The News Sorority: Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour—and the (Ongoing, Imperfect, Complicated) Triumph of Women in TV News. By Sheila Weller. New York: Penguin Press, 2014.
It should come as no surprise that people who seem warm, friendly, strong, confident, courageous, and even admirable on the television screen are—in their lives off the set—often egomaniacal and insecure. Nonetheless, perusing Sheila Weller’s book about three of the most famous female newscasters of the past thirty plus years quickly becomes an object lesson in just how narcissistic and self-serving broadcast journalists of either gender can be. Weller has done students of popular culture the favor of digging through the muck of her protagonists’ personal and professional lives and raking it into three neat little piles. Two of these heaps of sludge are quite similar in size and consistency, while the third is altogether different, formed of a genuine moral and intellectual endeavor that eschews mere celebrity in service to a sense of mission and purpose.
Weller’s method was to conduct extensive interviews, not with Christiane Amanpour, Katie Couric, and Diane Sawyer, but with their associates in the TV news business and their personal friends. To be sure, Weller sought to interview the principals, but when two declined the request, she decided, in the interest of balance, not to do only one. If the result seems more than a tad gossipy, it could hardly have been otherwise. Not to grant this book judgment according to its own project would be grossly unfair. Weller says, in her acknowledgements, that her work is “journalistic rather than narrative nonfiction” (437). As such, she attempts to let her sources tell the story, rather than imposing a descriptive arc of her own.
This procedure makes the whole experience of the prose much more direct for the reader. Although the early pages have a slight warning tinge of hagiography in the form of a “small-town girl makes it big in the city” meme, the latter two-thirds display Weller pulling no punches. Thus, if Katie Couric’s valiant disdain at having been rejected when she applied to Smith College (she went to the University of Virginia—so there!) comes across as star-struck praise of plucky rags-to-riches bravado, the frank description later on of her annoying daily tardiness at the Today set leaves readers free to make their own judgments. Much the same is true of Weller’s tales about Diane Sawyer who, arriving on the scene a bit earlier than Couric, had to transcend her status as the winner of the America’s Junior Miss Pageant and fight all the harder for professional traction suitable to second-wave feminism. Weller intimates that Sawyer only entered the contest for the scholarship money and really won by writing a poem about the Civil War.
Perhaps the epitome of comparisons in the book is a scene that dates from the war for “gets” (exclusives), in which the belligerents—Sawyer and Couric—competed for several years, as Good Morning America made an unavailing attempt to overtake Today in the ratings. This battle apparently descended to moments of personal animus. One day, upon learning that Sawyer had scored an exclusive with Aleta St. James, who had given birth to twins at age 57, Katie Couric said, loud enough for all in the control booth to hear, “I wonder who she blew this time to get it” (293). Priceless, this image of “girl-next-door” Katie in an unabashedly real moment. She must be great fun in person.
Christiane Amanpour, however, comes off very differently than Sawyer and Couric. One has the impression that there is simply nothing petty or self-aggrandizing about her: not much muck to rake. Unless, of course, you count her pique at not being given the kind of show Fareed Zakaria eventually anchored. Amanpour has spent her life going to the most dangerous places in the world, risking her life for incredibly important hard news, and advocating for human rights whenever she has a legitimate opportunity. She even put off getting married and having a child until the last moment; doing so, she knew, might impinge on her frenetic life of hard work and intellectual integrity. Amanpour emerges as the only really strong thinker in the group, a living testimonial to the now somewhat outdated argument that journalists are members of the intelligentsia.
The News Sorority is not then an academic book, a fact that makes it both more and less useful to students of popular culture than it might have been. In a work that maintains pretensions to feminist significance, no cogent theoretical approach obtains. Weller herself seems to be firmly rooted in second-wave feminist thought. Nonetheless, many of the passages about the three women’s use of their femininity to get ahead in the struggle with patriarchy have a third-wave vibe. The bad guys (Dan Rather is the alpha male) go down in part because Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer are physically and emotionally attractive women. Their charm and beauty have a positive effect on their careers and their ratings. That they are also—especially Amanpour—adept women of great substance simply bolsters their third-wave feminist stature. Too, it’s a very enjoyable read; the raw materials for a serious feminist response to the text are all there. The News Sorority is bound for a strong showing in the indexes of books in the field of media studies, and as such, it is invaluable.
Jeffrey P. Cain
Sacred Heart University