Rise of the NewsMommies

So why didn’t CBS choose a woman like Nina Totenberg, Lesley Stahl, Christiane Amanpour as its evening news anchor? They’re too threatening.
But not Katie Couric. Columnist Valerie Takahama hypothesizes that Couric was picked not because she’s an outstanding journalist, but precisely because she isn’t. Or at least she isn’t perceived that way. Apparently we Americans want to hear our news from a perky NewsMommy, not Tom Brokaw with lipstick and a wig.

Pamela Ezell, an assistant professor of English at Chapman University and a television producer, points to Couric’s personal tragedy and the sense that she rose to the challenges of coping and recovery as central to her popularity.
“She’s had the ability to weather that storm publicly. That gives us the sense, oh, we can trust her,” Ezell says. “She seems very warm, and there’s also this assurance that her kids came first.”

Nevermind that she’s interviewed world leaders like Kofi Annan, Tony Blair and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah.

…most viewers also see Couric as Katie, the mother of two young girls, the widow of a man who died at a premature age from colon cancer, [...] and a tabloid favorite who’s been spotted out and about with a TV producer, a pop jazz trumpeter and others.

But what if that’s a good thing? Should we be happy that Couric doesn’t have to downplay her role as a mother in order to get ahead in her career?

“With Barbara Walters, you didn’t even know if she had children. … When these guys [Brokaw, Jennings, et al.] were coming up, you didn’t talk about your families,” [Kate O'Brian, director of ABC News in Seattle] said. (Walters [...] has one daughter.)

It’s problematic, though, when a woman’s role as wife/mother becomes such a huge part of her professional life and public persona that she commands less respect as a journalist. It’s not just Couric who’s been criticized for “lacking gravitas.” Her fellow NewsMommies Meredith Vieira and Elizabeth Vargas have taken similar hits.
Outgoing CBS anchor Bob Schieffer said it all when he described Couric as “a wonderful person and wonderful mother who will be nurturing of our correspondents.”
Not so much a “wonderful journalist who will challenge and improve our correspondents.”

Join the Conversation

  • David Thompson

    Pamela Ezell, an assistant professor of English at Chapman University and a television producer, points to Couric’s personal tragedy and the sense that she rose to the challenges of coping and recovery as central to her popularity.
    Personal tragedy?? Her sister died, but I don’t know that I would describe it that way. My complaint about hiring Couric is that CBS didn’t promote from within. They have enough women on hand that they could have found somebody without taking the ‘hired gun’ approach.

  • http://dilan.blogspot.com Dilan Esper

    Couric’s taking way to big a hit from people who are claiming she isn’t a good newscaster.
    I remember her interviewing Ross Perot when that guy was a phenomenon in 1992. She was prepared and asked him tough questions– he had been going on Larry King before that and he asked him nothing but softballs.
    I think people are ASSUMING because Couric also does a lot of crap on the Today Show– which she does, because that’s part of the job– that when she interviews a news figure, she doesn’t take it seriously or talks about being a mommy or baking cookies rather than asking probing questions. She’s actually quite good and quite qualified for the job that she has been hired for.

  • Ann

    I agree that Couric is capable of the job she’s been hired for. But it’s interesting to look at a few other qualified women and think about why they weren’t picked.
    And David, the personal tragedy I think Ezell was referring to is the death of Couric’s husband.

  • The Happy Feminist

    It is weird that the only names I ever floated for the anchor position were Couric and Viera, when they both have kind of fluffy personae and there are so many newswomen out there with a more hard-hitting image.

  • Heather

    How about we start talking about men’s roles as fathers as much as we do women’s roles as mothers. Instead of trying to focus on persons as their jobs only, which has been the male normative; How about talking about whole people, men and women. Absolutely there are problems in the way that we focus solely on women’s private/family lives in our media figure heads, but women are more than their jobs and so are men. Let’s bring men as whole persons into focus as well…its like the female only train cars–let’s make men accountable and part of the analysis as well as women.

  • prairielily

    I agree! Why is there so much research showing the importance of fatherhood in childhood development, and so little emphasis on its importance in society? It’s deeply shameful to be considered a bad mother. It should be just as deeply shameful to be considered a bad father.

  • tony

    prairielily, that would create a huge crisis in this country.
    Just consider how many children are growing up today without their fathers. In the balance of fatherhood and motherhood, fatherhood is clearly not just “bad” or irresponsible, but wholly absent for millions of cases. Raising children is still seen as a ‘womens’ responsibility’. The moment we begin demanding as much from fathers as from mothers, we would be asking for a cultural and social revolution from how things are today. I don’t think many people would be happy to hear that kind of message at all.

  • http://happyfeminist.typepad.com/happyfeminist/ The Happy Feminist

    Oops. My comment should have said that Couric and Viera were the only names I ever HEARD floated for the anchor position, not the only names I ever floated.

  • prairielily

    Oh, I’d say being absent is pretty much as “bad” as you can get. A lot of people weren’t happy to hear the feminist message… it still needed to be done.

  • http://civilliberty.about.com Tom H

    hedonistic: Quick, tell me about Dan Rather’s family life. Or maybe Tom Brokaw’s? Or maybe Walter Cronkite’s?
    Katie Couric’s is everywhere. And it’s being promoted as a major selling point for her as an anchor.

  • http://www.newsmommy.com hipster

    Katie’s husband dying of the big casino isn’t a tragedy, it’s just another death from cancer. Tragedy is on a far grander scale.
    That being said, it is her celebrity star power and credibility with a strong demographic that lead CBS to choose her. I think she’ll do a superb job because she is a serious person, and her gravitas will ramp up as the fluff quotient goes down. I predict, though, that CBS WILL inject a little more newsmagazine touches stylistically. Watch for Katie’s legs – we never saw Cronkite’s legs, we never saw Bob Schieffer’s legs, but you can bet your bottom dollar they’ll manage to get Katie’s legs on the news. It’s a sad fact of life in the media that women’s parts are commoditized, but I don’t see it changing anytime soon.