Book Review: The story of their lives

Three women attracting the media spotlight.

Eschewing intensive work in war zones since becoming a parent, Christine Amanpour has struggled to find her footing as a news magazine host. (photo credit: FROM ‘THE NEWS SORORITY’)
Eschewing intensive work in war zones since becoming a parent, Christine Amanpour has struggled to find her footing as a news magazine host.
(photo credit: FROM ‘THE NEWS SORORITY’)
Sheila Weller’s 2008 book Girls Like Us chronicled the lives and work of music legends Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon, and was one of the best reads of the 21st century. Her latest book, The News Sorority: Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric and Christiane Amanpour – and the (Ongoing, Imperfect, Complicated) Triumph of Women in TV News is just as compulsively readable.
Weller is part of a dying breed – a true investigative journalist. Her books are not composed of typical celebrity interviews featuring softball questions and pasted- together accounts of already published material. Instead, she spends years on exhaustive, original reporting, and creates a portrait of her subjects that often does not paint them in the most flattering light.
But neither is she out to smear them; she is simply concerned with showing different sides of her subjects’ character.
Although she did not interview the women who are the focus of The News Sorority – they were wary of speaking to someone known for her utterly candid portraits – they emerge as fascinating characters, far more interesting and complex than you would have guessed from their public personas.
No one ever succeeded in American television by being a nice person, but Weller’s book emphasizes how women’s ambition has often been used to condemn them in ways that are rarely done with men. It is startling to be reminded of how hard women have had to fight to have an on-camera role in TV journalism. Indeed, I remember reading an article when I was a child about how female reporters didn’t have the “depth” to cover serious news and wondering what that meant – I thought it referred to their height.
No one would say women aren’t qualified to report on news today, but women still have to fight for airtime, and often, as Weller reports, receive lackluster ratings compared to far less experienced men in similar posts.
The News Sorority is not a plea for more women in the newsroom, however. Rather, it is a realistic portrait of three women who succeeded in one of the world’s most competitive businesses, and used different strategies and styles to make it to the top.
Through Weller’s skilled presentation and structure, we see how each of them represents different aspects of the news industry and also personifies distinct models for how all women balance work and family.
Each woman’s story has its own drama.
Sawyer was a beauty-contest winner from Louisville, Kentucky, who had a vision of herself as a television newswoman long before the concept even existed. She is the most versatile of the three, having succeeded as an anchor, a morning news show host, and the head of evening newsmagazine shows. In her 40s she fell madly in love with the film director Mike Nichols, a German- Jewish refugee and intellectual. The two might not have seemed like an obvious match, but their marriage has endured for decades. Choosing not to have children, she has been a devoted stepmother.
Although obviously dedicated and brilliant, she is not an easy person to work for, sending her staff emails at all hours of the day and night, reworking stories down to the last detail.
Couric is a complex mixture of charm and steely determination, who proved herself so gifted on air that she could not be ignored.
She succeeded wildly on The Today Show, stealing thunder from her arrogant co-host Bryant Gumbel and eventually becoming the anchor of the CBS Evening News, one of the most coveted spots in television.
But her marriage suffered as her career soared; her husband Jay Monahan was then diagnosed with and died from colon cancer, as did her sister not long afterwards.
Couric made colon cancer screening her cause, even having an on-air colonoscopy.
A mother to two daughters, she was often attacked by the press for her high salary, and her dating after she became a widow attracted a bizarre level of tabloid interest.
Readers will be surprised to learn that, technically, Couric is Jewish, since she was born to a Jewish mother who had converted to Christianity.
Amanpour has distinguished herself for her bravery reporting overseas, particularly in dangerous war zones such as Bosnia in the ’90s. The daughter of a British Catholic and an Iranian Muslim, she grew up in Iran and England, then found herself drawn to the US. As a college student in Rhode Island, she befriended John F. Kennedy Jr. and managed, in spite of her ethnicity and distinctive accent, to make a place for herself at the fledgling CNN Network. She made a name for herself for her dispatches from war zones; for her upfront advocacy for victims, which sometimes drew criticism; and for assertive interviews with world leaders.
Relatively late in life, she married Jamie Rubin, and had a son in 2000.
Having a child changed the direction of her career, since she no longer wanted to work so intensively in war zones, and she has struggled to find her footing as a newsmagazine host.
As you enjoy The News Sorority, you will be reminded of how unusual it is to read anything that isn’t a puff piece or an attack.
Weller has put together a respectful yet gossipy and entertaining look at three original newswomen.