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REVIEWING

THE NEWS SORORITY:
Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour—
and the (Ongoing, Imperfect, Complicated) Triumph
of Women in TV News

By Sheila Weller

Penguin Press | 2014 | 496 pages

Reviewed by M. J. Moore

sheila weller

Trifecta biography.  I should patent that phrase.  It’s my way of describing the kind of work that only a few biographers accomplish.

Most biographies illuminate and illustrate a single life.  But dual biographies (about JFK and Jackie, FDR and Eleanor, and everyone else from Elvis & Priscilla to Nixon & Kissinger) do abound.  However, there are not many trifecta biographies.  And yet, investigative journalist Sheila Weller is making a career out of this niche.

Five years ago, with Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—and the Journey of a Generation, Weller linked together and anatomized the varied ways in which the works and days of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon contributed as much to the soundtracks of the 1960s and 1970s as the works of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, and James Taylor. 

Now, Sheila Weller uses the same approach to confront the world of TV news in recent decades.

In The News Sorority: Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, Christiane Amanpour—and the (Ongoing, Imperfect, Complicated) Triumph of Women in TV News, the career quests of three archetypal female strivers are explicated against the dramatic backdrop of the always patriarchal, always hyper-competitive, and always image-driven milieu commonly called the news business.

The national news programs on television during America’s postwar epoch (from the debut of The Today Show in 1952 right up to an including 9/11) always were among the most influential media forces creating the American template all those years ago.

Yes, the music industry was powerful and radio and records (for many) were the stuff of life.  Movies, of course, continued to periodically enthrall America and its culturally starved denizens, although TV’s addictive capacity hobbled the film industry.

Above all else, though, the realm of TV news was the red-hot center of America’s central nervous system.  Gradually and then suddenly, women were also telling the stories: Barbara Walters was doubtless the godmother of them all, but in her wake came the cadre of other women (from Lesley Stahl and Connie Chung to the Diane-Katie-Christiane trio examined here).  Their emergence was part of the Zeitgeist

Author Sheila Weller’s greatest achievement in The News Sorority is to show us just how entangled the lives of TV trailblazers like Sawyer, Couric, and Amanpour were with the tumultuous social history of their personal coming-of-age odysseys.

Born in 1945, Diane Sawyer was chronologically at the dawn of the Baby Boom, whereas Katie Couric and Christiane Amanpour were born in 1957 and 1958, respectively.  Therefore, all three of them entered the testosterone-drenched field of TV news when America was mired in crises both national and international.  For example, Sawyer was 23 in 1968 (when America was undone by everything from the dual assassinations of Dr. King and RFK to the debacles in Vietnam and elsewhere), while Couric and Amanpour were 23-ish as the Iranian Hostage Crisis of 1979-1980 discombobulated Jimmy Carter and ensured Reagan’s ascendance.

Until about five to ten years ago, when the endlessly revolutionary permutations of the Internet simultaneously upended the music business, the primacy of TV news, and eventually the publishing industry (just a mere decade ago, few were the ones who truly believed that print journalism would be imperiled by all things virtual), the race to be television’s premier female news anchor was an Olympian endeavor.

And no women worked harder, strategized more effectively (with their essential combinations of Machiavellian smarts and flirtatious fandangos), or captivated more viewers (at various times) than Diane, Katie, and Christiane.  The fact that we can identify them solely by their first names signifies how vast their media reign was.

The three women whose backgrounds and ambitious professional journeys form the content of this hefty, deeply researched, marvelous narrative mosaic (it never palls, despite being well over 400 pages) were all children of the post-WW II era.

Thus, Sawyer, Couric, and Amanpour emerged as full-fledged careerists as the post-1970 Women’s Movement helped to redefine American life in the decade bookended by Kent State in 1970 and the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.

And so, in the final epoch of traditional television news as a major presence in the millions of American homes, something unique was achieved by Diane, Katie, and Christiane: They entered the national psyche and soul, functioning as narrators of the American experience.

Of course this book has been spotlighted for its juicy gossip, its catfights, and all the usual personal peccadilloes that we all pretend to hate and love to love.  Like any fiercely competitive realm of endeavor, the TV news business was full of competitive furies.  In that respect, it was no different from the world of rock music stars or book writers or Hollywood titans (not to mention big-time sports).  But that’s a sideshow.

The heart of this narrative and the reason it is important can be summed up in one statement of fact:  This trifecta biography reminds us all that not so long ago, three audacious and bold women conquered a media industry.

Such triumphs are mythic.  And this book is a triumph worthy of their legacies.


(M. J. Moore is completing a biography of author Mario Puzo.)



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