The real legend behind "Anchorman": The movie satirizes discrimination in the 1970s newsroom

Jim Avila, Richard Coolidge and Jordyn Phelps
Power Players

Power Players

“Anchorman 2” hits theaters Wednesday, and the highly anticipated movie sequel that satirizes television news in the 1970s will be ripe with comedy. But underneath the laughter is the reality of discrimination that female and minority television reporters confronted during that era.

At the Newseum in Washington, D.C., where a new “Anchorman” exhibit celebrates the movie series, the museum’s director of collections told “Power Players” that Will Ferrell and his creative team took inspiration for the comedy from the true story of pioneering television reporter Jessica Savitch.

“They were watching an actual documentary about Jessica Savitch and were struck by not just her story but by the overt and over-the-top sexism that her male co-anchors, counterparts were willingly discussing,” curator Carrie Christofferson said. “And they thought, ‘You know, we can have a little fun with this and poke some holes through some of the ideas.’”

Savitch broke down gender barriers during her career, becoming the first woman television news anchor in the South and later the first woman to anchor a weekend network newscast at NBC News. Her story ultimately ended in tragedy, however, when she died in a car accident in 1983.

The Newseum’s exhibit combines real props from the “Anchorman” movie with real stories of the challenges that women and minority television reporters faced in the 1970s.

“We have an example here in the exhibit of a woman who was told to smoke cigarettes and drink whiskey so that it would deepen her voice so that it would be more authoritative, it would be more like a man's,” she said, referring to the case of Jean Enersen. “And so those sorts of things really happened.”

In studying the process of diversification within the newsrooms, Christofferson said she was struck by an interesting trend.

“Often there was an impulse in the 70s to include a black woman as part of the anchor team, as part of the news team because it sort of got at two avenues -- women and racial diversity -- which is very interesting,” she said.

She said the diversification of the newsroom continued from the 70s onward and pointed to PBS’s nightly newscast, “NewsHour,” as an example of how far things have come.

“I think the anchor desk has been fully transformed and it is very much a spot where a man and a woman will sit,” she said. “Of course this year … there are two women anchoring the ‘NewsHour’ for PBS, the nightly national newscast.”

To learn more about discrimination in the newsroom in the 70s, and to get a tour of the exhibit, check out this episode of “Power Players.”

ABC News’ Serena Marshall, Betsy Klein, Alexandra Dukakis, Kyle Blaine, Tom Thornton, Gary Westphalen, Brain Haefeli, and David Girard contributed to this episode.