The Cruella syndrome

She's too rich! She's a boss from hell! She had a brow lift! Katie Couric, NBC's perky princess, is suddenly getting the media's queen-of-mean treatment. What's our problem with powerful women?

By Rebecca Traister
Published March 18, 2004 9:12PM (EST)

Halfway through her "Dateline NBC" interview with "Jersey Girl" star Ben Affleck on Friday night, Katie Couric asked the actor about the inescapable press attention his now-defunct relationship with Jennifer Lopez garnered.

"[Jen] was treated unfairly by the press," said Affleck. "Oftentimes people tended to see the worst in her and really, she's a kind, decent, good woman who's done nothing but work really hard. For some reason she's resented or viewed as this diva or something ..." Here Couric chimed in, with a tight, knowing smile: "Well, I think that still happens with strong women."

She should know.

In February, Women's Wear Daily reported that Couric, the 47-year-old host of NBC's "Today Show" and the highest-paid journalist on television, was scheduled to undergo a plastic surgery procedure called an Endotine brow lift, a story she denied on "Larry King Live." The New York Times, Newsweek and the New York Post have all carried reports on former Ladies' Home Journal editor Myrna Blyth's new book, "Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness and Liberalism to the Women of America," in which she argues that Couric "wants us to believe she's just like us," but gets $550 haircuts and employs a trainer who charges $7,500 a week. A Feb. 23 issue of industry publication Broadcasting & Cable reported that "Today," which has led morning ratings for more than eight years, is losing ground to ABC's "Good Morning America" and that "some inside the network say Katie Couric is leading the charge" to have "Today" executive producer Tom Touchet canned. The piece reminds readers that "the $13-million-a-year superdiva was widely viewed as orchestrating" the 2002 dismissal of former "Today" boss Jonathan Wald. And the March 22 cover of the Globe tabloid bears a sour picture of Couric's puss next to the headline "Katie Couric: TV's Queen of Mean! Stabs Matt Lauer in Back. Throws Temper Tantrums on Set. Makes Own Staff Cry."

The Queen of Mean. You may have heard the epithet, coined for hotel magnate Leona Helmsley, recently applied to two of Couric's television sisters, Rosie O'Donnell and Martha Stewart. O'Donnell and Stewart got rich and powerful by plying womanly arts: O'Donnell gushed over Tickle Me Elmo dolls and published a book called "Kids are Punny," while Stewart made quiches and reupholstered her own toilet seat covers. But as they became wealthier, it turned out that both women were ambitious, political, hot-tempered, occasionally potty-mouthed, and unbecomingly concerned with their own finances. O'Donnell, who has since come out as a lesbian and married her girlfriend, has paid in bad press and a civil suit over the demise of her magazine. Stewart is going to jail, and on Monday quit the empire she built.

Couric is not, so far as we know, a lesbian, nor has she ever been tried for white-collar crime. She is a reporter from Virginia who has earned her professional stripes in tough interviews with George Bush Sr. and Bob Dole, while also capably kibbitzing about products like Kinara Nighttime Skin Quencher with unnerving "'Today' style maven" Steven Cojocaru. Mother to two girls, Couric lost her husband, television legal analyst Jay Monahan, to colon cancer in 1998. Accessible, bright, reassuring, and yes, perky, Couric has become so valuable to her network that in 2002 she became the highest-paid journalist -- ever -- by signing a four-and-a-half-year contract reportedly worth $64 million.

For years, journalists have tread on cat's paws around Couric's Big Money Deal and the issues it raised about journalism vs. celebrity, observing a grace period following Monahan's death. But "Today" and its host are finding themselves under sudden scrutiny. With an average of 6.3 million viewers, it still leads "Good Morning America" by about 1.3 million viewers daily and is a network cash cow, generating a reported $497 million annually. But February "sweeps" ratings show "GMA" beating "Today" in six of the top 10 markets, including New York and Los Angeles. The scent of blood has overcome the respectful media: Unable to resist, they have ripped off their widow's weeds and are cheerfully pumping Couric full of lead.

"She's being treated in the same way a well-paid athlete would be treated, or a big movie star," said Andrew Tyndall, publisher of the Tyndall Report, which monitors television network news. "When she got that raise, she crossed the line from journalist to personality. The treatment she's getting now has nothing to do with her ability as a journalist but with her value as a journalist. Part of being in that income bracket is that people gossip about you."

And try being in that income bracket and having breasts. "When a woman makes the kind of money Katie Couric is making, she's going to be hit with a tomato anytime she steps out," said columnist Liz Smith, who is also targeted in Blyth's "Spin Sisters." Smith stressed that she is not a personal friend of Couric's, but she has long been familiar with the peculiar nexus where journalism, gender and celebrity convene. As for some of the tomatoes that have been thrown Couric's way of late, Smith, a veteran purveyor of the printed whisper, laughed and said, "There are a couple of fair-game subjects and plastic surgery is a big one. No matter how much the subject denies it, usually they do look pretty good!"

Couric denied on "Larry King Live" that she was ever scheduled to have the Endotine brow lift, in which biodegradable hooks are inserted to raise sagging skin, claiming that if she ever did decide to undergo cosmetic surgery, she'd do it on television. (This is a woman who broadcast her own colonoscopy as part of her campaign to raise awareness of colorectal cancer after Monahan's death.) On "Larry King," Couric also blasted the reporter on the brow-lift story, WWD's Greg Lindsay, for irresponsible reporting. A spokeswoman for WWD said, "We still stand by the story but have no further comment."

Couric does look great: a whole lot better than when she started on "Today" in 1990 at age 33. Back then she looked like a high-octane, rabbity gymnast; with her gummy grin and lesbian-soccer-mom haircut, she could have been airlifted straight out of the bulk paper goods aisle at Wal-Mart. America ate it up, and "Today's" ratings were lifted out of the karmic malaise that followed its 1989 ousting of beloved but long-in-the-tooth 39-year-old anchor Jane Pauley. With Couric, the show got its smart, femme-y mojo back, and Couric became better known and made more money. She also found herself single again in her mid-40s. And perhaps like at least some of her female viewers -- the ones who get richer and more confident, and go back on the market as they age -- Couric's look began to morph. As generously put it during her 2001 contract negotiations, she was looking "less wholesome ... [more] glamorous, sophisticated [with] sometimes even vampy hair, makeup and clothes." Most women don't employ trainers to keep their bodies taut and most do not get back on the dating horse with men like television producer (and Boston Red Sox co-owner) Tom Werner. But it was Couric's astounding ordinariness that fueled her success, and afforded her such extraordinary opportunities for aesthetic self-improvement.

It's important to remember that for female television personalities, personal maintenance is not simply a luxury. In November, the New York Times ran a piece about Campbell Brown, the 35-year-old tattooed "Weekend Today" co-anchor, that bore the headline "A Potential Contender in a Post-Couric Derby." It's not that Couric should fear ouster; she has publicly grumbled about the early hours, and NBC pays through the nose to keep her where she is. But the day that she does go is the day that her power is diminished, so as long as she's living by the alarm, Couric will probably keep dying on the treadmill monitored by High Voltage, the $7,500-a-week trainer at the center of Myrna Blyth's shot at Couric.

By phone, Blyth said that the press's emphasis on Voltage is a misrepresentation of her complaints about Couric (who claims she doesn't pay the reported $7,500). Blyth's real beef is that Couric uses her powerful pulpit to infuse her liberal politics into her broadcasts. "Since she is one of the most admired women in America, who happens to be marketed as your most sophisticated girlfriend," said Blyth, "she telegraphs her opinions to the women of America."

According to Blyth, Couric "is always approving of Hillary [Clinton]," she chooses to interview left-leaners like "Vagina Monologues" author Eve Ensler and Million Mom March founder Donna Dees-Thomases, while tangling on-air with Republicans like pundit Ann Coulter. Coulter and Couric engaged in a 12-minute hair-pull in 2001, when Coulter appeared on "Today" to promote her book "Slander," in which she accused Couric of being "the affable Eva Braun of morning television." When asked by e-mail why she thinks Couric has the influence she does, Coulter responded, "My old beagle would be an influential figure if he were given a morning TV show with millions of viewers. The difference is, he would use his position for good. He was a noble dog."

There is no better testament to Couric's perceived nobility or influence than the success of her campaign against colorectal cancer. On April 24, she will co-host the second "Hollywood Hits Broadway" fundraiser for the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance, which she co-founded in 2000 with fellow cancer widow Lilly Tartikoff (wife of late NBC president Brandon Tartikoff), and the Entertainment Industry Foundation. The first "Hollywood Hits Broadway" fundraiser raked in $5 million. According to press materials, since the founding of the NCCRA, the number of colonoscopy screenings has increased 20 percent, a spike that researchers at the University of Michigan have referred to as "the Couric Effect" -- a response to the televised probing of Couric's bowels in March of 2000. Proceeds from the April benefit will go to the Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health at the New York Weill Cornell Medical Center, scheduled to open this month. Couric, who frequently uses "Today" airtime to talk about issues surrounding colorectal cancer, has said that one of her aims is to demystify the disease, which has a high cure rate if caught early.

"One thing I will say is that given that she's such a target, Katie Couric did a very clever thing by turning the fight against colorectal cancer into something that made her a more sympathetic figure," said Liz Smith. "I'm sure she would have rather had the husband than have had the excuse, but she used that very well and lots of people just adore her for it. You have to admire how she turned a horrible thing into a good image and something that helps people." While Smith's assessment is a compliment, it's a similar suggestion, voiced in Blyth's book, that has Couric and her supporters most distraught. When Larry King asked Couric about Blyth's assertion that her husband's death enhanced Couric's image, the "Today" host responded, "I loved Jay too much and feel too proud of the work I have done and the lives that have been saved to even dignify something that creepy with a comment."

Lisa Paulsen, the president of the Entertainment Industry Foundation with whom Couric co-founded the NCCRA, said of Couric's experiences with grief, "Katie's endured a lot and she manages to rise above so many challenging situations and identify ways she can be personally invested in improving people's lives." Couric's sister, Democratic Virginia state Sen. Emily Couric, succumbed to pancreatic cancer in 2001. "She made the decision to use her voice and her power and her ability to motivate individuals and corporations to generate millions of dollars to advance the science and awareness of this kind of cancer ... I wish I could launch a crusade in support of her," said Paulsen. She said that Queen of Mean stories are "disheartening to [Couric] and disheartening to those of us who work with her and know her." Paulsen described Couric, to whom she speaks weekly, as "brilliant, funny, committed, loyal, passionate, a team player, and generous to a fault," adding that she also happens to be "a smart, tough businesswoman" and that she has "never, ever seen her be disrespectful or dismissive."

That description contradicts the allegations in the Globe, and in Blyth's book, that Couric is referred to as "Katie Dearest" by her staff, that she runs through assistants, and makes "Today" peons cry. Though Couric and other "Today" players declined, through an NBC spokeswoman, to participate in this story, that spokeswoman, Lauren Kapp, passed along the following e-mail from a "Today" producer who she said wished to remain nameless. "What should be reported ... is how giving and nurturing Katie is to the staff of 'Today.' Whether you have a problem at work, a sick relative, a segment idea you want to discuss -- Katie keeps an open door with us and has always been there for staffers. Her hard work, dedication and drive -- that is often looked at as negative by the tabloids -- is a major reason 'Today' has been, is and will continue to be the #1 morning news show."

But all the defense and denial don't answer a couple of valid queries about what role Katie Couric plays in the news business right now. Blyth questioned why Couric, who called Jayson Blair's ethical transgressions "repugnant," declined to comment about "Spin Sisters" to either the New York Times or Newsweek but instead responded on "Larry King Live," where her former roommate and best friend Wendy Whitworth is an executive producer. She wasn't committing journalistic fraud, but Couric's choice was perhaps a bit comfy for a journalist concerned with objectivity. "It was a very controlled environment," said Blyth, who noted that King only asked Couric about the trainer, not about her liberal bias. "Today's" Kapp responded, "That's a ridiculous point. We decided upon learning about this book that it wasn't worth any comment but when asked point-blank in a TV interview it was a different situation. When King raised the trainer issue it was more in conversation than an interview."

But what of the complaints that Couric lodges on her own behalf? Anyone who watches "Today" has heard her strafe charmingly against her role as monkey on an NBC chain in segments like the annual "Today Throws a Wedding," or the de rigueur day-after floggings for NBC reality shows like "The Apprentice" or "Average Joe." In a January interview with actor Ashton Kutcher, Couric actually said, "So I have to ask you about Demi Moore. How's that going? What's going on with that? Any plans to get married -- blah blah blah?" She recently confessed to CNN that if she had her druthers she'd be talking to more world leaders than movie stars. "But the climate is such that there's so much emphasis on ratings, that that's hard to do," she said. "When there is so much emphasis on ratings, it's hard for true journalism to survive."

Except that this true journalist is the most powerful person in her field. Her former researcher Jeff Zucker shot through the ranks, becoming "Today" executive producer and now NBC boss: It's not a stretch to say that she has the man on speed dial. If she'd really like to throw fastballs at deposed Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide instead of lobbing sycophantic air balls at "Jersey Girl" star Ben Affleck, she could probably work something out. But she doesn't. She sits, as she did on Friday night, a prisoner of her own power, who, rather than lose the Affleck interview to Diane Sawyer, literally rolled her eyes on camera before asking the actor to complete phrases that began "Celebrity is ..." And "My ideal woman is ..."

"She could have gone the Oprah route if she'd wanted to," said Tyndall, referring to the 2001 negotiations in which Couric was approached about doing a syndicated talk show. "One of the reasons she didn't is because then there would have been no way that she'd get to interview world leaders. 'Today' still has hard news in its first half hour, and she's doing a lot of politics at the moment." Additionally, he added, "She always has the chance to give all that money back to NBC. She can have her agent say that she would really prefer to be Tim Russert's backup. My heart doesn't bleed for her."

"Today" spokeswoman Kapp said that she sees no conflict between Couric's fluffier responsibilities and her hard-nosed journalism: "Katie is known for her interviews with everyone from Crown Prince Abdullah to the Central Park jogger to Ben Affleck. Katie is so respected because she can sit down with a world leader or a pop icon and give them both a hard-hitting news-making interview."

The Queen of Mean rumors are going to keep getting printed, as are the stories about Couric being rude to a friend's doorman, calling in sick to work when she was really partying with her boyfriend (see 2001, post-contract negotiation), or getting plastic surgery and expensive haircuts. And it's not just because she's a broad. The John Kerry Botox story has taught us that if anyone actually cared enough about Dan Rather's forehead to hunt down his plastic surgeon, it would surely make it into the paper.

But the fact is, no one does care that much about Rather. That's just the problem. He and his brethren surrendered long ago to their role as culture dinosaurs: They read the news straight; they are men who are supposed to inform us, but never really blend in with us. Couric is another story; a successful and wildly wealthy woman who is still a cultural anomaly, her job is to be one of us -- it's how she's been sold. Of course she's tough and ambitious -- you don't just bubble your sweet little way up through the ranks of a national news organization. But the perk makes her palatable, disguises her as unthreatening. The more she can frost her steely insides with a spun-sugar exterior, the more she can convince us that she is one of us, the more successful she becomes, the more she becomes an anomaly. And like the best traps, the more she struggles, the more entwined she will become: lose her looks, lose her audience; get the brow lift, get bad press. Mourn quietly, she's chilly; mourn publicly, she's courting sympathy and ratings.

Tyndall theorized that this rough patch for Couric could just be growing pains as she finally eases into her privilege and power and becomes something new -- something more like Rather and less like the gals at Wal-Mart. "It could be that we're seeing her preparing not to be the bubbly, effervescent next-door neighbor, but a serious power player who goes out with ladies who lunch and throws her weight around," said Tyndall.

We make successes of women and then punish them for having pleased us too well. In the end, who cares about Katie Couric -- she's a morning show host who will interpret our world for us for a few more years and then host prime-time specials about Princess Diana's secret tapes (see Jane Pauley, last week). How much does it really matter whether she's got John "Presidential Candidate" Kerry or Frankie "Agent Cody Banks" Muniz in the hot seat? It doesn't, really, until we realize that we're confused about whether Martha Stewart is guilty, because we can't see her legal situation clearly for the hail of arrows labeled "bitch" clouding our view. So until we have a woman in the White House to interview, perhaps there is only one solution: a moratorium on women in television. We're not grown up enough to watch responsibly.

Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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