Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Q&A with Sheila Weller

Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and how did you select these three women as the subjects? 

A: My previous book, about three singer-songwriters, was a big hit. My first thought was that I didn’t want to do [a similar format] but then I thought, Why not! I’ve been in journalism for a long time and have been aware of how women in journalism in general—my field is print—how the feminist movement…changed the actual idea of what news is. That’s the idea I ran with.

Then I wanted three women. Katie [Couric] and Diane [Sawyer] were obvious. Barbara [Walters] had done her own book…it was hard to find the third. My husband, who concentrates on international events, [suggested] Christiane Amanpour. It made total sense.

They are all totally iconic—if you see a picture, you know who they are. Their brands are different, but they leap out at us. They’re big deals. They’re real journalists, but huge personalities. 

Q: You’ve mentioned that things changed for women in TV news since the time these three women started. What impact did they have on those changes? 

A: My thesis changed from how women changed news, to these are the three most determined women I’ve ever seen. Did they change it? They benefited from the changes, and pushed the changes. They had to go up against the sexism that exists…they pushed up against conventions.

They also [went] further. When Katie went to Today, Jane Pauley had been very much accepted in the second position, of being the woman there, [although] she was easily as popular as Bryant Gumbel. When Katie came in…she is tough and confident and determined, and she said you’re not going to just give me fluffy stories. That’s just one example.

They benefited from Barbara taking the slings and arrows. They benefited from the mandate in 1971…that [the networks] had to hire women—but they each pushed it farther. It’s amazing that until 2006 there was no female anchor…

With two of three anchors, the feeling of the news changed. If you are one of the people [who watches], having a woman give it to you changes [the dynamic]…I missed it when they were gone…. 

Q: You write that you were unable to interview the three main subjects of the book. How might the book have been different if you had been able to talk to them? 

A: So many people bring that up, I probably should have tried harder. The truth is, publicists at the networks have very little interest in giving authors access to the stars. Certain people—Walter Isaacson, Douglas Brinkley, Ken Auletta—can. But [the publicists] are interested in putting [the anchors] on the covers of magazines so they can get good ratings…and these stories are almost uniformly positive…. 

Q: This is your second book featuring three women. Are you planning to continue with that format? 

A: I just got an e-mail from my agent—it may be another woman book, but maybe not just three but more collective. 

Q: Why do you like that format of three women? 

A: The first time, when I conceived the Girls Like Us idea, only my sister thought it was a good idea. I don’t think there were too many books with three, where you spend a block of time with one, then the other, then the other. It just worked. Even while I was writing it, I wasn’t sure [it would].

I have noticed [more] books now, with three women, two women, two different people…it’s kind of a recognized format now. 

Q: Anything else we should know? 

A: Sometimes people ask me what the most surprising thing I learned was—it was that Christiane Amanpour had a Liza Minnelli scrapbook.

I really admire them. I discovered how hard that business is. Hats off to those women who can survive in it.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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