didn’t have the 24/7 news cycle to worry about. We had much more mobility because of the changing size of cameras. It was also the start of the computer age. I was the first person at ABC News to take a laptop computer on a campaign. I filed all my scripts electronically. When Roone came in he opened the budget gates for that kind of thing. We did a lot of enterprise reporting.
What was your upbringing like?
I grew up in South Philadelphia and then we moved to the suburbs. We were Conservative. I went to Hebrew school and at Sunday school I was confirmed. We didn’t have bat mitzvahs then. I still don’t know what being confirmed meant.
Your father was a star with the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association basketball team?
My father [Louis “Red” Sherr] was a star basketball player for South Philadelphia High School He also played for the University of Pennsylvania and the semi-pro SPHA team, which played in the American Basketball League [a precursor of the NBA]. Eddie Gottlieb took many of the SPHA players to the Philadelphia Warriors [which he founded], although my father had stopped playing basketball by then.
This interview has been edited for style and length.