Why Cokie Roberts matters.

The Founding Mothers of NPR, circa 1979 and more recently (from left): Nina Totenberg, Linda Wertheimer, Cokie Roberts.

The Founding Mothers of NPR, circa 1979 and more recently (from left): Nina Totenberg, Linda Wertheimer, Cokie Roberts.

Let’s face it: Cokie Roberts and I didn’t have all that much in common.

The journalist and commentator, who died last week of a recurrence of the breast cancer that was first diagnosed in 2002, was the daughter of two members of Congress. She came from a storied Louisiana family and grew up an insider in Washington, DC – President Lyndon Johnson came to her 1966 wedding. She rose to the top of the field of political reporting, and was best known for her work at National Public Radio, one of the few national news organizations that has continued to stay relevant as the rest of the business blew apart.

We never met.

But I am bereft at the news of her death. I feel as though I have lost a good friend, and that journalism has lost a singular voice. I guess when you hear someone talking first thing in the morning for more than three decades, you get pretty familiar. 

I admired Roberts for her political reporting, of course. And the skeptical-with-a-touch-of-humor-underneath tone of her voice. And for holding her own as the ABC News co-anchor with Sam Donelson from 1996 to 2002.

Mostly, though, I admired her for staying in the game until the end.

For women in journalism, that’s rarer than you think.

News reports have pointed out that some of the current giants of NPR’s national reporting staff – Nina Totenberg, Linda Wertheimer, Cokie Roberts – joined in the early days of 1978 because they couldn’t get paid, or even get jobs, at other, more prestigious news organizations.

You’d think we’d be long past the idea that women can’t lead journalism organizations, but look around. In Memphis, news organizations run by women are rare.

There are just five: Anna Traverse, appointed just three months ago, is the CEO of Contemporary Media, which publishes Memphis magazine, the Memphis Flyer, Inside Memphis Business and Memphis Parent. Jacinthia Jones is the Memphis bureau chief at Chalkbeat, a nationwide nonprofit network of newsrooms that cover education. Lisa Lovell is the news director at WLMT Channel 24. Stacey Greenberg does terrific food journalism at Edible Memphis. And Wendi C. Thomas is the founder, editor and publisher of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit site that focuses on the intersection of poverty and power. (Joanna Crangle is the publisher of the Memphis Business Journal, but doesn’t make daily news coverage decisions.)

That’s it. In 2019.

Think for a moment about what that means about who makes the final decisions about what stories get covered, how, and by whom.

Now I’m going to mention the REAL taboo: Age.

Cokie Roberts was 75 when she died, and her last broadcast was just days before the end. As her friend Nina Totenberg wrote of her work ethic, even after her cancer returned three years ago: “There was not a chance she was going to cancel commitments, no matter how rotten she felt. … Indeed, she was planning to go to Houston for the debates, until her disease finally trumped her grit.”

That’s just the way I want to go out: Doing something I love doing, calling friends for the latest scoop, thinking about the latest new idea. But role models for women who want to stay in the conversation, keep working and remain influential are incredibly rare, both nationally and locally.

Though maybe that’s changing, at least a little. I see you, Beverly Robertson, who this year was named to the powerful position of CEO of the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce at age 68. Karen Blockman Carrier is still coming up with delicious menu ideas for her restaurants and catering operation at 66.

And feminist icon and journalist Gloria Steinem, who’s coming to Memphis in October to receive one of the National Civil Rights Museum’s prestigious Freedom Awards, is 85. This fall she will publish yet another book: The Truth Will Set You Free. But First It Will Piss You Off.

No kidding.

Thank you, Cokie Roberts, for being a great role model, in every possible way. I will miss you.