By Sally Quinn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 12, 2006
The buzz about Katie Couric has an oddly familiar ring to me. And to Barbara Walters, Connie Chung, Lynn Sherr and Judy Woodruff -- all of us women who have sat in a news anchor chair.
Brian Williams and Charlie Gibson, recent successors to the anchor chairs on NBC and ABC, didn't have anywhere near the same buildup or scrutiny. Nobody mentioned their clothes or hair, and nobody made anything of the fact that Gibson had been on a morning show, but Couric was criticized for not coming from prime-time news. Nobody mentioned the word gravitas. (Couric was accused of not having it.) Nobody made a fuss about Williams and Gibson's salaries, but much was made of Couric's $15 million.
Walters, who is writing her memoirs and has been reliving her TV news days, remembers that when she left NBC in 1976 for the co-anchor evening news job at ABC, she was offered half a million dollars for the anchor job and half a million for four specials a year. She was roundly criticized for making so much money. "I was vilified," said Walters.
At a time of turmoil in the Middle East, she landed interviews with Anwar Sadat and Golda Meir. It was a big coup. "I was killed for it," she said. People asked, "Why is she doing interviews on the evening news?"
Woodruff, who anchored the news on CNN with Bernard Shaw, recalls interviewing the mayor of Atlanta when she was a local anchor there, only to be told her skirt was too short.
"It hasn't changed that much," says Woodruff. "It does represent society to some degree. You try to take on the serious professional news and you're still female. And you can't look too good. When I was in Atlanta they told me to cut my hair. And I did. It comes with the turf. You know you will be judged by your appearance if you're a woman. I've lived it so long it's funny. But if you don't like to worry about hair and makeup and clothes, you should go into radio or print. "
One week ago today, Couric debuted with much ado as the first solo female anchor of a network evening news broadcast. Thirty-three years ago I became the country's first network anchorwoman, co-anchoring the "CBS Morning News" with Hughes Rudd. I was hired to "knock Barbara Walters off the air." Ha! (At the time, Walters was the "hostess" of the "Today" show. She and her co-host, Frank McGee, did not read the news and therefore were not considered anchors.)
Couric's publicity machine has drawn much attention. On a smaller scale, I had the same experience. My picture was on the covers of magazines, on the sides of buses, there were profiles of me in every paper, I did a promo tour around the country with Hughes, I was wildly overpromoted.
In a book I wrote later, "We're Going to Make You a Star," I recounted a conversation I had with Warren Beatty. I had visited with him on my promotional tour and he warned me that the overpromotion had set me up for failure, that people would be gunning for me. Just then there was a knock on the door. It was Paul Simon, the singer. "This is my friend Sally Quinn," said Warren, "Yeccchhhhh," said Simon. Beatty just looked at me and shrugged.
Walters, who nicely survived my brief stint as her competition, noted that when she later joined Harry Reasoner on ABC, "nobody wanted women at night. Harry thought it was demeaning and that women could not do news." She calls her time as anchor "the worst professional experience of my life."
But even then there were bright spots. "I began to get letters from women saying, 'Hang in there; if you can do it, we can do it,' " Walters said. Sometimes support came from unexpected places. Her favorite was a telegram saying "Don't let the bastards get you down." It was signed by John Wayne.
In my day there were very few women on television, and the ones who were there were definitely held to a higher standard. They had to be beautiful and smart and talented and work harder than the men, and even then they weren't really taken seriously.
My first day, believing that I needed to look serious instead of sexy (I had been portrayed as a vixen and a tease in a New York magazine cover story), I curled my hair to make it look really short, wore hardly any makeup, put on granny glasses and a yellow safari jacket. I looked hideous. I thought that might help. It didn't.
Not only that, I didn't know that the red light meant that the camera was on, so I kept looking in the wrong direction. I was killed by the critics. They were right. I was a disaster. I lasted four months.
Couric, of course, is a total professional. She has reigned as one of the most popular and talented TV personalities in history. She has interviewed politicians for years and had no difficulty sitting down with President Bush.
Today there are more women than men anchoring the news around the country, according to a recent survey. People are used to seeing women and have accepted them. That part has changed. Solo anchoring the evening news, however, is the last bastion. And the thing that has changed the most is this: Katie Couric is the managing editor of "The CBS Evening News."
Whether the show succeeds or fails is more her responsibility than it ever has been for any other woman. She has input on how she looks, talks and acts, how she handles herself on the air, what segments to air and in what order. People who are asking how her stylist allows her to wear so much makeup or those sexy shoes or that white jacket need to understand that it's her decision.
And though some have criticized the more feature-oriented format, it may turn out to be a brilliant choice. We won't know for months. If the show fails, it will be seen as her failure. If it succeeds, it should be seen as her success.
Katie Couric has done a brave thing. She hasn't just stepped into a man's shoes. She's wearing her own. Is she ever!
Her predecessors are rooting for her.
"I felt proud of her," said Walters. "I thought she was charming, relaxed and professional." The managing editor title, she added, "is a big thing."
Said Woodruff: "She's off to a great start. I just hope the critics will apply the exact same standards to her and ask the same questions they do to Brian Williams and Charlie Gibson. "
Connie Chung, who anchored "The CBS Evening News" with Dan Rather from 1993 to 1995, said with frustration, "People are still asking if she's got the right stuff. She was on the morning show for 15 years. She's a good reporter, a good interviewer, she knows what she is doing. You don't hear the word 'gravitas' used about men. With them, it's a given."
ABC's Lynn Sherr, the first woman to anchor a regularly scheduled prime-time network series ("USA: People and Politics," on PBS), thinks the stakes are "much, much higher" today than in the past, when anchors were just trying to do the best reporting and to lead the news division. "Now it's about saving the news divisions, marginalized by cable and the Internet and our little iPods." Sherr, who just wrote a memoir called "Outside the Box," thinks "a woman's got as good a chance as a man to do that."
The interesting thing here is this: Not one of the women quoted above is still an anchor. Will Couric make it? Can she?