America's most bitchin' broadcaster

At the start of this decade, Connie Chung was the hottest item on network news; then several public missteps caused her popularity to fall into the chill zone.

By Jenn Shreve
July 10, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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In January 1995, the Republicans were in full gloat mode after reclaiming the House and Senate. You couldn't turn on the TV or listen to the radio without hearing the voice of a jubilant, promise-wielding House speaker named Newt Gingrich. And Newt's 68-year-old mother, Kathleen Gingrich, had just been persuaded to call the first lady a "bitch" on national television. Chances are, she thought of using that choice word again: to describe the journalist who tricked her into saying it the first time, Connie Chung.

Times were tough for three-time Emmy award-winning Chung in 1995. Her weekly magazine show, "Eye to Eye With Connie Chung," wasn't catching the eyes of Nielsen family members. Although she was the second woman in 17 years to co-anchor an evening news program (Barbara Walters was the first), "The CBS Evening News With Connie Chung and Dan Rather" was in last place behind ABC and NBC. To make matters worse, things were tense between her and Rather: He'd been patronizingly advising her on ways to sharpen her journalism skills. After a publicly announced effort to conceive a child with her husband, Maury Povich, they'd turned to adoption instead. And then came the b-word incident.

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Poor Kathleen Gingrich. She was just doing a little PR flack work for her son. How was she to know this wasn't going to be a sympathetic, soft-soap interview? Chung arrived at her house, where the two women chatted for a couple of hours, as the cameras and lights faded into the wallpaper. With Gingrich relaxed and at ease, Chung pulled a move that any seasoned politician would have blown off with a laugh that meant, you wish. Chung leaned in close and asked what Newt Gingrich thought of Hillary Clinton. Kathleen Gingrich resisted at first, but Chung kept at her: "Why don't you just whisper it to me, just between you and me."

"Bitch!"

Ratings-starved CBS played up the b-word incident big-time. I know I canceled my evening plans after reading about the faux pas in the morning papers. But when public opinion of the interview soured, the struggling network directed all blame at Chung. Five months later, on May 18, she was hoisted from her anchor chair and "With Connie Chung" was hacked off the end of "Eye to Eye." The sassy journalist who'd ruled network news just a few years before seemed to disappear from the face of the planet, or at least from the TV screen.

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Perhaps it's appropriate that the word "bitch" would spell the end of Chung's career on CBS. Compared to debutante ice queens Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer and chipper everywomen like Katie Couric, Connie Chung was the bitch -- in the uncompromising, afraid of nothing sense -- of TV news journalism. She pursued stories with unsuppressed eagerness. Once a person agreed to be interviewed by her, he or she could rest assured the interrogation would not be easy. Chung didn't simply read questions from a neatly typed cue card and nod in sympathetic rhythm to her subject's answers; she free-styled. If an interviewee was avoiding the question, Chung would keep asking until she got her answer or her subject broke down.

Chung worked in a environment less restrictive than today's,
when TV interviewers are forced to get a publicist's approval of the questions they ask. And she didn't seem to mind making enemies in high places -- live on the air, if that's what it took to get the whole story.

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While interviewing Bill Gates for "Eye to Eye" in 1994, Chung presciently likened Gates' business tactics to knife-fighting, a comparison she picked up from a Microsoft competitor. "A lot of people make the analogy that competing with Bill Gates is like playing hardball," she said. "I'd say it's more like a knife fight." The usually polite Microsoft chairman tore off his mike and stormed off the set. Likewise, she gave Tonya Harding a taste of what it was like to be bullied in her interview with the Olympic skater whose ex-husband ordered a hit on competitor Nancy Kerrigan's kneecaps. And on the scene after the bombing in Oklahoma City, she didn't simply bemoan the loss of life; she asked rough questions of the city's fire chief, prompting outrage from viewers and residents.

Were Chung's methods polite? Did she practice the detached objectivity preached at high-falutin' journalism schools nationwide? No. Chung knew her primary job was not to entertain, impress or delight -- though she did all three in the course of her work -- but to get the story and present it to her viewers. Period. She wasn't always right, but she was good. And for a time, she was celebrated both in the ratings and by her peers.

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Of course, if it weren't for the kind of perseverance and doggedness that marked her network interviews and newscasts, you might never have heard of Connie Chung.

Chung is the daughter of Chinese immigrants who came to Washington in 1945. Her father worked two jobs to support his five children while her mother stayed home to raise them. In a 1993 interview with Ladies' Home Journal, Chung attributed her ambition to the fact that her parents had no sons. "As the youngest, I wanted to be my father's son and perpetuate the family name," she said. What better way to do that than to break into a male-dominated field like TV journalism?

After receiving a degree in journalism from the University of Maryland in 1969, Chung went to work writing copy for WTTG-TV in her hometown of Washington. She quickly ascended the ladder to news writer, then news reporter. She was snatched up by CBS News in 1971, where she was a national correspondent. In 1976, she headed to Los Angeles to anchor at CBS-affiliate KNXT-TV. She joined NBC in 1983, reporting from political conventions and anchoring several prime-time specials and newsmagazines. In 1989, she returned to CBS to do her own show, "Saturday Night With Connie Chung."

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Chung became famous as a journalist, but her celebrity -- not to mention her abrasive reporting style -- made her own life and career moves fodder for the tabloids. Never one to employ restraint on the air, Chung wasn't timid about fueling public interest in her personal life -- whether in interviews or during her many appearances on David Letterman's show. No incident illustrates this better than her 1990 announcement that she was curtailing her 12-hour daily work schedule so she and Povich could work on having a child. "I now need to take a very aggressive approach to having a baby," she stated in a press release. Chung cancelled "Face to Face," which was highly successful; she'd recently conducted exclusive interviews with Joseph Hazelwood, captain of the Exxon Valdez, and Magic Johnson after his announcement that he was HIV-positive. She admitted publicly her regret for putting her career before child-bearing. The media went nuts. People magazine put her on its cover. Her infertility became an ongoing joke with late-night hosts.

Although it was the absurdity of issuing a press release to announce that she was going to try hard to procreate that amused TV audiences and tabloid readers, to feminists, there was nothing funny about Chung's decision. She was a pioneer from the first wave of feminism, a Chinese-American woman who'd proven herself equal to men in the workplace. "On the private level, of course, everybody wishes Chung well," wrote Gail Collins in the December 1990 Working Woman. "On the public level, however, this was not a welcome development. Working women spend their 20s and 30s butting up against 'she'll probably get pregnant on us' employers. They do not need to spend their 40s trying to find a way to assure the board of directors they aren't planning to go home and spend a year monitoring their temperatures."

Chung's tepid comeback in '93 didn't alleviate worries that she'd thrown away her career to raise a family. Her newsmagazine (renamed "Eye to Eye With Connie Chung") foundered, and her presence on "The CBS Evening News" didn't boost its anemic ratings, as had been hoped. When she was fired from the $2 million-a-year post, she made some weak grumblings about gender discrimination. After that, you didn't hear much from Connie Chung.

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A month after her firing, she and Povich adopted a son, Matthew Jay Povich. In 1996, DreamWorks Television announced plans to do a news program led by the couple, but the plans fell through after two years.

On a 1997 fellowship, Chung studied briefly at Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. She produced a 40-page paper on how the hunt for exclusive interviews has changed news programming.

In December 1997, Chung was welcomed back into the network news fold, this time as a correspondent for ABC News -- filing reports for "PrimeTime Live," "20/20" and "Good Morning America." But Chung was no longer the star. Choice jobs were given to Sawyer and Walters. Chung was working, but on the condition that she be a side dish, never the main meal.

Also, during her absence from the airwaves, the news industry had changed drastically. The number of network and cable news providers and shows had proliferated wildly, while standards had been lowered to meet the demand for immediacy placed upon TV newsmakers by the growing popularity of the Internet. A tabloid sensibility dominated news media more than ever, fueled by the O.J. Simpson trial and leading up to the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Intense competition for interviews created a booming industry for publicists -- more layers for journalists to penetrate before getting to their story.

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"I was away from television for almost two and a half years," Chung told Washington Magazine in March 1999. "When I came back, I found the competition much worse. Before, the arena was pretty much limited to big-name 'gets.' Now it's spread to the kind of stories you find on the back pages of a newspaper. Just about any story we think about doing, whether we've read it in a newspaper, heard it on the radio or come upon it through word of mouth -- by the time you get there, every other network, cable station and talk show is already racing to the scene."

Yet Chung hasn't lost her spark. In October 1998, when a 26-year-old Shreveport, La., woman was refused an abortion even though she had a life-threatening heart condition and a pregnancy could kill her, Chung bluntly asked on "Good Morning America" whether "the hospital was willing to let her die." The remark caught the attention of the National Abortion Federation, which raised the funds and found a doctor to perform the procedure.

Would Dan Rather have the guts to say something like that?


Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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