The Reporter's Life
What's In a Name
August 2009

by Eileen Douglas

Opening my mail one morning, I found a thick packet mailed from Edinburgh from something called VisitScotland. A booklet inside trumpeted the events for Homecoming Scotland 2009! My first thought was, "I've already been to Scotland and loved it, so I don't need to go again." My second thought as I was about to file it in the waste can was, "Why are they sending this to me?"

Oh, I realized a millisecond later, re-reading the envelope addressed to Eileen Douglas. They think I'm Scottish! Sure enough, there it was on the cover letter VisitScotland had sent to "Dear Fellow Scot," inviting me home to my heritage.

But, of course, I am not a Scot.

I just borrowed one of their last names.

Time was when you started out in broadcast journalism, if you had an ethnic – read that Not WASP – name, you changed it. Just like actors and actresses did. My real name when I landed my first television news job was Eileen Bernstein. A few months later, after I married, it turned into Eileen Bernstein Zients. Changing that name was a given. You just assumed in those days when you started your career you would take a name that sounded more "American." So, from Day One on the job, I have been Eileen Douglas.

I remember at the time a college friend who was blond and WASP asking me why I would feel I had to do such a thing. I found it hard to explain. Today I imagine I could articulate it better than I did then as someone who felt at that time like an outsider speaking to an insider. It was done to appear more acceptable. Going out into the news business world as Eileen Bernstein Zients, I feared, could be the opposite of a career booster.

And I think I was right. Then.

After my first job, as a television reporter, when I'd moved into radio and become a joint on-air reporter/anchor and news director, I held hopes of returning to television. But, living in the middle of the country, the return to an on-air television job wasn't coming so fast. At an RTNDA convention, standing around with other news directors, I posed the question, why? People, meaning the newscast audience, like to look at themselves, my fellow news directors explained. And, the problem is, "You're not blond." It took me awhile to process what they meant. I knew I would look ridiculous as a blond. I have dark hair and dark eyes. Why would I dye it? But "You're not blond" was code. They didn't mean I had to go buy a bottle of Clairol. What they were really trying to tell me was, I wasn't a WASP. Even with that name "Eileen Douglas," I wasn't "in the mainstream." Not until I returned to the East Coast and the Big Apple diversity stew that is New York City would I return to an on-air TV reporter job.

Today all this would be absurd.

The day the package arrived from Scotland inviting me "home," The New York Times carried an article with the headline, "In Biggest U.S. Cities, Minorities Are at 50%."

Anyone who watches television news today knows we have anchors and reporters who are Chinese, Indian, African-American, Vietnamese, Hispanic, you name it, in background. Not only is that not a problem, or an exception, it's the norm and the smart move. What's in a name is a person's very identity and all that brings with it, to a newscast or any other human venture. Today, that's a plus, not a minus. You would never need to change your name to prove you were a good reporter. And if people in the audience want to look at themselves, then that's who "themselves" is. Today the Chinese-American reporters use their Chinese names, the Hispanic-American reporters their Hispanic names. No one feels the need to use the cover of an "American name" in order to "appear more acceptable." That's what America knows it is these days. What a blessing.

As for me, I have gone through life with two names. The one I use at work. The one I use at home. I am used to it now. And what's in a name anyway? Whatever the name, I like who I am. The me I am at work with the made up name is the same person I am at home with my "real" name. And the me I am at work with the name I made up would be as good, or as bad, a reporter, whatever I had decided to call myself.

Oddly enough, when I had my DNA analyzed, it turns out more than half the people on the list who are my genetic cousins come from, of all places – Scotland, Ireland, England, the UK. Goodness knows what happened there!

Maybe those guys with the packet from Scotland know something I don't know after all.

© Eileen Douglas

Eileen Douglas is a broadcast journalist-turned-independent documentary filmmaker. Former 1010 WINS New York anchor/reporter and correspondent for "ABC-TV's Lifetime Magazine," she is the author of "Rachel and the Upside Down Heart," and co-producer of the films "My Grandfather's House" and "Luboml: My Heart Remembers." She can be reached at

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