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Heroines for the Planet: Executive Producer of MAKERS.com Betsy West

April 12, 2012

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Betsy West is the executive producer of the recently-launched MAKERS.com, an AOL/PBS-backed digital platform showcasing hundreds of inspiring video interviews from women of all generations. She’s the woman behind the camera asking questions, eliciting empowering stories from world-changing women.

MAKERS.com is a first-ever initiative to catalog women’s stories of achievement on such a scale, and there’s no one better for the job than Betsy — she’s blazed a trail for women in her own right. Betsy rose to high-powered positions at major TV news networks at a time when men ruled the roost. Her senior roles at “Turning Point” (ABC), “Nightline” (ABC), “60 Minutes” (CBS), “48 Hours” (CBS), and “9/11” (CBS) have earned her 22 Emmy Awards (is that all?) and two duPont-Columbia Awards. In 2006, she joined the Oscar-nominated production company Storyville Films, and in 2007 was appointed a professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Betsy has co-produced the feature documentary “Constantine’s Sword” and is executive producer of “The Lavender Scare,” currently in production.

When you’re as well established as Betsy is, you can more than hold your own with impressive interview subjects like Madeleine AlbrightSandra Day O’ConnorCondoleezza Rice, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, among many others.

Betsy graciously allowed me to direct some questions at her for a change.

Lindsay:  Many of the women you interview for MAKERS broke barriers and furthered the women’s movement around the same time that you did just that. Was this something of a personal project that had been living deep inside of you?

Betsy: Absolutely. When I started my career as a television news producer, opportunities were just opening up for women.  I was always grateful for the trailblazing women — everyone from Gloria Steinem to Barbara Walters — who paved the way. But like so many workingwomen, I was very busy developing my own career and didn’t have a lot of time to look back! This project has been a chance to hunt down dramatic stories of women’s progress, like the stunning tale of what happened when runner Kathrine Switzer entered the Boston Marathon in 1967! I’ve also been amazed to find inspiring and enlightening stories from women in all fields—from Supreme Court Justices and Secretaries of State to a coal miner, a firefighter and the first female NBA referee! Playing a part in preserving these stories for future generations has been such a privilege (and lots of fun!)

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 Lindsay: Fusing AOL’s and PBS’ backing of the initiative, how has MAKERS utilized cutting-edge video and mobile technology to tell these compelling stories?

Betsy: Thanks to the combined resources of AOL and PBS, MAKERS is one of the first, large-scale projects to take advantage of cutting-edge technology to preserve stories and make them easily accessible to everyone over a long period of time. In both its scale and reach, it’s an unprecedented initiative. Ongoing updates to the MAKERS.com website will launch new stories with interactive social media elements allowing users to explore and share the exclusive content. MAKERS.com is optimized for mobile with a specially created iPad App, which will allow users to access MAKERS.com where and when they want.

And, in addition to the groundbreaking women selected by the producers with the help of an advisory board, MAKERS.com extends to also profile the stories of a new generation of women who continue to have an impact on society in new and profound ways.

Lindsay: You’re also working on a three-hour documentary for PBS, “MAKERS: Women Who Make America” set to air in 2013. Why did you and your team feel that this documentary needed to be created to complement the online initiative?

Betsy: When my partner Dyllan McGee first recruited me to this project five years ago, I was stunned to discover that there had never been a documentary about the women’s movement. This was one of the most transformative events in the 20th century, and yet there has never been a full accounting on television or film. Now I am grateful that we have an opportunity to tell this story as part of the MAKERS initiative that takes advantage of new technology to give us a larger, more dynamic platform than a traditional documentary. Our hope is that with MAKERS, the unique combination of a robust online resource rolled out over time and a major PBS television broadcast will invite sustained dialogue about how far women have come and where we need to go in the future.

Lindsay: What are your hopes and dreams for Makers.com and the documentary?

Betsy:   I hope that millions of women and men, girls and boys, will love watching the MAKER stories—that we will surprise them, make them laugh, make them understand new perspectives and inspire them to think about their own lives in new ways.

Lindsay: Why do you feel the word “feminism” gets many people so riled up? Do you consider yourself a feminist?

Betsy: I think it’s one of those words that over time have come to mean different things to different people. Some members of younger generations who didn’t live through the women’s movement may associate feminism with a style that seems to them outdated or unnecessary because women have attained a more equal footing. But if you ask them if they believe in equal rights for women in work, politics and society, the answer is a resounding “Yes.”  I think the definition of a feminist is someone who believes in fairness for everyone—women and men. And, yes, I am one!

Lindsay: Have you personally ever experienced discrimination, or someone telling you that you couldn’t do something because of your gender?

Betsy: In my career I have experienced my share of sexism, some moments funny in retrospect. There was the boss at ABC Radio News who gave me my weekly schedule in a note titled, “My Little Pumpkin.”  The boss who, angry about a mistake I’d made, screamed in front of a newsroom of men, “You are the reason there shouldn’t be an Equal Rights Amendment.”  More seriously, in 1988, when I was under consideration for my first executive producer job at ABC News, I was told I would have to share the job with a colleague, a man with fewer credentials and who was openly hostile to women. I turned down the job, but was made an executive producer a few years later.

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Lindsay: In an interview with Hillary Rodham Clinton, she spoke to you about the importance of women having role models. Who have been mentors to you throughout your career?

Betsy: I continue to be inspired by Diane Sawyer, who is one of the smartest, most thoughtful and hardest working journalists I know.  She is also extremely generous and taught me so much over the ten years we worked together at ABC News. I was also lucky enough to work with Barbara Walters on several documentaries. When I was getting reading to do MAKER interviews, I copied Barbara’s technique of writing each question and its potential follow-ups on a file card in order to practice and rearrange the order quickly. Meredith Vieira, with whom I worked on a number of documentaries, taught me about keeping a perspective on my life and never losing my sense of humor.

I also learned so much from my fellow producers over the years—Kyle Gibson, Julie Hartenstein, Phyllis McGrady, Susan Mercandetti, Ann Reynolds and many others. In the 1980’s, before most of us got married, the women at Nightline used to call ourselves “news nuns” because there was no time for anything but work.  We gave each other a lot of support and encouragement. We still do. 

Lindsay: You’re hard at work on a documentary in production called “The Lavender Scare,” which tells the story of the U.S. government’s campaign in the ’50s and ’60s to fire every federal employee suspected to be gay. How, and why, did you get involved with this film? And how will it inspire your audience?

Betsy:  I had never heard about The Lavender Scare until my former CBS News colleague Josh Howard told me about it. I was shocked to learn about this sanctioned persecution of homosexuals that lasted for thirty years. I encouraged Josh to make a documentary revealing this hidden history, and eventually signed on as an executive producer to help make it happen. Josh has already gathered the most extraordinary interviews, and I know that people will be amazed by this story and inspired by the bravery of those who fought to end the injustice.

Lindsay: What feat are you most proud of?

Betsy:  That’s a humbling question after the experience of interviewing the MAKERS!  I haven’t braved violence to integrate lunch counters in the 1960’s like Diane Nash, or convinced an all-male Supreme Court to overturn laws that discriminated against women, like then-attorney Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or campaigned for justice for women around the world like Hillary Clinton!  But I am proud of being part of the team bringing these stories and many more to a wide audience.

I’m also proud of and grateful for my family, my filmmaker husband Oren Jacoby and my feisty 17-year-old daughter Jane, on her way to becoming a MAKER herself.

 

This interview was originally published for Eco-Chick.com. 

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