Former NBC anchor talks gender equality

After scooping chunks of food with his fingers, then-Palestinian National Authority president Yasser Arafat held them in front of former NBC correspondent Campbell Brown’s producer, telling her to eat the food.

The duo, both female, had spent four days in a car outside of Arafat’s compound, waiting to interview him. He had invited them to dinner, Brown said, but announced that no interview would take place that night.

“Finally, the next day, they sat us down for the interview,” Brown said. “I seriously doubt the male reporter and his producer had to be hand-fed by Yasser Arafat in order to get an interview.”

This dichotomy between the way male and female reporters are treated was one of several points Brown touched on as guest speaker of the second-annual USF Women in Leadership and Philanthropy (WLP) luncheon Monday.

During Brown’s 11 years at NBC, she won an Emmy for her coverage of Hurricane Katrina, traveled to Iraq to report on abuses at Abu Graib prison and Saddam Hussein’s trial and served as the station’s White House correspondent during President George W. Bush’s first term.

Prior to the luncheon, around 50 USF students gathered in the Garrison Room of the Hyatt Regency Tampa hotel for a private question-and-answer session with Brown.

As the title of the organization may suggest, many of the attendees were female: One male student attended this private event.

“I’m here representing the American Marketing Association at USF,” said marketing major LJ Williams. “My adviser told me it was a leadership event, and I wanted to learn more about becoming an effective leader, regardless of whether I’d be the only guy there.”

Seven months pregnant, Brown kicked off the session by kicking off her shoes, and encouraged students to stray from their previously penned questions, opting instead to take advantage of the small-group setting and turn it into more of a discussion than a formal session.

“I’m glad it was a small group – when I asked questions Campbell looked right into my eyes, like we were talking one on one,” biomedical sciences major Mary Harris said. “It just felt more personal that way.”

In the midst of transitioning from co-anchoring NBC’s Weekend Today to hosting an as-of-yet-unnamed primetime news show for CNN, Brown talked openly about her reasons for switching stations.

“For a minute I had to ask myself whether I was crazy for leaving,” said Brown. “(At NBC) I could work only two days a week if I wanted to. Why am I going over to take on this huge challenge, launching a new show that airs five nights a week and have a baby? … I’ve never thought, ‘I’m going to coast for while,’ so why would I accept that attitude now, even with a baby?”

After the hourlong question-and-answer session and an exclusive VIP reception for Brown and WLP members, about 500 Tampa Bay area business professionals, USF faculty and students gathered for the luncheon. Emceed by WFLA’s Gayle Sierens, attendees were randomly assigned tables so that people from all three sectors could mingle with one another.

Brown’s speech, “A New Generation of Leaders,” addressed advances, such as the 2008 presidential campaign’s shattering of glass ceilings with the popularity of minority candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, as well as issues still in need of a resolution, such as how some critiques of Katie Couric’s job at the CBS Evening News focused on the thickness of her eyeliner rather than her performance.

“I’m so pulling for (Couric) in her job right now, because if she fails they are going to say, ‘Well, America wasn’t ready for a female anchor right now,'” Brown said. “There are a million reasons that you don’t succeed at a job, but to say, ‘America wasn’t ready for a woman?’ We succeed or fail based on our own merit, not on our gender.”

This is the second year in WLP’s three-year existence that the organization has hosted the luncheon. Last year’s guest speaker was former Apprentice star and Donald Trump assistant Carolyn Kepcher. WLP is the brainchild of USF president Judy Genshaft, who formed the organization after working with similar initiatives at Ohio State University and SUNY at Albany.

“This organization is really a group of women concerned with helping each other achieve,” Genshaft said. “It’s all about empowering women and assisting them in any way we can.”

Candace Braun reached at (813) 974-6299