Sheila Weller is truly one of the most interesting women I know. After I devoured her book GIrls Like Us, about Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon and the music industry, I couldn't wait to see what she was going to do next. And it turned out to be The News Sorority, about three more fascinating women: Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric and Christiane Amanpour.
I asked Sheila a bunch of questions, and she's written her answers in a fascinating riff that doesn't require my questions repeated here at all. I can't thank you enough, Sheila!
I love your questions, Caroline. Like me, you’re super-curious and enthusiastic.
Here’s what happened: After Girls Like Us was such a gratifying critical and commercial success, people said, You should do another three-woman book, but I resisted. I confabbed with an editor I’d had in the past and we came up with first one, then a second, single-living-woman biography idea. The first was to do a biography of Gloria Steinem. But there were already two biographies of Steinem out – one, an authorized one by an esteemed (now dead; she committed Kervorkian-like self-chosen suicide) feminist, and, though the early chapters were good, it was teeth-achingly hagiographic and cheerleaderly. But there was a second, by a virtually unknown writer (and the book got almost no attention --- or sales), and it was GOOD. Really good, and thorough. So it seemed like there was nothing fantastically new to say . Also a close friend of Steinem’s essentially talked me out of it, by saying: It’s all been said. I took that as polite code for: And, anyway, people won’t talk without Gloria’s permission and that may be hard. Idea nixed. (And, by the way, Sheila Nevins’s HBO special on Steinem – a fantastic hero/she-ro – was great.
Second idea with this same editor (see, I’m telling you more than I’ve told anyone else, because we’re writer-to-writer shop-talking): Michelle Obama biography. HarperCollins actually gave me a contract for it just before the election. The money was kind of “If you can pull this off, great; if not, we won’t lose our shirts on the gamble” kind of money. Liza Mundy’s biog of Michelle had just come out, and it was both good and also…slightly nervously hagiographic., or inhibited, or both. I said to myself, “I just don’t think a white woman can – or should -- do this particular book.” When a very big-deal political writer friend of mine said, “The Obamas have signed Bob Barnett” – the DC mega-lawyer-book-agent who EVERY DC bigwig hires for book deals – “and he never lets his clients, who may be doing memoirs years down the line, give access to people in their inner circles to other writers,” that’s when I realized it couldn’t be done well. (But I will say this: The White House responded to my e-mails more quickly than the network executives and producers I subsequently begged to talk to.)
So I turned that book contract back, unsigned, and, with a new agent (whom I adore), decided that the whole idea of how women re-made the concept of what news IS was a juicy topic. I have been a writer for lots of years, and I have seen how many things -- feminism, the human enlightenment movement, the diversity movement, popular psychology, the elevation of celebrity news to a place where it’s seen to MIRROR our lives, the proliferation of upscale tragedies and scandals (the Menendez brothers, OJ, JonBenet Ramsey, Chandra Levy) and political sex scandals (Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill, Clinton/Lewinsky), the elevation of family dynamics and work-life issues to respectable news-worthiness: how all of these things, which would never have been “news” in the mid’60s has become what news is, along with politics and war. So I thought of a book about three women who rode that wave and helped MAKE that wave. And it was clear that the three most charismatic, distinctive, influential, and years-long successful women in TV news were Diane, Katie and Christiane.
But as I began interviewing for the book, and researching their lives, and discovering how something as seemingly “liberal” as TV news was so hide-boundly sexist, the focus changed from the women riding the wave of a changing conception of news to three women who woke up every morning of their lives never taking NO for an answer.
Gee, I’ve been talk-typing a lot. Did I answer your question?
Oh, no I see I didn’t – you asked me about their “humanity,” and I am really glad you did, because there’s been so much cherry-picking by the tabloid media (not that we don’t sometimes love the tabloid media) about their “catfights” (when women are aggressive, they’re indulging in cat fights; when men are aggressive, they’re doing their jobs), that the humanity which all three of them have brandished personally and professionally throughout their careers has been lost.
Their humanity. Some examples: Women in general intertwine their aggressive work lives with responsibilities to their families and abiding alliances to their friends…also with charity and philanthropy to strangers. All three of these women, as busy as they were, did that. Family came first to all three – Christiane dropped her CNN work (just as she was finally ascending) on a dime to rush from NY to England when her youngest sister had a leg amputated after a bike crash…and she risked life and limb for 15 years telling some of the most poignant, urgent stories of crises and brutal unfairness to women and children in ignored parts of the globe on CNN and CBS. And, while she was nabbing her exclusives with Mubarek and Ghadaffi during the Arab spring, she was simultaneously planning the details of a book party she was throwing in New York the minute she arrived home for a good friend.
Katie? For Katie, family and friends always came first. She’s had the same girlfriends from childhood. She once interrupted an interview with General Petraeus in his helicopter over Afghanistan to call a doctor in New York to make an appointment for a friend’s college-aged son, whose cold seemed, to Katie, suspiciously trenchant. She’s saved hundreds of thousands of lives, literally, by telling a reluctant and squeamish America about colon cancer --- how easily it can be avoided, a sad reality she and her late husband Jay Monahan did NOT know in time. Katie’s anti-cancer activism is among the strongest of any celebrity, in any field – and she has had a key hand in raising $230 million in cancer treatment and research (including funding clinical trials) over 15 years. And she’s funny as hell! And hates pomposity. When she was the Princeton commencement speaker, in the first line of her speech to the cap-and-gown’d graduates, she slyly offered the fact that the National Enquirer called her a “cougar.” Who the F else sitting in Walter Cronkite’s “hallowed” chair would do that? That’s humanity…and with wit.
Diane? Diane is first of all so close to her mother, her mother is still the most important judge of her life. Diane is under her urbane glamour and life with her husband, the ultra-sophisticated Mike Nichols, a good Southern Methodist girl who believes in “purpose,” in doing good. Diane is an extraordinary compassionate friend and giver – and most of it is anonymous. From my book:
“Diane’s generosity has been quietly known within her circle of colleagues for years. She is such a good friend that “if you get sick, forget about it—she’s calling a van to the rescue,” says someone. [Producer]Ira Rosen concurs: “She is simply the best foul-weather friend in the business. If, God forbid, something bad is happening in your life, she will go through every doctor she knows. When Anthony Radziwill was dying of cancer, she spent days on the phone [calling doctors and] tryingto save his life.” She did the same for a colleague who had pancreatic cancer. Private school tuitions for kids of single moms she barely knows, beach camps for children who never saw an ocean, surgeries for family members of a studio tech and an elevator operator, all done anonymously, with the recipients not knowing the source: “You could fill a stadium with the people she’s helped,” says Mark Robertson. On long international flights, she’d often force her first-class seats on her young producers while taking their coach seats. Eventually, when she took over the anchorship of ABC World News, she bought the whole staff gym memberships, each one including a trainer.” In addition, her ten or so years of specials on impoverished and at-risk children in America – award-winning, policy-influencing --
And, as I say at the end of the book, summing up their humanity:
“There’s a flip side of resilience, and that is vulnerability. says, “All three of these women are strong, but they’re still very vulnerability.” As Jeff Zucker” [long Katie’s producer, then head of NBC-Universal, now head of CNN] says, “All three of these women are vulnerable. It’s a very hard business, to put yourself out there” where millions see you daily, “every day, on the line. And be graded every day by people who have never had the courage to do this. Having the courage to put yourself out there every day: it says something about all three of these women.”
Ginny Vicario, the first female camera operator ever hired by a network, who has collaborated with them all, takes it further. She says: “Diane, Katie, and Christiane have worked their asses off. But with that hard work has come compassion, in the stories they’ve told, in the stories they’ve chosen to tell, and in their lives. Power has not taken that away. If anything, it has increased it.”
All three of these women modeled a reality of success that was different from past models. The more powerful they became, the more interested in people they became. They remained profoundly committed to telling the stories of ordinary Americans, unfairly besieged victims, people in cataclysms and crises, fascinating celebrities both worthy and spoiled, world leaders both benign and heinous. They passionately kept up their commitments to their families, friends, and needy strangers through both improvised
and formal philanthropies. They remembered what they had pushed past—grief, danger, tragedy—and the more they saw and reported, the more they folded the new experiences into those primary lessons. As intensely competitive as they have been, each of them had a moral brake on runaway power. They asked, “Where’s the heart?” (Diane) or they considered their network colleagues their cherished “family” (Christiane) or they knew that that “other side”—the “payback” side—of their luck and bounty existed (Katie). Whatever their idiosyncrasies, whatever their egos, whatever their aggressiveness and ambition, they retained an experienced kernel of humbling reality, and it controlled their choices and their consciences. From Three Mile Island to the Arab Spring, from the Gulf War to Bosnia to Iraq to Syria, from Columbine to 9/11 to the Haiti and Japanese earthquakes, from Matthew Shepard to Whitney Houston to Hosni Mubarek, from cancer awareness to corruption to genocide to childhood poverty, we got the news from them. And we also got from them what is underneath the news, what is underneath all news: We got humanity.”
WHY DIDN’T I INTERVIEW THE WOMEN?
Katie and Diane declined to be interviewed and by the time Christiane assented to be included and give me access to her friends and family – and she was in England, anyway – I didn’t want to unbalance things by asking her alone.
You get more from people’s intimates than you do from very “managed” (as these would be) interviews with women who are the most sophisticated interviewers in the world.
I suppose I could have wrangled and wangled and begged to get some questions answered by them, but after five years of begging most of the other 200 people for interviews, I was exhausted. And I felt, from the interviews they gave to others (celebrities --- even in news – will always give selected interviews to magazines and newspapers, because it helps sell and promote their shows; the PR departments are in favor of this; but they do not want to give interviews for someone else’s BOOK about them), that they would be charming, facile, guarded, articulate…and that I would not get anything new. While also, in the bargain, having to make certain promises or give certain access/information to their publicists in exchange.
I didn’t interview any of my GIRLS LIKE US except Carly (and she came to ME, bless her), and, at that, in a limited way.
WHERE DO I SEE NETWORK NEWS GOING NOW?
Not much of anywhere. These three women;s prominence coincided with what you might call the Golden Age