Dickerson, Nancy

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(b. 19 January 1927 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; d. 18 October 1997 in New York City), pioneering female television news reporter.

Dickerson was born Nancy Hanschman to Frederick R. Hanschman, an architect, and Florence (Conners) Hanschman. She grew up in the small town of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, and attended the local high school. Dickerson went to Clarke College, a Catholic girls' college in Dubuque, Iowa, and then transferred to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she received a B.A. in education in 1948. After traveling to Europe as a United Nations student delegate in 1948, she returned to Milwaukee to teach for two years, attending Harvard's graduate school during the summers. She graduated from Harvard with an M.A. in government in 1949.

In 1950 Dickerson moved to Washington, D.C., where she worked on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. While she enjoyed her position, there were few opportunities for an ambitious young woman to advance her career. But her knowledge of Capitol Hill landed her a job with the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) in 1954, on the radio news programs The Leading Question and Capitol Cloakroom. During this time she formed valuable friendships with many people, including the young congressman John F. Kennedy, whom she briefly dated, and Senator Lyndon B. Johnson. Her charm and intelligence ensured her a leading position within Washington's elite social scene, which was to be crucial to her success as a journalist.

In the 1960s television rose to a position of cultural dominance. By 1963 more people received their news via the television than from the newspaper, a trend that would transform mainstream news forever. But at the start of the decade, the rapidly expanding world of television news was just finding its feet, and Dickerson was determined to be a part of it. Through her hard work, particularly her willingness to take on jobs that her male colleagues would not, she became CBS's first female television correspondent in 1960. This was the beginning of a successful decade in front of the camera. At the Democratic convention later that year, she became the first woman to report from the floor of a national political convention. Lyndon Johnson's decision to run with Kennedy as vice president was announced in an interview with Dickerson. She briefly interviewed Kennedy at his inauguration, just before he was sworn in as president, and directly after. She reported on the March on Washington in 1963, when the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke to the nation of his dream of racial equality, and she covered the assassination and funeral of President Kennedy.

Dickerson's inside knowledge of the Washington social and political scenes enabled her to beat the competition. In particular, her friendship with Lyndon Johnson remained strong throughout the decade, and Johnson often spoke to her to the exclusion of any other reporters. The sight of Johnson stepping off a plane and heading over to drawl "Hello, Nancy" into her microphone is one of the enduring images of Dickerson's career. Her connections undoubtedly helped her gain many exclusive scoops, such as at the 1964 Democratic convention, when Johnson announced Hubert Humphrey as his running mate. However, her intimate social ties also hindered her credibility as a serious journalist. Inevitably, there were rumors about her and Johnson as well as the accusation that her close relationships with many politicians brought her journalistic integrity into question.

On 24 February 1962 Dickerson married C. Wyatt Dickerson, a Washington businessman, with whom she had three children. By 1963 she had become dissatisfied with her position at CBS and felt that her stories were being sidelined, so she moved to the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). She had her first child later that year. She juggled her roles as mother, wife, and reporter at a time when there were few examples of working mothers to guide her. Her career continued to develop, and she was named one of the top ten television reporters by Variety in 1964, the only woman on the list. By this stage Dickerson had become a celebrity, and magazine articles with such titles as "Television's Princess of the Press Corps" and "Washington's Most Serious Butterfly" appeared. She was by then one of the most influential women within the Washington social scene and a feature at the most important parties and dinners, including the exclusive F Street Club.

Toward the end of the decade Dickerson again became dissatisfied with the progress of her career. She regarded herself as the victim of a backlash against women's liberation, as growing demands for equality between the sexes within the media industry began to cause tension and suspicion. In 1970 Dickerson decided to leave NBC to launch her own syndicated news program. This move was not successful, and the end of the 1960s was effectively the beginning of the twilight of her career. Dickerson shifted to producing independent documentaries, and in 1980 founded the Television Corporation of America. She divorced her husband in 1983 and married John C. Whitehead in 1989. She died in a New York City hospital in 1997 from complications related to a stroke that she had had earlier in the year. She is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

On the news almost every day throughout the 1960s, Dickerson was one of the most visible examples of a professional working woman for many American women of the "baby boomer" generation that followed her. As a pioneer in her field, she was an important role model for other women seeking to establish a career in the media and in other fields. Dickerson epitomized the glamour and excitement that was associated with the fledgling world of television news and with Washington politics during the days of the Kennedy administration and beyond. But Dickerson's successful journalistic approach, which was based on close personal relationships and trust, became outmoded, particularly after the Watergate scandal, which brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon and forever changed the relationship between the news media and those in power.

Dickerson's autobiography, Among Those Present (1976), is an entertaining source of information on her career and on Washington politics during the 1960s. David H. Hosley and Gayle K. Yamada, Hard News: Women in Broadcast Journalism (1987), offers biographical information on Dickerson, as does Christine L. Ogan's entry on Dickerson in Women in Communication: A Biographical Sourcebook (1996). An article by Dickerson's son John F. Dickerson in Time (13 Nov. 2000) provides an interesting reflection on his mother's career. Obituaries are in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and Washington Post (all 19 Oct. 1997).

Katrina Ford

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