Mavens of Media
“Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture.”—Allen Ginsberg. From the dawn of television news until the current day, women in broadcast news have been comparatively few and far between, outliers in a macho world that felt little need for cultural progress. They had to fight harder than their male contemporaries to get ahead and obey a different set of strictures to placate or please their bosses, colleagues, and the viewing public. Sheila Weller’s recent work The News Sorority: Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour—and the (Ongoing, Imperfect, Complicated) Triumph of Women in TV News is a dishy read that places the three notable and respected journalists in context while following their setbacks and rise to the top.
Weller alternates chapters between the three journalists, taking the reader on a biographical tour through their lives while offering conflicting and complex viewpoints from friends and colleagues. She also notes their occasional overlap or competition with each other in various time slots or at various news organizations.
Katie Couric emerges as a consistently underrated figure here, a scrappy terrier of a journalist with a sarcastic wit and incredible ambition. Armed with chutzpah, excellent journalistic instincts and tenacity, Couric grew up in the DC area in Arlington, VA, and went to the University of Virginia, where she worked on a weekly paper. After an entry-level broadcast job in DC, she went to the then-fledgling CNN network, where she briefly overlapped with Christiane Amanpour, and went on to work in DC before maneuvering her way on to the Today Show in New York, where she found her métier. While working with Bryant Gumbel and Matt Lauer, she found her stride and developed her famous “girl next door” on air persona, getting great ratings and living a busy but fulfilling life with her husband and two young daughters.
What emerges in part from Weller’s work is Couric’s determination in the face of multiple setbacks. When her husband died of colon cancer and elder sister died of pancreatic cancer in short succession, Couric applied her intense drive to raising money to fight cancer. In working with the Entertainment Industry Foundation, she has raised $320 million for cancer research and services. She even underwent a colonoscopy on the Today Show, helping to inform her public and noticeably bump up popular screening procedures for colorectal cancer, which has a 90 percent chance of being cured if caught early. Her huge impact on the spread of cancer is hard to underrate.
While her chipmunk cheeks, humor and likability factor ensured her top rating on morning TV, Couric often felt frustrated by the lack of respect she perceived from certain colleagues and network executives. Through winning a large female audience in the morning and a position as America’s sweetheart, she stealthily gained journalistic polish by interviewing everyone from the average person on the street to world leaders, often firing hardball questions when appropriate and surprising interview subjects who dismissed her as a female lightweight.
When offered the chance to be the first female host of the CBS Evening News in 2006, she grabbed it. While she gained respect for exposing Sarah Palin in her now historic 2008 interview with the vice-presidential candidate, Couric was ultimately unsuccessful in winning over CBS’s largely older male demographic or bringing a younger audience to the broadcast. Having left the CBS Evening News in 2011, she went on to host Katie, a syndicated daytime show, from 2012-2014 on ABC. With high expectations, low ratings and low female approval, the expensive show was canceled in 2014.
Older by ten years, Diane Sawyer took a different path to the top of the broadcast echelon. Having gone to a progressive high school in Louisville, KY, she was a beauty queen who graduated from Wellesley College in 1967 and returned home to become a weather girl and then reporter at WLKY-TV in Louisville. She started gaining her reputation as a ferocious workaholic and perfectionist there, along with an ability to work as the consummate team player. After failing to get a broadcast job in Washington, DC, Diane went on to work in Richard Nixon’s press office and even showed a perverse loyalty in staying to help him write his memoirs after his resignation.
Having fulfilled what she saw as her duty, Sawyer went to ABC News, where she worked tirelessly to overcome the suspicion and contempt of fellow journalists who cut their teeth during Watergate and could not understand her devotion to Nixon. Her surprising faithfulness to various people and causes remains one of her marked characteristics. Unlike many women of her era, Sawyer had no burning urge to get married or have children, which helped clear her way slightly in an era that saw Barbara Walters as the first co-host of an evening news network broadcast. Her beauty caused some to dismiss her prematurely, but her competence quickly changed their minds. Sawyer had a major relationship first with diplomat Richard Holbrooke and then married film director Mike Nichols, with whom she remained deeply in love until his death in November 2014.
Weller sees Sawyer getting her way through ability, a tireless work ethic, and an indirect, enigmatic charm that could be manipulative. As she puts it, Sawyer’s style left “no fingerprints” on those in her way. She started co-hosting the CBS Morning News with Charles Kuralt, eventually moving on to a five-year stint at 60 Minutes. Leaving for ABC, she co-anchored Primetime Live with Sam Donaldson and 20/20 with both Donaldson and Barbara Walters. In 1999, Sawyer returned to morning TV to co-host Good Morning America with Charlie Gibson, nearly closing the ratings gap for ABC as it closely approached NBC’s Today Show with Katie Couric and Matt Lauer. In 2009 she finally joined Katie Couric in the ranks of women hosting the evening news solo when she took the helm of ABC World News. Sawyer stepped down in September 2014, as ratings did not remain high enough for her to stay on.
Christiane Amanpour stands out as the most exotic and perhaps adventurous of all three women, a half-British, half-Iranian woman educated at English boarding schools and the University of Rhode Island, from which she graduated in 1983. Through her Persian friends, she ended up living in a house with John F. Kennedy, Jr., who was attending Brown University at the same time. Her family escaped Iran after the Revolution in December 1979, and Christiane then had her first glimpse of what life felt like for refugees fleeing political and economic turmoil.
Having graduated with a degree in journalism, Amanpour took on a job at CNN, the new cable network founded by Ted Turner in Atlanta. At that point the network was nicknamed the “Chicken Noodle Network,” with a shoestring budget and hiring practices that picked Amanpour for the foreign desk because she “had a foreign accent.” Like the other members of Weller’s sorority, Amanpour had great drive and persuasive powers, along with an air of intellectual authority and a confidence that would not let her down in the face of the word “no.” She did not fit the American female TV reporter mold of a fresh-faced blonde, which presented her with even more of a challenge than fellow aspiring broadcasters. She had a striking appearance and an unusual last name, along with a penchant for international affairs and a lack of concern about her appearance.
Through very hard work and relentless striving for opportunity, Amanpour finally made it to a position as a CNN reporter and grabbed her first opportunity to go overseas to Frankfurt in 1989. With her initial testing ground the first Gulf War, Amanpour began honing her legendary persona, eschewing traditional feminine style in favor of her trademark intensity and war-reporting garb in Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Reporting the war in Bosnia, however, was where she and CNN made their major marks. She and other journalists endured the dangers and hardships of Sarajevo in the early 1990s, where snipers made bullets sing through the streets and city-dwellers were killed going to get food. Here she forged strong bonds and had romances with her fellow journalists, all while bearing fearless witness to the horrors of the war. Amanpour became a staunch and often partial advocate for Bosnian Muslims, even chiding President Clinton once about his slowness to get the United States involved. As CNN became the channel of choice around the world for such reporting, she became famous internationally and around the State Department. After Bosnia she moved on to other war zones, and a catchphrase developed: “Where there’s war, there’s Amanpour.”
After marrying former Assistant Secretary of State James Rubin and having a son, Christiane’s sensitivity to the plight of women and children damaged by war deepened further, and she worked hard to maintain family life along with her hectic schedule reporting wars and interviewing world leaders and despots. She eventually wanted to take the helm of a current affairs show at CNN on Sunday, which she felt that she had earned through her hard work and storied career. The position went to Fareed Zakaria, a pleasant, intellectual analyst, instead of Amanpour, who top brass saw as more of an advocate and a fearless reporter. Livid, Amanpour left CNN for the first time, going to the Sunday show This Week on ABC, where the domestic news focus proved a poor fit and the ratings reflected her miscasting. Amanpour has returned to CNN International, and maintains a presence reporting for ABC.
All three women made it to the top through a combination of brains, warmth, tenacity, and emotional intelligence while displaying it in diverse ways. Per Weller’s account, Sawyer and Couric politicked their way upwards, but earned their advancements through their savvy, on-camera ease, and intelligence. She gives Sawyer more credit for working tirelessly and more blame for tiring out her producers and staff with relentless last-minute perfectionism, while Couric’s fresh-faced, witty approach earned her many friends and her latter-day sense of celebrity some selective finger-pointing from anonymous colleagues for journalistic laziness.
Both Couric and Sawyer put a female face on the nightly news in the 2000s and suffered from a still-entrenched sexism that causes the public to poll a preference for male over female news anchors in that time slot. Amanpour is a different animal—she does not quite fit in with the other two, with her international background, focus, and war reporting, and her effect on US foreign policy. She earns fewer negative comments from anonymous sources than the other women, but also seems as if she inhabited a different world, where she combined aggression, smarts, and authority with great timing at CNN as it became a media player and she grew with it overseas, where her multicultural background and strong opinions gave her more general appeal.
In short, The News Sorority moves quickly as both a substantive and gossipy read. Those enjoying the magazine Vanity Fair will be interested, since it sets a similar tone. This book is also a must for anyone interested in powerful women in media or the history of broadcast news in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
Written by: Miriam R. Kramer