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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Just a Little Honest

A gaffe," Michael Kinsley once observed, "occurs not when a politician lies, but when he tells the truth." CNN made a terrible gaffe and told a terrific truth.

It was refreshing to see somebody finally spit out what we all know but what the networks go to ludicrous lengths to deny: They hire and promote news stars based on looks and sex appeal.

About 10 times last weekend, CNN ran an ad promoting Paula Zahn's new morning show, "American Morning," with a male announcer purring, "Where can you find a morning news anchor who's provocative, super-smart, oh yeah, and just a little sexy?" The word sexy then flared onto the screen, accompanied by a noise that sounded like a zipper unzipping.

The ad's naked truth stunned television insiders. "If they're sexy, so be it," said Don Hewitt, executive producer of "60 Minutes." "It ain't necessary to say it. It's undignified.

"Whatever Paula brings to television," he said, "it's despite the fact that she's nicely put together. It diminishes a first-rate woman journalist to label her sexy. Why doesn't CNN say that Wolf Blitzer is sexy? He must be sexy to somebody."

On Monday, the embarrassed CNN chief, Walter Isaacson, yanked the spot. "It was a bad mistake," he said. "I'm really sorry. The promotion department didn't get it cleared. You can say sexy about a man but not about a woman."

CNN's bitter rival, Fox News, which fired Zahn in September when it learned she was being wooed by CNN, immediately began crowing. In the absence of the usual Washington back-stabbing, Fox vs. CNN is the most entertaining contest going. Fox anchor Brit Hume declared on-air that the sexy ad was "a first in the history of television news."

Hume said off-air he thought that in the old days, CNN made news the star. But now, beset by lively cable competition and Ashleigh Banfield types, the network has to make stars the news.

The BBC's 56-year-old veteran news correspondent Kate Adie created a stir in October when she said television bosses in England were more interested in the "shape of your leg" than professional credentials. Calling herself a "terribly old-fashioned old trout," she said the modern crop of BBC presenters had "cute faces and cute bottoms and nothing else in between."

U.S. network executives have also been hiding their preference for the visual over the cerebral in plain sight over the years, as they paraded a bunch of glamorous cookie-cutter blondes, pretty conservative pundettes with gams longer than their resumes and dishy anchor studs across the screen, all the while pretending that it was more important for their journalists to be hard on the news than easy on the eyes.

The irrepressible Roger Ailes, head of Fox News, is chortling, declaring that in its "desperation" to add some Fox-like foxiness to its more staid network, CNN overreached. He said he thought the ad was due to the influence of Jamie Kellner, the Turner Broadcasting boss who came over in March from running the WB network, where he used to oversee "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Felicity." He does not buy Kellner's plea of ignorance.

"This has got Kellner's fingerprints, palm prints and face prints on it," Ailes said. "Nobody in the history of CNN in Atlanta would have used that zipper sound effect or the word 'sexy.' This is Hollywood. This is the way they promote a new sitcom. This is Kellner saying, 'I made "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." I can make Paula Zahn.' "

Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times, to which she contributed this comment.