“Weller rivetingly recounts these gutsy ladies' time on the front lines... an inspiration for future generations of journalists.” --Vanity Fair
For decades, women battered the walls of the male fortress of television journalism. After fierce struggles, three women—Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric, and Christiane Amanpour—broke into the newsroom’s once impenetrable “boys’ club.” These women were not simply pathbreakers, but wildly gifted journalists whose unique talents enabled them to climb to the top of the corporate ladder and transform the way Americans received their news.
Drawing on exclusive interviews with their colleagues and intimates from childhood on, The News Sorority crafts a lively and exhilarating narrative that reveals the hard struggles and inner strengths that shaped these women and powered their success. Life outside the newsroom—love, loss, child rearing—would mark them all, complicating their lives even as it deepened their convictions and instincts. Life inside the newsroom would include many nervy decisions and back room power plays previously uncaptured in any media account. Taken together, Sawyer’s, Couric’s, and Amanpour’s lives as women are here revealed not as impediments but as keys to their success.
Raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Diane Sawyer was a young woman steering her own unique political course in a time of societal upheaval. Her fierce intellect, almost insuperable work ethic, and sophisticated emotional intelligence would catapult Sawyer from being the first female on-air correspondent for 60 Minutes, to presenting anchoring the network flagship ABC World News. From her first breaks as a reporter all the way through her departure in 2014, Sawyer’s charisma and drive would carry her through countless personal and professional changes.
Katie Couric, always conveniently underestimated because of her “girl-next-door” demeanor, brazened her way through a succession of regional TV news jobs until she finally hit it big. In 1991, Couric became the cohost of Today, where, over the next fifteen years, she transformed the “female” slot from secondary to preeminent while shouldering devastating personal loss. Couric’s greatest triumph—and most bedeviling challenge—was at CBS Evening News, as the first woman to solo-anchor a nighttime network news program. Her contradictions—seriously feminist while proudly sorority-girlish—made her beyond easy typecasting, and as original as she is relatable.
A glamorous, unorthodox cosmopolite—raised in pre-revolution Iran amid royalty and educated in England—Christiane Amanpour would never have been picked out of a lineup as a future war reporter, until her character flourished on catastrophic soil: her family’s exile during the Iranian Revolution. Once she knew her calling, Amanpour shrewdly made a virtue of her outsider status, joining the fledgling CNN on the bottom rung and then becoming its “face,” catalyzing its rise to global prominence. Amanpour’s fearlessness in war zones would make her the world’s witness to some of its most acute crises and television’s chief advocate for international justice.
Revealing the tremendous combination of ambition, empathy, and skill that empowered Sawyer, Couric, and Amanpour to reach stardom, The News Sorority is a detailed story of three very particular lives and a testament to the extraordinary character of women everywhere.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2014 Shelia Weller
The News You Give Begins with
the News You’ve Lived
Diane, Christiane, Katie: 1969, 1997, 2000
I. Pushing Past Grief: Diane, 1969
Twenty-three-year-old Diane Sawyer (she used her real first name, Lila, ironically, only in affectionate letters) was working as the first ever full-time female news reporter in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky— on WLKY, Channel 32—in mid-September 1969. She had been on the job for two years, and she—a Wellesley graduate and former beauty queen— was itching to leave for a bigger opportunity, in the nation’s capital. Still, Diane’s years at WLKY had not been uneventful.
Louisville in the late 1960s had a roiling temper. Some of its residents were hell-bent on overturning the recent federally mandated civil rights advances. When black demonstrators peacefully marched through the streets to protest the stubbornly still segregated neighborhoods, angry whites rushed them, bearing swastikas, hurling bottles. On top of that, the country had just passed through a nightmare of a year, and Diane Sawyer of WLKY had reported on all of it.
Diane and her colleague Bob Winlock—who rejected being “the black reporter” as much as she disliked being “the female reporter”—witnessed painful backlash against advances they had both been a part of. Diane was kept off the riot-scene beat by her gallant bosses—at least one frontline reporter had gotten beaten—but the city’s racial anguish was on clear display everywhere, including during the emotionally fraught press conferences she covered for the station.
Violence became commonplace. Early in her tenure at WLKY, Martin Luther King Jr. had been spat upon by a little white girl who couldn’t have been more than seven. During another visit, the civil rights leader’s skull had barely evaded a rock hurled through his car window (he later held the rock high and pronounced it a “foundation” of his struggle there). Then, of course, came Dr. King’s murder—close by, in Memphis—and that of Bobby Kennedy, in Los Angeles, during that surreally violent patch of spring to summer 1968. “Diane was disconsolate” at both assassinations, the station’s general manager, Ed Shadburne, says. Still, she dutifully went out to get person-on-the-street responses. That was being a reporter: Tuck in the pain and do your job. You were a witness.
But that was the ironic thing. Diane had already been a witness— indeed, a participant—in some amazing ground-level integration gains almost a full decade earlier. Her junior high and high school, Seneca, had integrated startlingly early, in 1957, well before the city’s neighborhoods, restaurants, restrooms, and theaters had stopped barring blacks or roping them off in dingy “Coloreds” quarters. By a fluke of the school’s newness and geography, the 1957–1963 Seneca kids (“a third white, a third Jewish, a third black,” the alums today like to proudly exaggerate) and their teachers were on their own, improvising a racial amity.
In 1958, when Diane was in the eighth grade (four years before James Meredith’s federally assisted singular integration of the University of Mississippi), white boys in ducktails and low-slung jeans had written GO HOME, NIGGER! on the walls when the first black students bravely but nervously entered, and some of the kids were beaten. But by the time her class reached eleventh grade, in 1961, the students were protesting restaurant segregation together. When the boys’ basketball team traveled to racist Kentucky towns for away games, the white players refused to go into the coffee shops that didn’t allow their black teammates; they all ate in their bus. Now, in 1969, the still resonating killings of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy seemed like a Molotov cocktail hurled against those fragile, cherished Seneca High advances.
. . .
Diane’s family was her stable haven during a period of violence, regression, and sadness. Even as a working reporter four months shy of twenty-four, she was still living at home with her parents.
The elder Sawyers had come to their security and respectability the hard way. Erbon Powers Sawyer and Jean Dunagan Sawyer had grown up during the Depression in dire poverty in the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky, just north of the Tennessee border. Diane’s father was one of nine siblings. Diane’s mother, whose parents had the folksy names of Foxie and Norma Belle, was one of four daughters. The Dunagan children teetered on the brink of starvation. “There were sometimes only pennies and a few potatoes in winter—there were bruises, real bruises in that life” of theirs, Diane has said. Erbon and Jean had limited themselves to two children. Diane’s two-year-older sister, Linda, was the vivacious, prettier girl; Diane was the adoring little sister—circumspect, awkwardly tall, her poor eyesight requiring thick glasses.
The Sawyer family was comfortable but not seriously prosperous. The bar was very high in Louisville, a city of century-old debutante balls and Kentucky Derby Winners’ Circle families of six generations of gentry who patronized the exclusive fox-hunting clubs in Lexington. Diane’s father had made it up from a tiny junior college all the way through law school, and by 1969 he had long been the Jefferson County judge—Judge “Tom” Sawyer his jaunty sobriquet. Jean Sawyer—“Mrs. Sawyer” to decades of students—officiated at the blackboard at Hite Elementary. She was known as the best third-grade teacher in the city.
The Sawyer family was deeply Methodist. Diane had attended Methodist Youth Association camp, and, as busy as she now was as a reporter, she still made it to practice two evenings a week to blend her gifted soprano, on classic hymns, with a mélange of other voices in the St. David’s Church–based choir called the Motet Singers. When Diane was growing up, the Sawyers had hosted home Bible meetings on Sunday and sometimes Wednesday nights at their home, while their family church, St. Mark’s, was under construction. “Purpose” was a word heard in many sermons. The ideal—to live a life “of purpose”—was also fortified by Judge Sawyer.
“Diane’s father was the one who really put the idea of ‘purpose’ in her life; he was her moral compass,” says her close friend ABC producer Mark Robertson, on the basis of what she has told him. “She always says, ‘Those are real lives at stake!’” of her responsibility to the people whose stories she is telling on television. “That came from her father.”
Judge Sawyer was a serious man—a thoughtful intellectual. Diane’s love of D. H. Lawrence and e. e. cummings seems to have derived from his respect for literature. Diane was very close to him, a closeness amplified by the serendipitous fact that she was the spitting image of his sister Lila, after whom she’d been named. She’d even tried law school for one semester, mainly, friends say, because law was what he did.
Judge Sawyer was paternal in an old-fashioned way. Just after Diane had been hired at WLKY, he had pointedly dropped in one day, unannounced, on the station’s general manager to make good and sure that this man who’d hired his daughter did not have any designs on her. He was a fierce Republican—Diane’s eventual, abiding loyalty to Richard Nixon, incomprehensible to so many, owes much to his strong party affiliation. Yet the judge was not stern; he had a palpable sense of compassion. The judge’s “love for his family, intellectual curiosity, and evenhandedness were as perfect as a person’s could be,” says Diane’s high school English teacher and confidante, Alice Chumbley Lora. Finally, Judge Sawyer had given Diane the yardstick by which she chose her profession. “Answer three questions,” he said one day. “One: What are you passionate about? Two: What can you have adventure doing? Three: What can you do to make a difference?” Four decades later she would recount those unforgettably impactful words to a young ABC News female protégée.
Diane’s mother was perhaps an even greater influence. Jean Sawyer was not an intellectual (“I never saw Mrs. Sawyer reading a book,” one friend says), but she was a seizer of life, an ambitious perfectionist—and Diane was awed by this. “Growing up, I didn’t have distant idols, I had proximate ones,” Diane once made clear.
Jean Sawyer had a tremendous hold on her daughters. “Diane’s mother was a very, very aggressive woman. She was a force of nature,” says Greg Haynes, a Louisville friend whom Diane dated in college. “She pushed her daughters into all these beauty contests.” And lessons: Diane took piano, ballet, tap, voice, classical guitar, and fencing, sacrificing her social life for the palette of activities her mother lined up. “Mrs. Sawyer was a 1950s version of the Tiger Mom,” says one who knew the family: pushing her daughters, using criticism to make sure they did their best. Every opportunity Jean Sawyer hadn’t had, she made sure her daughters did have. “Mrs. Sawyer was very ambitious for her daughters,” Haynes says. “She was extremely devoted to their achievement.” Sometimes it seemed that was all she cared about. It was as if so much insecurity had suffused Jean’s and Erbon’s youths, the opposite would now be fiercely willed. A pristine security, unmarred by lack of opportunity—and certainly unmarred by tragedy—would be obtained for the Sawyer girls, come hell or high water.
And then, on September 23, 1969, that plan—that dream—fell apart in an instant.
Diane’s father had risen early that morning and gotten into his car to drive to work. The route was familiar enough to be rote; he had driven it innumerable times. Somehow, this morning, something went very wrong very fast. Minutes from his home, while ascending an overpass above the interstate highway, his car suddenly veered and shot off the unshielded bridge abutment, over the overpass. Did the judge fall asleep at the wheel? Did a tire blow out? Whatever the cause, rumors would circulate, all unconfirmed, that the fatal plunge was a suicide.
Louisville in 1969 was a small town when tragedies happened, so it was not surprising that the first newsperson who heard of the accident happened to be a member of Diane’s Motet Singers: Bob McDonald, a reporter at radio station WKLO. He was announcing the morning news when the bulletin came in that the judge’s car had plummeted and he’d been taken to General Hospital, where Diane and Jean were now rushing. Judge Sawyer’s death was announced on WKLO; then Jim Smith, Diane’s WLKY assignment editor, assumed the grim task of filming the removal of his junior colleague’s father’s destroyed vehicle for airing on the very newscast, that evening, to which Diane normally would have contributed.
WLKY’s news director, Ken Rowland, rushed to the Sawyer house to pay a condolence call. The women were “in shock more than anything,” he recalls, like “any other family who’s just lost someone in a tragic accident that there’s no real explanation for.” Diane’s friend Greg Haynes hurried to the funeral home. “Diane was very distraught,” he says. “She was devastated.”
At Judge Sawyer’s funeral service the Motet Singers performed one of his favorite songs, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” The judge had been a navy officer in World War II and he was a border-Southern post-war Republican—which meant: anti-Dixiecrat. He’d stood up for some ideals that were regionally unpopular. Choir member Celia McDonald re- members, “The family”—Jean, Linda, Diane—“was just crushed” as they sat in their pews through the service.
For Jean Sawyer and her daughters, this grievous loss was also perhaps a grim reminder: For all the effort taken in thwarting them, storms of awful luck, like Depression winter winds, could still destructively whoosh out of nowhere in a heartbeat. Diane’s good friend ABC executive Phyllis McGrady views this moment as a turning point: “They lost their husband and father, these three real Southern women: charming, delightful, perfect manners yet unbelievably determined.” From this point on, Jean taught her daughters “they didn’t have to find a man to lead them through this world,” Mark Robertson says Diane told him. This was not your typical midcentury Southern mother-to-daughter lesson—proper young women in the region at the time were supposed to marry upon graduation from college—and it was one that Diane took to heart, with good result. She would become enormously successful as a single woman and would not marry until she was forty-two. In the wake of her father’s death, Diane’s determination leapt into overdrive. She surprised everyone by returning to the WLKY newsroom sooner than expected. Jim Smith recalls, “She was not out that long. She was determined to go on and do her job and we respected her for that.” Work emerged as an ennobling, distracting, consoling—and healing—device.
Dogged dedication would become Diane’s defining characteristic, at once a key to her remarkable success and a challenge for her colleagues. Even now, long past the years of earning her due, Diane barely sleeps, is known to e-mail staffers in the middle of the night, and works (says a male producer whom she fired) “harder than ten people.” That dedication would guide her journey—and an eventful journey, artfully navigated, it would be.
When this high-achieving Louisville girl had gone on to Wellesley College, she’d encountered Northeastern elitism (a little discomfiting at first) but had absorbed its useful value system, and had won distinction as a singing star. Then she utilized her instinctive ownership of the brand-new ideas about women and ambition during her two years at WLKY. Next—after her father’s death—she would blend personal independence with a political conservatism unshared by most of the emerging journalists of her generation, and she would work loyally, for eight years, for the most disgraced president in recent history. In that crucible—playing defense against an aggressive and triumphant press corps—she would sharpen her intellectual fighting skills. After that, she would meld her daunting work ethic with a deft humility in the service of proving herself to highly skeptical colleagues at her first major national news job. From then on she would soar, becoming, over the decades, a star in every TV news format, minting a compelling persona that was at once glamorous and serious—and winding up in the pinnacle position as a 6:30 anchor.
Throughout, she has been impelled by that Methodist-sermon word— her father’s word, purpose. It’s a simple word, employed by a complex woman. Nicknamed the Golden Sphinx, Diane incites awe for being an unsurpassable player of the chess game of career machinations. But while her seductive charm and elegant indirectness are legendary, so is her generosity. Not everyone who has worked with Diane trusts her, though nearly all of them respect her.
She witnessed fickle loss in her family and fickle cruelty in her community: mysteries that make a person seek answers to troubling questions. She was “never not sophisticated,” even as a poodle-skirt-wearing small-city girl, says her hometown friend Greg Haynes, and she married one of America’s most sophisticated men. Her curiosity, both about the painful mesh of agency and fate and about the world’s wide swath of arts and politics, is, she has said, why she keeps working. “Diane is the most curious person I’ve ever worked with,” Jon Banner, her original executive producer at World News, declares. And it is becoming more and more a curiosity of “purpose.” Her parents’ vanquished early hardship, her father’s death, the racial strife in Louisville: Those imprints would impel her to investigate social injustice and the deprivation—and stamina—of vulnerable children, resulting in award-winning specials that would become her mature career’s proudest achievements. The more years that passed from her days in Kentucky churches, the more notches carved on her belt of urbanity and accomplishment, the more she circled home.
Not too many years ago, a friend of Diane’s heard that a close relative of his had died in a car crash like the one in which Erbon Sawyer perished. The friend was distraught. Diane was tough with him, but it was a hopeful toughness. “Look at me!” she ordered. “You can turn your pain into purpose!” She even repeated the exhortation, word for word. The friend, who didn’t know about Diane’s own swift return to work after she’d been devastated by her father’s 1969 death, was so struck by her mysterious adamance—and her passionate use of that folksy homily—that he muses now, “I don’t know where she got that. . . .”
II. Pushing Past Danger
It was September 27, 1997, and Christiane Amanpour was walking toward a building in Kabul, Afghanistan, that was supposed to be a women’s hospital. She was led there by the Red Cross and the European Union, whose members were increasingly concerned that the aid they were giving to support Afghani women was in fact being siphoned off for nefarious purposes. Afghanistan’s new Islamist government—the group that was now in control of the lower two-thirds of the country—had a sonorous name barely known to most Americans at the time: the Taliban.
But if American viewers didn’t know the Taliban, they did know thirty-nine-year-old Christiane Amanpour, particularly through her reporting several years earlier, from the grievously embattled little country of Bosnia. She’d cut a distinctive image on CNN for half a dozen years now. In a TV landscape of neatly coiffed and perfectly made-up, often blond, suit-jacketed stateside female CNN anchors and only male war reporters, there she was, in “that ratty old parka that she wore three winters in a row,” as her friend and Bosnia colleague Emma Daly affectionately recalls it. Her thick black hair was as mussed as one would expect for someone standing not far from exploding mortar shells; her black eyes were intense; her approachably attractive face was bare. “Most men on TV wore more makeup than she did,” says a man who worked with her. American audiences were used to that deep, emphatic, English-accented voice of hers. It was an arresting voice—“posh and exotic” as her early CNN friend Sparkle Hayter describes it; “a voice,” her confidant and colleague Pierre Bairin says, “that could command an army.” She had reported the intentional rapes of women and the targeted killing of children, the constant shelling, the unique awfulness of a war launched against civilians in the middle of a European city, Sarajevo. She had reported the ethnic cleansing of eight thousand Muslim Bozniak boys and men during what came to be known as the Srebrenica Massacre, and she had pushed and pushed CNN into staying on the story and on subsequent stories she’d reported on atrocities, mostly with child victims, in Rwanda, Ghana, and Uganda.
Her impassioned reportage had implicitly exhorted American viewers to attend to global strife, during a time when celebrity crime came to dominate the news. This was the 1990s, the era of the Tonya Harding case, the O. J. Simpson case, and the JonBenét Ramsey case. For Christiane, global news was personal. Her family had been forced out of Iran with the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and with an exile’s perspective she made it her mission to find stories of injustice and tell them in a way that would make Americans care.
The Pentagon had started tracking her country-hopping on a map; she anticipated hot spots for them. A jaunty rhyme had been bandied about: “Where there’s a war, there’s Amanpour.” And a concept had been coined: the Amanpour Factor, meaning if she was there, the international community had better respond with humanitarian aid or else they’d be embarrassed. The formula, she found, did not always work. In Rwanda, the genocide coverage had failed to inflame the American public with the sympathy and foreign aid it deserved. She was determined to not see another atrocity neglected, as Rwanda had been, and it was this she had in mind as she covered this new story: Afghanistan’s Taliban.
Walking to the building along with Christiane were a dozen or so European Union and Red Cross officials and two of her CNN colleagues, cameraman Mark Phillips and producer Nic Robertson. Nic had been Christiane’s reporting partner when she went into Iraq toward the end of the first Gulf War. She had met Mark in 1993, while covering Bosnia.
Christiane was never incautious or impetuous; she was the opposite of the thrill seeker that war reporters are stereotyped to be. Still, despite her realism about danger, she was unusually calm and steady when danger did strike. Mark had worked with her a lot in Bosnia and he had never seen her genuinely frightened. “She had no overbearing emotion—everything she did was measured,” he says. Did this come from being the responsible— even venerated—oldest of four sisters? Or was it a result of her unusual upbringing? Amanpour had been raised in stable, affluent Iran before her world came crashing down. After the Revolution, she had scrambled to relocate, living first in England with her family and then in the United States at college, where, among a glamorous and privileged clique, she managed to display an enviable aplomb. Her traumatic, globe-trotting years would instill an unusual resilience, which came in handy while she battled her way on air as a young, foreign reporter, and proved critical once she entered the high-stakes field of war reporting. It was in Bosnia that Christiane became valued for her on-air coverage. Bosnia had made Christiane a cruasader and a member of the conflict-reportage community that she would come to consider a real family. Bosnia had given her her calling, and now she was continuing with it, as she approached the Kabul hospital for women.
Except: This was not a hospital.
Once they walked past the facade, they realized that “the building was a half-constructed shell,” Mark Phillips says. He and Christiane and Nic “saw no women in distress.” In fact, they didn’t see a single woman, in distress or otherwise. Three so-called security guards boxed them in—blocked Mark, Christiane, and Nic from moving farther and from retreating—and one of them shouted to a farther-off sentry, “The foreigners are here!” Christiane, Nic, Mark, and the EU and Red Cross personnel who accompanied them were surrounded. In five or ten minutes Taliban militiamen careened through the streets to the site, jostling up and down in the open backs of their flatbed trucks. They stormed the building shell, shouting wildly, pumping aloft their Kalashnikov automatic rifles—AK-47s. One of the men, sighting Mark’s running camera, grabbed it from him, then struck Mark on the head with his rifle—once, then a second time. Christiane stood to the side, watching silently. “Christiane and I had been in these situations before. If you got involved you were going to get whacked,” Mark says.
Fear now rippled wordlessly through the group of Westerners: All of this furious machismo was hip-shot; there was no order or logic to any of it. It was one thing when fundamentalist or fascist regimes had rules; they were at least consistent, and you were forewarned. But here, as Emma Bonino, the European commissioner for humanitarian affairs, who was one of the besieged, recalled, “No one was in charge.” This was “a situation of random terror.” Christiane and the others were now loudly declared “under arrest.” The official charge was photography, which was now apparently illegal (especially photographs of women, though there were none in the hospital). More realistically, the militiamen were protecting themselves from being exposed for extorting the Red Cross funds.
Christiane, Mark, and Nic were pushed by the Taliban into the Red Cross van that had delivered them there. The Red Cross workers tried to stop them. The Taliban threatened to shoot the Red Cross workers.
The van driver, rifle to his back, was ordered to drive the detainees to a large field, where they were herded out by the Taliban and forced to sit in formation in the sun.
One of the armed men walked up to Christiane and stared at her and spat out the words—in Dhahri, a language close enough to her native Farsi for her to know it—“You’re Iranian!” It wasn’t her celebrity that made him ascertain this. “Christiane has a certain look—they just knew,” Mark believes.
As an Iranian and a foreign woman, Christiane was a double target for the Afghan Arab members of the Taliban, who were particularly vehement and who, as a result of complex recent history in the Muslim world, hated Iranians. The man looked at her, ran his finger across his own neck, gesturing I am going to kill you. He walked slowly around the group, staring at her, circling while Christiane averted his gaze. She stayed astonishingly cool, but he did not relent. “I’d been with Christiane for years, and I had never seen her nervous,” Mark says. “Now she was. She was very nervous.”
The fear of losing her life was particularly pointed at this moment. For years—all through her twenties and thirties—Christiane had concentrated on her work. She believed she might never marry or have children and she was pretty okay with that. To be sure, she’d had lots of romances during these years—with journalists, photographers, dashing men, heroic men, single men, and, if rumors are to be believed, at least one married man. She’d been the subject of a roman à clef in which she’d been a droll, swaggering femme fatale. Then she met Jamie Rubin, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s spokesman. They immediately clicked. Considered one of Washington’s most handsome bachelors, he was besotted right away. Though Christiane and Jamie were often in different parts of the globe between their patches of time together, the intensity of the romance was such that, when they were together, even their cynical journalist friends were moved to render over-the-top appraisals. “If you walk between them, you could get burned,” said Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen. “It’s a zoning violation.”
And now, two months after falling in love, here she was: being threatened with death in a field in Kabul.
The Afghan Arab’s threats escalated from gestures to words. He walked around her and said, “Iranian! I’m gonna kill you! I’m gonna slit your throat!”
Mark and Nic both felt very afraid for her—and helpless. In the past, they had defended her, even if she didn’t need it. What could they do now?
Two of the detainees managed, sometime over the next few hours, to call the Taliban foreign ministry. When that agency declined to help, someone in the group placed a stealthy SOS call to EU headquarters. Two and a half hours into their ordeal, three male wire service reporters from the AP and Reuters strode into the compound. The Taliban came to understand that holding a group of EU and Red Cross workers hostage would get them unwanted media coverage and would promptly end their funding. After their hours of bravado, the Taliban caved on a dime. The captives were released. Mark was given back his camera—miraculously, almost hilariously, it was still running! The militiaman who’d confiscated it had never thought to turn it off.
Back at the UN safe house, “Christiane was relieved that the long ordeal was over and her antagonist was gone. But she was very calm,” says Mark. Once she realized she was safe, it was back to the job. They had gotten footage! Mark had observed this kind of recovery from Christiane before.
“Nothing fazed her,” he says. “She does not have a roller-coaster personality. It was just Christiane.” Once again, she had survived a near-death experience and kept her wits about her.
For the next ten years, Christiane—soon married to Jamie and soon after that a mother—would report from a staggering number of conflict zones around the world, probably more than any other war reporter in history and almost certainly more than any other woman with a young child, a conundrum that she, a devoted parent, continually tried to reconcile. She worked outside the day-to-day in-house TV news establishment and was a singular, sometimes intimidating, presence—“a combination of bullishness, charm, manners, and a strong moral code,” as her friend the English novelist Bella Pollen puts it.
She also dared fly in the face of the assumption that a female professional had to be self-effacing. “I have spent ten years in just about every war zone there was,” she said, accepting the Edward R. Murrow Award in September 2000. “I have made my living bearing witness to some of the most horrific events of the end of our century. . . . I’m so identified with war and disaster that wherever I go, people say, jokingly, that they shudder when they see me. U.S. soldiers . . . joke that they track my movements in order to know where they will be employed next. I calculated that I have spent more time at the front than most military units.”
It was when, in 2009, she took a job inside the system that she struggled. After seventeen years in the field, she had more than earned the right to an anchor post, and to a relief from the dangers and the family stress of nonstop travel. Like ex–war reporters before her—Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, and Peter Jennings among them—she was ready for a prestigious desk job. But Christiane would find that years of experience and momentous accomplishments didn’t make it less hard for foreign-accented women—and assertive, no-nonsense women—to succeed in traditional high-status posts.
Every bit as ironic as being threatened with death right after you’ve just fallen in love is the fact that you can excel at the most dangerous, public policy affecting investigatives and yet fail at the safe and the chatty. Her response to challenge, however, carries echoes of Diane Sawyer’s earnest exhortation to “Turn your pain into purpose!” Christiane knew struggle, and she had never run from it before—not as a young exile, or as a scrappy minor-beat reporter, or as the world’s leading conflict journalist. “Never be afraid of failure or loss,” she has counseled firmly. Instead, “Use it.” Just like she did.
III: Pushing Past Tragedy
It was around ten p.m. on a weekday night in the spring of 2000, and Katie Couric was sitting in the greenroom of The Tonight Show, a plastic bib encircling her neck, her light brown hair about to be hot-combed, a makeup artist doing a touch-up. She would be going on Jay Leno’s show as a guest in a half hour. Improvised humor was one of the strong suits of the Today show host who, now at forty-three, had been the undisputed queen of what the TV industry simply calls “Morning” for nine years. She’d virtually grabbed that title the minute she ascended the seat as a chipmunk- cheeked, pregnant thirty-four-year-old from out of nowhere in 1991.
Morning—seven to nine a.m. on the three networks—is one of the most surprisingly hard to expertly master genres of television. The host is required to be an emotional quick-change artist, segueing from serious news to cooking segments to human interest pieces to celebrity interviews and back again in crisp, tiny, majority-live time parcels. The tone is intimate yet professional, funny but never tasteless; the image projected must be relatable to the diverse viewership that becomes possessive of the morning stars and sees them as presumed family members.
Morning is also the networks’ cash cow; and while, right now, Katie was actually beginning to tire of the format, she was never more in her glory, never more in her prime. Her Today position had fed her love of attention, had gratified the tremendous ambition she’d had to be a TV news star—an ambition she’d nurtured since childhood. It had made her a famous, wealthy woman, and, perhaps most important now, it had served as her bully pulpit to launch an audacious public health campaign in honor of her late husband, Jay Monahan. She had recently done something that would have been unthinkable from anyone but her—she’d had a colonoscopy on live TV, to acquaint viewers with the little-understood, much- avoided procedure that might have saved her forty-two-year-old husband’s life and could so easily save others.
Hanging out with Katie in the greenroom was her good friend and colleague Lisa Paulsen. Tall, blond, and, like Katie, high-spirited, Lisa was the president and CEO of the Entertainment Industry Foundation, a major philanthropy. Lisa and Katie were laughing and joking while Katie was getting her makeup done. As much as the two enjoyed gossiping and talking shoes-to-die-for (Katie was an almost in-your-face “girlfriend girl”; she had a posse of friends, many from college, with whom she regularly lunched), Katie and Lisa had become close through a serious mission a year ago: raising money for cancer awareness, prevention, treatment, and research.
It was good that Katie was in an easy mood tonight, Lisa thought. All of Katie’s friends were protective of her; they knew that Jay’s death two years earlier had not stopped hurting. Katie and Jay had been having marital problems just before his out-of-the-blue diagnosis, and though the instant perspective that came with his direly advanced illness had swept those problems away, Katie was still almost certainly racked with the regret and guilt that had intensified her grief. Would we have fought if we’ d known this was coming? the healthy survivor in such a situation often thinks.
It was an inconceivable loss. Jay, despite their period of conflict, had been the love of her life and her steady complement and reality test (sometimes her disapproving, behavior-correcting reality test) when fame became disorienting. What’s more, she was now the single parent to two daughters, ages six and two at the time of his death. This was no small thing. Katie had had an uncommonly normal childhood. She was raised in surburan Virginia, the youngest of four children in a happy nuclear family—working dad, stay-at-home mom—that was rare even during the decade, the 1960s, that represented the last moment that template was the norm. She’d always had a smart aleck’s provoking wit, and over the years it could be ascribed to different sources: initially to youngest-kid-in-the-family indulgence and attention lust. Then as she came to understand challenge, first as the only sister not accepted into an elite university, her humor acquired an edge. This sharpened when she began her career in news and found herself in the role of the perennially underestimated striver at one television station after another. Fantastically ambitious—and wily—Katie alone believed in the depths of her seriousness and talent. Her drive and pluck became her way of proving herself, and it carried her to Today, where she would defy all expectations.
When Jay died, everything changed. His death meant that “my first four decades of life”—those ridiculously lucky years!—“seemed to be getting some kind of psychic payback” from the redistributive hand of fate.
Now Katie’s irony—the sting in her appraisals, the woundedness under those barbed jokes—had a deeper resonance. People could call her “perky” all they wanted—she knew she was substantial. She had gone through more tragedy than her sunny persona suggested. In a sense, Katie had a secret self: Let them think her breezy and trivial; the more she went through, the less the clueless stereotypers could touch her.
Not that Katie had time—or cause—for bitterness in the spring of
2000. She was too busy being a single mother; an aggressive, consummate professional on her seven to nine a.m. show; and a passionate cancer activist. And she knew that her lot as a widow with children was enormously eased by the outsized resources she commanded.
Not only did Katie have money and public respect to help her through this period, she had family—close family. During the months of Jay’s deepening illness, a particular source of help was her ten-year-older sister, Emily. Katie had always felt about Emily the way any youngest, irrepressible, mischievous sister feels about her oldest, most sensible, and empathic one: She idolized Emily, measured herself against Emily (sometimes insecurely), and she relied on her.
Emily’s and Katie’s paths had developed increasingly satisfying symmetries. While Emily became a journalist specializing in legal issues, Katie was a University of Virginia student in the midseventies, trying out that same profession by writing for the college newspaper. When Emily published her first book, The Trial Lawyers, in 1988, Katie was doing her own breakthrough investigative story at a Miami TV station: sleeping on the street as a homeless woman. Then, the same year—1991—that Katie started at Today, Emily was elected to the Virginia state senate. Oldest and youngest sister were mutually proud of each other, and the legislation Emily sponsored—she was a fierce advocate for heightened educational standards and for specialized medical research and treatment—addressed issues that Katie was passionate about in her coverage. Whenever Emily got up to New York, Katie and Emily could be seen strolling around Katie’s neighborhood, arm in arm, with “smiles on their faces, listening intently to each other,” as Katie’s NBC colleague Barbara Harrison observed.
But it was when Jay got sick—so rapidly and suddenly—that Katie leaned on Emily the hardest. Not only did Katie call Emily and Emily’s second husband, cardiologist George Beller, frequently for medical advice, comfort, and support, but Emily wasted no time introducing and pushing through legislation making Virginia the first state in the nation to require insurance carriers to cover screening for colorectal cancer.
The most exciting family news had come half a year ago: Emily called to tell Katie that the Virginia Democratic Party had tapped her to be their nominee for lieutenant governor. Katie was ecstatic. There was even talk that Emily Couric could, after her probable term of lieutenant governor was over, run to become the state’s first female governor.
Just as the makeup artist was finishing Katie’s touch-up in The Tonight Show greenroom, Katie’s cell phone sounded.
Lisa looked at the number displayed and saw that it was Katie’s sister Emily.
Katie put the phone to her ear. It was clear pretty quickly that this was no ordinary call. “Katie stood up,” Lisa recalls. “She was silent, as if her breath was taken away. She started shaking her head.” She looked grave and incredulous.
After Katie snapped closed her cell phone, Lisa asked, “What happened?”
Katie took a breath and said, “Emily was just diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.”
Pancreatic cancer is one of the most insidious forms of the disease. Two years after Jay, it was almost too much to believe this could be happening, again, to a person she loved.
Katie said, “I can’t believe this.” She and Lisa were both stunned.
Katie gathered what were surely her careening thoughts—shock, heartsickness, disbelief, anger—as the countdown to her appearance on The Tonight Show stage began. Then, about ten minutes after hearing the news from Emily, she walked onto the stage. That night and in the ensuing months and years—during which Emily died and Katie’s brother Johnny’s wife died and both of Lisa’s parents died, one by one by one by one—“Katie and I cried a lot. We cry a lot about all the cancers,” Lisa says.
These traumas would not merely deepen her as an interviewer, espesteeling her from the intense criticism that would come not long afterward when, in September 2006, she became the first solo female anchor of a six thirty p.m. network newscast. Her appointment had been an experiment on the part of CBS, part of a large-scale reimagining of the evening news and what it could be. Although marked by highs such as the presidential game-changing interview with Sarah Palin, the experience of anchoring the CBS Evening News, from 2006 to 2011, was an infelicitous whirlwind for Katie, and it ended in what has been called a “mutual decision” for her to leave CBS. Katie was sensitive to the criticism she elicited. “I feel like a human piñata, but . . . no candy is going to spill out,” she quipped, while the media had a field day over her plummeting, then recovering, then static approval index. “This may not be a lot of fun, but it goes with the territory, unfortunately, of being successful and female,” she said. Having lost the anchorship, she skipped gamely over to a new format—Daytime—and another highly compensated and anticipated new show. The result, in 2013: another failure.
Katie is nothing if not resilient, and her weatheredness shows in her interview style: probing and compassionate, but also vigilant, dukes up, ever wry. She has warned people, “Before you gag at the absolute adorableness of it all”—her happy family-of-origin story—they should know: There was payback. She has said: “To paraphrase that L’Oreal commercial, ‘Don’t hate me because I’m happy.’ Trust me. I’ve been to the other side.”
She has transformed her heartbreak into activism. Katie Couric’s work on the front lines of the colon cancer war is virtually unmatched by any other public figure. Just as there was an Amanpour Factor, there was a Couric Effect, a scientifically quantified rise in lifesaving colonoscopies because of her campaign to acquaint viewers with and demystify the procedure. And through her intensive work through five organizations and fund-raising and research projects that she established or joined and energized and remains closely involved in, she has made a $320 million impact. “This”—cancer fighting—“is the most important thing she does,” says Kathleen Lobb, her old UVA friend and now the senior vice president of Stand Up to Cancer, which Katie and Lisa Paulsen launched as an Entertainment Industry Foundation initiative. “Even if you’re not thick-skinned, when you’ve been through experiences like she has, you have a pretty good ability to see through to what’s really important.” On a recent anniversary of Jay’s death, at a fund-raiser, Katie said words to the effect of, “When my obituary is written—and I hope it won’t be for a very long time—I would want it to be said that I helped in the fight against cancer.” Kathleen remembers, “She always says that, outside of raising her daughters, fighting cancer is her most important accomplishment.”
Katie Couric is the ultimate trooper. You don’t become the master of live, upbeat TV and not know how to deliver, even under duress, even under shock, even under sadness. Toward the end of her tenure at Today, the crew used to marvel, half admiringly, half with annoyance, at how late—how dangerously near seven a.m.—she would stride into the studio and still make it onto the couch with none of the viewers having any idea how close she’d cut it. She was that good at the form of live and upbeat, enough so that she could be cheeky and take shortcuts.
But as well as being that good at the form of it, she was also that good at the responsibility of it, and this involved discipline. No matter what personal news was thrown in your face moments before a slotted, unchangeable appearance on a major live broadcast, you could not not show up and you could not be off-tone. After Katie got that call from Emily that night in the Tonight Show greenroom, she pulled herself together, and none of Jay Leno’s viewers had any idea of the profoundly worrisome news she’d just heard from her sister.
It was after she left the stage that she broke down. And after she broke down, she got to work to help Emily, just as she had helped Jay. Her energy—her need to prove herself, her desire to get ahead—had seemed disconcerting, and even excessive, to some who had watched Katie’s climb to the top. But now those traits were useful and helpful and a marker of resilience: the same kind of resilience that had made Katie Couric, against dismissive predictions, a major TV news star.
Diane Sawyer, Christiane Amanpour, and Katie Couric have succeeded as television news broadcasters as no other women have. They have each brought a unique persona to their broadcasts—Sawyer: circumspection, elegance, and personal restraint; Amanpour: an outsider’s muckraking zeal, a fearlessness, and a passionate commitment to help America understand international pain; Couric: an everywoman’s touch, a sly wit, an appealing relish for besting those who would dismiss her, and a willingness to experiment and throw out old models. They have each wielded a fierce—and necessary—ambition and a faith in herself that was able to conquer adversity and defy expectations. In the wake of tragedy, Diane would transform herself from a mannered daughter of the South into a hard-nosed, singularly driven newswoman, her forty-five-year-long career spanning every form of TV news, from beat reporting, to groundbreaking TV newsmagazine work at Primetime and 60 Minutes, to high-stakes Morning, to her current position as the sole female anchor in the prized six-thirty evening news chair. As for Christiane, she felled the conventional wisdom that her appearance, accent, affect, and national origin would keep her from getting on American television, and she persevered to bravely bring heart and soul to the world’s most devastating crises, becoming her era’s best-known and most respected TV foreign correspondent. Katie used her disarming girl-next-door relatability and her ferocious single-mindedness to reach unequalled success (and achieve new gender parity) in Morning, only to exit her cushiony position to become the seemingly odd choice as the first major-network solo female news anchor—and the one who also dared to try to change that format’s ossified paradigm.
The three women are united by their strength of character, which they honed during these respective episodes: a father’s shocking death, a threat to one’s own life, a second loved one’s serious cancer. Their resilience—and their practiced comprehension of the limits of safety— resonated when they became the News Sorority: the rare women, in a field that is overwhelmingly male, who would tell the world’s stories.
Collectively, these women have been our guides and our proxy witnesses to just about every tragedy, scandal, war, controversial personality of good or ill, election, crisis, major social or cultural trend, titillating celebrity dustup, headline-generating act of everyday heroism, or egregious practice of inequity and oppression that has transpired over the last three or more decades. Because they have entered our lives so consistently, for so many years and so intimately—looking us in the eye through screens in our living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms, sometimes during times of national pain and terror, when we are most vulnerably in need of information—we feel that we know them. But do we? Do we know what it took for them to climb, against a pushback that prevails to this day, to that peculiarly thin perch as a narrator of our world who also happens to be female?
Diane, Katie, and Christiane have shed great light on many other people’s stories.
Here are their own stories, from the beginning.