Soon after the Today show debuted on NBC in 1952, inaugural host Dave Garroway acquired a sidekick to inject some lightness into his morning news talk show: a diaper-wearing chimpanzee named J. Fred Muggs. The chimp retired from the sofa five years later, but it took an additional 17 for a human woman to finally eclipse Muggs’ legacy as the show’s No. 2 primate. Barbara Walters started at Today as a researcher, secured an on-air gig as a tea-pouring “Today Girl,” clawed her way into reporting segments of her own, and was eventually promoted to co-host—though her co-anchor Frank McGee insisted on opening and closing the show himself and asking the first four questions for every shared interview. Walters finally secured equal time on the show when McGee died, and Jim Hartz took his place.
It is in the smoldering remains of Walters’ blazed trail that Sheila Weller situates The News Sorority, her new book about the lives and careers of Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour, and “the (Ongoing, Imperfect, Complicated) Triumph of Women in TV News.” Walters had served as the “canary in the coal mine” for the next wave of female news luminaries, Weller writes, singularly weathering the industry’s sexism so that a few more women could trickle through the cracked-open door. But as is the case with the fallout from most female firsts, the sexist culture of TV news didn’t perish in Walters’ wake. It adapted.
Walters did not inspire a sea change so much as establish a curious new equilibrium for the industry: one that allowed TV executives to further their ingrained misogyny while deflecting outside feminist pressure. In the early ’70s, CBS executive Dick Salant decided that his network needed to hire more women after the low-level female researchers at Newsweek began organizing against their bosses and the looming passage of Title IX sparked concerns about lawsuits. (Suddenly, CBS president William Paley’s staff memo banning women from wearing pants to work registered as bad PR, Weller writes.) The network’s new imperative to promote women skyrocketed the careers of the few women who had fought their way into the applicant pool, including Lesley Stahl, Connie Chung, and eventually, Sawyer. These women were not forced to await their colleagues’ deaths in order to get assignments; instead, networks aggressively competed to hire from the small reserve of young women deemed fit to step in front of the camera, while their established male colleagues undermined their success from behind the scenes. As one anonymous source explained to Weller, Sawyer’s swift rise in the late ’70s was because “the guys who own and run the networks all have the shiksa disease.”
TV news, as Weller demonstrates in her sweeping 400-plus-page account, had a lot in common with other industries: As 60 Minutes producer Ira Rosen told Weller, female TV journalists are “trying to avoid two traps—appearing soft and appearing unlikable, and the more you tried not to fall into one, the more you risked falling into the other.” Balancing on this “having it all” tightrope in high heels was even more difficult because the TV news biz only afforded space for a woman or three to attempt the feat at one time. As in Girls Like Us, her 2009 book on Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, Weller attempts to illuminate the trouble with the TV news industry by zooming in on the biographies of three of those women who managed to come out on top (for many decades, at least, if not forever).
Weller notes in the acknowledgments that “the books I write are journalistic rather than narrative nonfiction”; the result is a brain dump of biography and gossip that tracks these journalists’ girlhoods, career chess moves, and reputations among their peers in sometimes myopic detail. This ostensibly adds up to a picture of what it takes to survive as a woman on TV—short version: work very, very hard and be very, very good looking—but focusing on the personal stories of three incredibly successful women ends up obscuring the true mechanics of an industry that kept most women down even as this trio rose to the top.
Fixating so closely on Sawyer, Couric, and Amanpour sometimes highlights fascinating dynamics, as when Weller investigates how the networks capitalized on morning anchors’ pregnancies to gin up ratings. It also produces deliciously gossipy lines—as when one newsroom witness swears Couric said of a Sawyer scoop, “I wonder who she blew this time to get it.” Weller recently expressed disappointment to the New York Times that tabloids have seized on the book’s juiciest quotes in an attempt to reduce these women’s experiences to a catfight. But my main issue with Weller’s approach is that it ends up promoting the lie that a woman’s success is chiefly the product of her personal gumption and grit, a structure that robs these women of the context necessary to fully absorb their achievements. Diving into the stories of male contemporaries like Matt Lauer and Charlie Gibson would show how competition between male talent presented itself differently (or didn’t); examining how female also-rans like Connie Chung flamed out would give a clearer picture of the rules of the game that Couric, Sawyer, and Amanpour appeared to luck into winning. Weller doesn’t do much of that.
Only when Couric and Sawyer finally go head-to-head does the story really get interesting. Couric was well-established as Today’s darling when Sawyer took an opposing co-hosting gig on Good Morning America in 1999, and the matchup forced the stars to compete not just as journalists, but as female archetypes: Every morning, viewers and potential interviewees were forced to pledge their allegiance to either the “half-tongue-in-cheek blushing-maiden, poetry-quoting seductive charm” of the Southern Sawyer or the feisty and “freewheeling everyday humanity” of the suburban Couric. The pairing forced both women to gravitate toward an ostensibly ideal middle ground—the aloof Sawyer was forced to soften herself in sweaters and loosen up with animal guest stars while the relatable Couric buttoned up a bit, adopting twin sets and pencil skirts after Sawyer modeled the look.
Were these pressures different for men? A few decades ago, they undoubtedly were. Male journalists like McGee and Bryant Gumbel, who styled themselves as hard newsmen, didn’t have to worry about being “likable” as they relayed the morning news on Today, even when they bristled at taking on the show’s lighter segments (and got a pass for it). But when Couric rose to become the most beloved morning host of all time, she changed the game for both the men and women who came after her. Weller writes that Couric threw Gumbel for a loop when she insisted on owning the show’s hard-news elements, and when Matt Lauer took Gumbel’s place, he was expected to be both hard-hitting and lovable, too.
It is surely sexist that, while Couric’s status as a widow endeared her to viewers—her first husband, Jay Monahan, died of colon cancer in 1998 at age 42—her image curdled into that of a “vaguely unsympathetic, somewhat older single woman” as she aged. But now, Lauer is battling the public perception that he’s a bit of an asshole, and his image problem is partly attributable to the emerging feminist sensibilities of modern viewers. When Ann Curry was awkwardly exiled as Today co-host in 2012, Weller writes, fans “took out their anger” on Lauer, who kept his job. His clueless comments on modern feminist issues—perhaps best exhibited when he creepily grilled Anne Hathaway about an upskirt snap that a paparazzi photographer took of her at a movie premiere—do him no favors now. (Neither do persistent rumors of infidelity.) As for the extreme focus on female anchors’ looks: Men on television are also required to be good-looking, and they too model archetypes (think matinee-idol handsome Brian Williams vs. hot-’90s-dad Lauer). While Weller hints that plastic surgery supports both male and female famous faces on TV, a deep dive into the aesthetic demands of male anchors could have helped Weller illuminate the precise pressures placed on women.
While Couric and Sawyer fought hard to handily dominate the morning news, the nightly news inspired different, and perhaps insurmountable, scrutiny of the women behind the desk. When both Couric and Sawyer ascended from morning to solo anchor nightly newscasts—Couric became the first woman to snag the industry’s most prestigious gig, on CBS, and Sawyer later followed suit on ABC—there was no amount of feminine readjustment that could keep them in the viewers’ good graces. As CBS producer Sandy Socolow told Weller, the female-centric morning audience may have been looking for the ideal woman, but the Viagra viewership of the nightly news just wanted a man with “a voice from Mount Olympus.” (As Couric herself put it, gravitas is “Latin for testicles.”) Couric’s failure as the CBS anchor was widely reported, but Weller notes that even Sawyer’s relative success behind the desk couldn’t match her male counterparts’. In July of 2013, the Times’ Brian Stelter blared that ABC’s World News With Diane Sawyer had beat NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams among crucial 25-to-54-year-old viewers one week, for the first time in five years. But in the kicker, Stelter acknowledged that World News had actually only bested Williams on the days that David Muir had filled in for Sawyer that week. And it’s worth noting that both women only secured their nightly news jobs after prime-time newscasts had become increasingly inessential to American consumers, who no longer had to turn on their televisions to stay informed. Weller quotes Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley’s 2009 analysis of the rise of Couric and Sawyer on this point: “As in other fields,” Stanley wrote, “women seem to break the glass ceiling just as the air conditioning is being turned off in the penthouse office suites.”
In Weller’s account, Christiane Amanpour serves as a counterpoint to Sawyer and Couric, the female journalist who resisted female spaces to best every male war correspondent on any network—even after she married and had a child, she kept popping up in war zones instead of settling into a job behind a desk. But even Amanpour was ultimately denied the opportunity to cash in all that masculine capital with her own marquee show on the level awarded to Edward R. Murrow, Anderson Cooper, or even Fareed Zakaria. When her short stint hosting ABC’s Sunday morning news show This Week led to a drop in ratings, she was replaced, and is now a host on CNN International.
It takes four decades and 400 pages for Weller to get there, but the book finally steps back from its near-sighted examination of the industry’s three most successful ladies to conclude that network television news may actually die before women get even. After just a couple of years with Sawyer and Couric reading the headlines, the nightly news is now back to business as usual: Scott Pelley on CBS, Muir permanently installed on ABC, and Williams still entrenched at NBC. Outside that storied timeslot, though, it appears that prospects have greatly improved, particularly for women of color: Robin Roberts first ascended to Good Morning America co-host during Sawyer’s tenure, and a decade later, she remains on the show; Tamron Hall is now a fixture on Today. In cable news, Melissa Harris-Perry and Rachel Maddow continue to expand the once-narrow bounds of female presentation in TV news.
Still, the TV news business is vast, and, despite News Sorority’s subhead, women have not “triumphed.” According to the Women’s Media Center’s most recent report on the status of women in news, just 28.7 percent of local TV news directors and 17.8 percent of general directors were female in 2013; women made up just 14 percent of interviewees on Sunday morning talk shows. While Couric, Sawyer, and Amanpour proved that many American viewers do want to see their news presented by women on TV, Weller’s focus on the stars obscures the equally important project of diversifying the ranks of the people who matter most: the ones who pull the strings behind the scenes.