The pioneering Marlene Sanders has passed away at a hospice in Manhattan, New York on Tuesday of cancer. She was one of the first female reporters on television—having appeared on ABC and then CBS in the 1960s and 1970s covering such subjects as politics, the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and reported from the Vietnam War in Vietnam in 1966. Sanders later became the first woman to be a vice president at ABC News, where she headed up the documentary unit.
Marlene Sanders is widely recognized as the one woman who did it first. “A pioneering television journalist—the first network newswoman to report from Vietnam, among many other firsts—she informed and inspired a generation,” her son Jeffrey Toobin (who is a staff writer for the New Yorker and Senior Legal Analyst for CNN) tweeted. “Above all, though, she was a great mom.”
Marlene Sanders, my mother, died today. A pioneering television journalist, she informed and inspired a generation. Above all, a great Mom.
— Jeffrey Toobin (@JeffreyToobin) July 15, 2015
In the early 1960s, “Food, fashion, child-rearing, decorating, social events and the entertainment scene were all you could expect” she wrote in her 1988 book, Waiting for Prime Time: the Women of Television News written with Marcia Rock. “As I look back on my career, the women’s movement provided an exceptional point when time, place and position all came together to give me the power and focus to contribute to the country’s awareness of the status of women,” she wrote. “For once, I seemed to be in the right place at the right time.”
Though it may be hard for some to imagine now that there are more gay celebrities than ever, in the 1980s-1990s as the topic of gay sexuality was shunned, it was seen as largely inappropriate and taboo to discuss anything gay or AIDS-related on TV. The most mainstream news stations refused to cover AIDS issues—including New York’s PBS station where Marlene Sanders worked. However, she wasn’t afraid to invite Gabriel Rotello (then editor-in-chief of the controversial Outweek magazine) on a TV show that she moderated, on which the most mainstream news journalists (from such places as The Daily News and The New York Times) gathered to discuss and debate weekly news. As Rotello said, Sanders was “ahead of her time with her willingness to explore difficult and controversial gay and AIDS issues on a mainstream venue like that. There were no gay people on PBS.”
World of Wonder also had the privilege to work with Sanders in 2004 during the production of the documentary The Hidden Führer: Debating the Enigma of Hitler’s Sexuality. The film evenly explored a theory that was made in the best-selling book The Hidden Hitler by German historian Lothar Machtan which was that Hitler’s persecution and destruction of gays in Germany was at least partially fueled by a desire to cover up his own gay past. Although the film showcased both sides of this debate (having also interviewed a historian who wrote a scathing review of The Hidden Hitler in The Washington Post) it was undoubtedly a controversial topic. But when the creators of the film (Fenton Bailey, Randy Barbato, and Gabriel Rotello) contacted Marlene Sanders with the question of narrating the film, she proclaimed she was “delighted to do it” despite its controversial read on such a prominent historical figure. As according to Rotello, WOW was “very glad to get someone of her enormous stature and credibility to narrate the film.”
Rotello also notes that the experience of working with Sanders was “amazing.” As he recalls, Sanders “literally sat in the narrating booth and said ‘I’m going to read the entire thing all the way through without stopping. If you have any problems, make a note and we’ll go back.’ She read the entire movie in one take, and it’s exactly what you hear on the film. We never went back. I waited with a pencil for her to get something wrong, to emphasize a word differently, but I did not make a single note. She completely nailed it in 45 minutes. Afterwards, she stood up, said ‘Thank you very much everybody,’ and walked out. She was a tremendous professional, and we’re sorry she’s gone.”