"Katie Couric on Diane Sawyer: 'I Wonder Who She Blew This Time'" reads one headline. "HATE-Y COURIC" proclaims another. Not to be outdone: "EXCLUSIVE: Betrayal, jealousy, and bitterness: New book reveals the vicious rivalry between Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters - and how Diane ran newsroom like an imperial court in I, Claudius" (that one's the Daily Mail, if you couldn't tell).
From headlines like these, you'd expect Sheila Weller's recently published book The News Sorority: Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour-and the (Ongoing, Imperfect, Complicated) Triumph of Women in TV News to be chock full of bitchy gossip. It's not devoid of it, but if you limited yourself just to the coverage of the book before its publication–instead of the actual book, which is a meticulously researched, almost 500-page biography of the lives of three very famous female news anchors, highlighting dozens more of their groundbreaking peers along the way–you'd have expected to pick up a media tell-all, the perfect summer beach read for nerds.
The man behind the most understated piece highlighting the best gossip (the one with the who-Diane-Sawyer-blew-this-time headline), Lloyd Grove, wrote in his preview for The Daily Beast that "Katie Couric comes across as brash, striving, and self-absorbed" and "Diane Sawyer is a Machiavellian." Christiane Amanpour comes off the best, merely possessing an "off-putting moral superiority." Grove also included bulletpointed quotes of the book's juiciest moments.
This summary was far kinder than the coverage of the book in outlets like the Daily News or from Radar Online. But it still boiled The News Sorority down to a series of dramatic moments and gossipy bits, obscuring the fact that the women at the center of the book are nuanced individuals whose career paths and ambitious behavior were shaped by the unique, significant challenges they faced.
At least, that's the argument author Sheila Weller made before the book came out. As previously covered, Weller was initially frustrated with reports coming from the leaked galley copies of the book. She told Fishbowl NY that "Once a book is sent to a media organization, you can't control what happens with it," but denied that she had been responsible for getting the most gossipy coverage out there (whether her publishing house was involved is more likely but remains to be seen). "It pains me that the news aggregators focused on the catfights," Weller said. "It showed me the knives are out for women who succeed." She also wrote a piece about the topic for Time as well, bemoaning the fact that "none of these anecdotes about men—all reported in the book—made notice."
"It's easy to say that that's the kind of stuff that gets picked up," she told the New York Times, "but there are a lot of things in the book about men acting pretty competitively." Weller has continued to actively post about coverage of the book as it comes in, providing her thoughts on its reviews on the book's Facebook page.
When The News Sorority was nothing but a bunch of internet links with sensationally good media gossip lying in the recesses of their html, it was difficult to tell what to actually make of the whole story. As a previously declared fan of Weller's last book, Girls Like Us, I was pretty sure the substance of her new book would be thoughtful and considered. There were dissenters, however, to my opinion; one journalist friend told me she felt like books like this "make things harder" for women.
But is it books that make it harder, or human nature, coupled with deep-seated, latent sexism? The substance of Weller's book isn't sexist at all; were you to use the word "feminist" to describe a work of writing, it would be that. She sets out to tell the story of Sawyer, Couric, and Amanpour, but ultimately tells a larger story about the way the careers of women in television news have evolved: women like Nancy Hanschman Dickerson, Marya Mclaughlin, Lisa Howard, Marlene Sanders, Barbara Walters and Jane Pauley, plus the contemporaries of her three leads, like Connie Chung and Leslie Stahl.
And were these women as catty and terrible in the book as they seemed in the headlines? Within the context of the book, mostly not: or at least, not worse then men. Without that context, most definitely. There are certainly gossipy bits in Weller's book, and they serve the double function of making a dense recounting more readable and also allowing her to demonstrate an important point without sugarcoating: women, though they face specific challenges, can be and are often as terrible as men.
Taken at face value, Couric's anecdotes come off the most poorly: we find out that early in her career, she faked getting fired from one job to maneuver her way into a new one (tears were shed). Later on there's plenty about her being almost late to work constantly, having no qualms about pushing people out of the way to get the job she wanted and speculation that she became too self-involved after the death of her first husband. Her tenure at the helm of the CBS Evening News sounds even worse than it did when it was being breathlessly reported as it was happening. Couric's saving grace, apparently, is that she is so naturally talented she can get by without really seeming like she's doing any work.
But Weller weights these stories appropriately, comparing Couric to her contemporaries; the fact that she came off badly seems more like evidence that she wasn't good enough at playing the same game everyone else was. She was too obvious about her calculations, and she didn't get the benefit of the doubt her male coworkers did. Take this instance from when Couric was at the end of her tenure at the Today show:
Katie's staggering salary was made public––and she was proud of it. In retrospect, leaking the figure would prove to be a mistake. A male executive from a different network puts a very negative spin on the disclosure, reflecting the feelings of many at the time: "Katie was 'over' the day she signed her last contract with the Today show. When people knew that she was going to make as much as $65 million, she was no longer the girl next door but a rich, recently bereaved, skirt-up-to-her-crotch, hair-changing woman. It can offend you all you want for me to put it that way, but it is a fact."
Comparatively, Sawyer comes off slightly better. Her greatest flaw appears to be that her standards are so high that she drives her coworkers to the point of exhaustion and madness. She's also secretly manipulative: there are many references to her managing to make people leave jobs, get jobs, etc. without making it clear she was responsible. An anecdote characterizing Sawyer's patented style shows her and her husband (the director Mike Nichols) making it clear that they would cut ties with a Hollywood friend if they went on Today while Sawyer was at the head of Good Morning America:
"She thinks she doesn't leave fingerprints," says a person who who was closely involved in the advancement of her career. "But she leaves cat paw prints on people's foreheads."
Sawyer also reacts strongly when, in 2006, she loses a job to Charlie Gibson and misses her opportunity to become the first prime time female news anchor:
..."she was very angry" that it hadn't worked out. Furthermore, "she was completely bat-shit that Katie was the first female anchor. It will always eat away at Diane that Katie was there first."
Sawyer and Couric are contrasted the most, because they have the most to compare: they were both morning show hosts at the same time, both blondes, both evening news anchors. When Weller explains why Couric said her now-infamous oral sex comment about Sawyer getting a scoop she wanted, she contextualizes it as something that "recklessly blunt, snarky Katie" would say without thinking.
Within earshot of people in the control booth, Katie loudly mused: "I wonder who she blew this time to get it." Converting Diane Sawyer's famous penchant for figurative seduction into such graphic and improbable sexual terms may be common office banter, but it was startling for someone of Katie's stature to be so unmindful of her image. Says one shocked witness: "You can think those things, but to say them? And where everyone can hear them?"
Sawyer's other big competition was Barbara Walters, and a strong portion of The News Sorority is devoted to calling into question Walters' very generous retelling of their relationship in her memoir Audition. In Audition, Sawyer seems like an ally, but Wellers makes space for more complication: regardless of gender, or maybe because of it, the two women had their issues.
It's Christiane Amanpour who comes off the most positively, and it doesn't seem unrelated that she was relatively detached from the insular world that Sawyer and Couric worked in. While they were climbing their way up the ranks to host morning, daytime and evening news shows, Amanpour was covering stories overseas. Sawyer and Couric were pitted against each other constantly–whether in the media or in their actual lives–and Amanpour was out forging a more dissonant path. Her issues with other people are limited; it's only when you get to her more recent career, when she returned home and started her own show, that she begins to have issues.
There are many gossipy details in Weller's book that have nothing to do with female rivalry: details of Diane meeting Mike Nichols, of Jackie Kennedy Onassis being infatuated with him, of how radical CNN was when it first started, of the CBS old boys club. But the media reaction to the book continues to focus relentlessly on the idea of the catfight. Curiously, in a Radar Online piece:
The whole resurrection of the drama in the new tell-all at this moment "also stinks of sexism," the insider said. "There aren't any books about the rivalries and in-fighting among male anchors. Why is that? It takes away from the professionalism and hard work that everyone puts into putting on a first class news program. Enough is enough."
But those men have had their stories told already. We know Peter Jennings was a sexist jerk and that Harry Reasoner gave Barbara Walters far more than a hard time. We know, also, that rivalries between men are covered differently: they're legitimate disagreements, where women have petty catfights. Progress in this medium, if it exists, probably looks something like Top of the Morning, Brian Stelter's book from last year about the world of morning television, specifically the drama between Ann Curry and Matt Lauer.
Taken at full value instead of face value, The News Sorority has a purpose beyond headline titillation. The book is a portrait of three people whose complexity involves their gender but goes far beyond it. And the book reminds you how far we've come, and how quickly:
And so by the beginning of autumn 2010, two of the three solo evening anchors were women, and one of the three Sunday morning solo hosts was a woman. That was three out of six when, five years earlier, there had been none.
Do books like Weller's help? If you actually read them, they do.
Images via ABC/CNN/CBS