“So, does the job come with clothing and makeup allowances?” No.
“I was looking for a salary around the $40K range.” Not in the budget.
“Possibly a moving fee and a bonus to get me started?” We’ll reimburse you later.
“Thank you, I’ll take it. I’m just happy to be considered for the job.”
My third television market and I was duped yet again. Desperate to get through my first two weeks in the newsroom, not because I was anxious to check my effect on the overnight Nielsen ratings or explore my new city, but because I had a negative $450 balance in my checking account thanks to moving expenses, choosing food for my dogs over myself, and attempting to buy clothes from an actual department store and not Goodwill. Not that I have a problem with thrifting, which thankfully has become somewhat of a trend now, but I would be mortified if one of the viewers saw me wearing a red blazer with a pink blush blouse they had recently donated to a local store.
For the first six years of my TV news career I was flat broke. I was ashamed to make phone calls to my mother and father asking yet again for help with rent, lights, dog food, or groceries. I was dodging phone calls from Navient because I couldn’t pay back my student loans. My car note was two months behind. I lied to the lender about where the car was kept, and purposefully kept it registered to my parents’ address so the bank couldn’t find me or the car. I pretended to love ramen noodles, and would purchase warm Red Bull at the dollar store because it was cheaper that way. After a day in the freezer, it would taste like heaven.
I was the epitome of a struggling journalist. This is the way it is supposed to be, I thought. Once I made it to a decent salary, I would remember the “good ole days” of fishing thrift store bins for blazers that didn’t smell like moth balls, like the previously poor journalists who came before me. It was like being part of some exclusive club.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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But as last week’s bombshell report on newly minted Today show co-host Hoda Kotb’s new salary shows, it’s possible we may never receive what we have deserved all along unless we start asking for it, even if that means we might be out of a dream job.
We learned last week that Hoda Kotb would replace Matt Lauer as co-host of NBC’s widely popular morning show after Lauer was fired amid sexual harassment allegations. When news of Kotb’s new job title splashed all over social media, young journalists everywhere started sharing memories they’d had with the popular host. Nearly every post seemed to offer the same story that Hoda tells often: how she struggled to get a job; how she drove city to city in search of a news director who would just take a look at her tape. She eventually landed that job in Greenville, Mississippi, making $12,000 a year. As she details in her book, Hoda: How I Survived War Zones, Bad Hair, Cancer, and Kathie Lee, she was just happy for the opportunity to get into the business.
But now that her time had come, it all finally made sense. The minimum wage, Goodwill pants and shoes, calls back to Mom, and the desperate dates you went on only for the food—all of it would be worth it because one day, you could make it to Today and finally get what you’re worth.
Or will you?
As soon as the Today show made “herstory” by having two women front the show, questions immediately rose about the new host’s pay. Journalists in her corner expected her salary to be comparable to her predecessor, who allegedly earned some $25 million a year. But, according to Page Six, it’s not. In fact, that same article implies that Savannah Guthrie and Kotb’s supposed salaries of $7 million each still won’t touch Lauer’s rumored $25 million.
I couldn’t help but scream in my newsroom as I read the article exploding over the internet.
While NBC wouldn’t comment on compensation, Kotb did say in an article with People magazine when asked if she would get the same salary as Lauer: “The answer is no, that’s not happening,” said Kotb. “For either of us,” added Guthrie. Kotb goes on to say “I think the whole money thing for me, I’ve always been sort of—I know it sounds ridiculous that I’m going to say this, but I really have done jobs I liked for the job I liked because I never wanted to be happy every other Friday on pay day. Like, I didn’t want that to be the happy day. I wanted to feel good throughout. So no, I’m not making Matt Lauer money. Not even close.”
My heart sank when I thought NBC screwed the woman who swept in to save the network from a public relations nightmare. It sank even lower when I learned she apparently didn’t fight for what she was worth or even for a number close to that figure. I wasn’t alone. As soon as the Page Six article spread across social media, those cheers for Kotb turned into jeers for NBC. “Gender Pay Disparity!” “How could they not pay her the same as Lauer?” “We should boycott!” Personally, I wanted to know how she could allow them to pay her below what she is worth? How long do we have to continue to “do journalism for the love?” And if it never gets any better, why do we continue to trick ourselves into justifying unjust pay throughout our careers? When is enough enough?
My first job paid me $25,000 per year. While I was given three titles of anchor, producer, and reporter—and eventually became producer over another show that was added on—I was one of the least paid and appreciated. I fell into a stereotype most Black women fall into: “Keep your head down, be the first to arrive and last to leave and soon your hard work would pay off.” For centuries, women of color have been the backbone of society—keeping things upright and in position in order for it to function correctly. The same can be said behind the scene in TV newsrooms. Some of the most thought-provoking, innovative women I know in TV are women of color. They can find the root of a story behind any issue and present it to the world with a perfectly wrapped Emmy-worthy bow. But the story behind their success always seems to have an added struggle, one that isn’t shared with white journalists. TV news has yet to normalize people of color or women-led newsrooms. So we have to find ways to set ourselves apart, hoping to land one of the two or three spots made available for journalists of color. For me, that made my excessive role and 16 hour days in a newsroom with only three reporters of color (and no producers of color, mind you) an honor. I was just “happy to have been considered for the role,” though I knew I deserved much more and was worth much more.
Part of me doesn’t blame Kotb for not negotiating a higher salary, if that was the case. Clearly I’ve fallen into the same trap. I partly blame those who came before us. The “mentors” who planted seeds of “being happy you were even considered for the job.” They made us believe that if we asked for more, we’d become problematic and unable to find future employment. “Take what you can and deal. Be happy with it,” they’d say. Those mentors always told us the “money will come,” and eventually we’ll get what we’re worth.
Excuse me, but Kotb’s worth exceeds $7 million per year.
Kotb, who has put her life in danger reporting in multiple war zones, covered Hurricane Katrina, co-hosted the 10 o’clock hour, and who was already a familiar and well-liked face on Today thanks to filling in as host when Guthrie or Lauer stepped away, shouldn’t have had to demand what she was worth. The show saw a ratings hike when she took over the desk. She’s proven she can captivate an audience. And, clearly they have the money to pay her. (I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall when Megyn Kelly’s lawyers landed her a supposedly $20 million contract for a show format she has never done before.)
So who’s to blame?
I can admit, I am part of the problem. I mentor many young women of color, including journalists and entrepreneurs who are learning to operate within the television realm. One mentee recently asked for help as she was weighing her options for job offers. She turned down several television stations because they refused to meet her salary demands. Without thinking, I told her she should be lucky she’s getting such good offers and shouldn’t put a focus on a number because eventually the money will come. She must pay her dues.
While companies who allow the gender wage gap to grow need to be held accountable, so do the mentors who guide young women down a path that may never bring them the salaries they deserve. Women like Kotb and honestly, like me, continue to make it harder by not asking for more. Women, especially women of color, have always taken what we could get because we couldn’t get much. But, times are changing. Women are recognizing we add much more value to companies than companies are willing to pay us for, and it’s past due time for news executives to recognize our worth. And for women journalists everywhere, we all must commit to never settling for less.
Days before Kotb’s announcement, Catt Sadler announced she would leave a dream job of 12 years at E! News. She had taken on much more responsibility at the network and was in the middle of contract negotiations when she says she learned her co-host and friend Jason Kennedy was not only making double her salary, but has been making double her salary for the past several years at the network. Sadler demanded equal pay. The network refused, so Sadler left the job.
That’s the reality of women journalists and the reason why our predecessors have told us to keep quiet and be happy with what we have. There’s a fear there, a fear that asking for what we’re worth would cause a stir. We walk into boardrooms making our demand in pay, but in the back of our minds there is a lingering fear that in making those demands, we are putting our job on the line. What happens when our demands aren’t met? Do we walk away or do we stand firm? Will they buckle and finally pay us what we’re worth? Maybe, but maybe not.
In the case of Hoda Kotb, I guess we will never know. She’s just happy to be considered for the role.
Editor’s note: The author of this article writes under a pen name to keep her broadcast career separate from her freelance writing.