Ladies of the nightly news

How the most electrifying campaign of our time changed everything for Katie Couric, Campbell Brown and Rachel Maddow.

By Rebecca Traister
Published October 30, 2008 11:31AM (EDT)

It was perhaps galling that one of the smartest questions asked of Hillary Clinton in the past 18 months was posed after a presidential debate in which Clinton did not participate. But it was appropriate that it came from a journalist who understands as well as the New York senator that the path to gender parity is lined with potholes.

"Why do you think Sarah Palin has an action figure, and you have a nutcracker?" asked CBS anchorwoman Katie Couric on her nightly webcast -- her so-called after party -- following the final presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain on Oct. 15.

Of course, Clinton didn't answer the question fully -- by, say, launching into a discourse on how her brand of female power is based on authority and competence that made her appear threatening, like a potential harvester of testicles, while the Alaska governor's brand of female power is based on her ability to winkingly climb the political ladder while never disrupting the fantasy that she is only here to conform to traditional feminine norms that do not threaten testicular dominance. No. Clinton just let out a loud (just once, for old times' sake) cackle and said, "I don't have any idea, Katie."

 Couric pressed. "You must have some idea," she said. "Do you feel like, 'Oh, the injustice of it all?'"

"No," replied Clinton, before turning mock serious. "But maybe someday I'll have an action figure. I mean, who knows? I still have aspirations!" 

Couric flashed her famous grin -- gummy but leonine -- and deadpanned, "A girl can dream, can't she?" 

Yes, she can! While pondering the meaning of this year's 18 million cracks in the White House ceiling, we might easily have missed the shower of shards falling from other glass domes, like those atop television newsrooms. In the final weeks of October, days before what many consider the most crucial election of our lifetimes, the probing interviews, fine-boned analysis and buzzy commentary showing up on television screens and Internet browsers all over the country are often delivered not in the deep rumble of a wizened Uncle Walt but in a higher register belonging to one of several female newscasters to have kicked ass, taken names and otherwise owned the coverage of the 2008 election.

Sure there are still men, like Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews, who have done notable journalism and created reverberating sound bites of their own this year. But if 2004 was widely touted as Jon Stewart's career-making election, then it would be more than plausible to call this year Katie Couric's (for her eye-crossing serialized interview with Sarah Palin and her impeccably timed career rebound) or Rachel Maddow's (for her Speedy Gonzalez scramble to the top of her profession and her sharply seasoned take on the race) or Campbell Brown's (for her fire-roasting of McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds and her series of rants on gender, access and the presidency).

Call it historical accident or mere coincidence, but this election, built as it has been around two history-making female candidates, traditional "women's issues" like the economy and healthcare and the acknowledgment of the power of female voters, also happens to have been translated, interpreted and picked apart by women newscasters. And that's something new. 

In her 2007 book "The Terror Dream," Susan Faludi wrote, "Soon after the World Trade Center vaporized into two biblical plumes of smoke, another vanishing act occurred on television sets and newspaper pages across the country. Women began disappearing." Discussing the diminishing number of female bylines, talking heads and reporters covering the news, thanks to what she identifies as a post-terrorism ardor for mission-accomplishin' masculinity, Faludi argued that by the mid-2000s, "women's media profile remained depressed."

In 2008, American news desks, campaign press planes and anchor chairs were crawling with women -- and not just the fascistic sylphs of Fox News and the right. Women like Dana Bash, Andrea Mitchell, Candy Crowley, Gloria Borger and Donna Brazile were feeding us our news, and the breakout stars, like Couric, Maddow and Brown, were building audiences, asserting their perspectives on the unfolding narrative and making crafty use of the internets to stake their proprietary claim in this most surprising and enthralling of election cycles.

 Couric's renaissance has been both long awaited and gratifying. After her grab at media history in 2006, when she leapt from morning-show sweetheart to gravitas-challenged first female solo anchor of a network newscast, Couric's belly-flop was so brutal that it seemed possible she would never recover from it.

But anyone who has ever watched Couric -- as chipper morning interlocutor or as the unlikeliest bear trap George H. W. Bush ever got caught in -- knew that she had the chops for the job. Perhaps it was the sense that she had nothing left to lose that goosed Couric, this election season, to loosen up, take risks and carve out space for herself. In addition to her CBS evening newscast, Couric debuted her cheery, often trenchant webcasts on her own YouTube channel, a small move that instantly made her roughly 10 billion times more accessible to Americans under the age of 75 than her nightly news competitors.

 She also posed some brave and prescient questions, of presidential candidates and of the media itself, both on and off the air. In December 2007, in a series of interviews she did with presidential contenders, she asked John Edwards, with a quiet seriousness that in retrospect suggests she knew something we didn't, whether he could understand why some voters "don't feel comfortable supporting a candidate who has not remained faithful to his or her spouse." And it was in an interview with Couric that Cindy McCain confessed to (muddled) disagreement with her husband on the subject of abortion.

In early summer, Couric generated some old-fashioned media sparks by allowing that Hillary Clinton's ride on the presidential log flume might be splashier than some. At a speech in Washington, Couric suggested that "Senator Clinton received some of the most unfair, hostile coverage I've ever seen," and, in a later online commentary, noted that "one of the great lessons of [Clinton's] campaign is the continued and accepted role of sexism in American life, particularly in the media." These were risky comments, in that overheated moment, ones that tied Couric's narrative to Clinton's and positioned her as a gender-card player. They were ballsy enough to get serious blow-back from Olbermann on "Countdown," who named Couric a Worst Person, huffing and puffing: "It is sad that Ms. Couric could not have ... separated the hype from the news in her own promulgation of the nonsense that Senator Clinton was a victim of pronounced sexism."

But while Olbermann and colleagues Matthews and Joe Scarborough were having an avidly reported meltdown at MSNBC, Couric turned in what, by some accounts, was the best network coverage of the political conventions. Running around like a caffeinated jack rabbit, she stunned subjects with her ceaselessly blinking eyelashes before stripping their bones clean. In Denver, she nabbed Michael Dukakis in a security line; somehow Dukakis ended the conversation by apologizing to the American people for the Bush dynasty, a conversation that,  New York Times critic David Carr wrote, "demonstrated what has been apparent for the last two decades to anybody with a television: Ms. Couric is a highly skilled interviewer, and people tend to tell her stuff."

And then came Palin, the vice-presidential candidate who told Couric stuff like the fact that she can't really recall much about the record of her running mate, and she can't really think of a Supreme Court case besides Roe v. Wade. Even after other networks had their crack at Palin, Couric's ten-rounder with the Alaska governor remains the gold standard, the interview that, in conjunction with (and as the basis for one of) the series of "Saturday Night Live" sketches, cemented America's impressions of the Republican vice-presidential contender. Couric's style -- intimate, empathetic, as insistent as a woodpecker -- made for one of the deadliest interrogations of all time. The "Jaws" music might as well have played in the background as Couric said, "I'm just going to ask you one more time, not to belabor the point, specific examples in his 26 years of pushing for more regulation." Chomp.

Without taking anything away from Couric's talents as a journalist, it is worth wondering whether her success in slicing and dicing Palin was facilitated in part by their shared gender. In a recent Washington Post piece, Robin Givhan wrote about the accepted attitude that men cannot be too hard on Palin because "boys still aren't supposed to hit girls. Even if it's the girl who starts the fight ... If a fella should try, he will be perceived as a bully, as condescending, as ungentlemanly."

Givhan was referring specifically to the tactics employed by Palin's male political rivals, who have been reluctant to hit her hard, but the same could be said of some of her media interrogators. ABC's Charlie Gibson, looking over his glasses at Palin, catching her at a loss over the Bush doctrine and then, realizing his good luck, pausing to test her on it, veered awfully close to patronizing. In Givhan's formulation, female political surrogates are sent to torpedo Palin because "catfights, it seems, are perfectly acceptable." But Couric wasn't scratching any eyeballs. It was more of an empathy factor that allowed the CBS anchor to convince viewers -- and perhaps the governor -- that she really hated to ask again, and was so sorry to push it, but seriously: What newspaper does she read?

But if Couric's resurrection comes as she's finally let her freak flag fly at a traditionally powerful news platform, her former colleague Campbell Brown's 2008 success at CNN is more startlingly roguish. Brown's special commentaries on sexism and Sarah Palin have become Internet sensations, but she isn't buying that her season of success has anything to do with her gender.

"I don't agree at all," Brown said by phone when I presented her with the thesis that there was a connection between the number of female candidates in the presidential race and the number of female newscasters making waves. "I think there are women who are getting attention," said Brown. "But that's about the journalism, not because we're women. There's a lot of good journalism out there right now."

A frank, smart and relatable television presence, Brown launched her nightly CNN show "Election Center" this winter. Her slightly muffled start at CNN has built to quite a roar this fall, especially after she cleaned the clock of McCain spokesman Tucker Bounds on Sept. 1,  pressing him on how his campaign's new vice-presidential pick met the high bar for experience that the McCain camp had set for Barack Obama.

When Bounds deflected her question by returning to gripes about Obama's lack of experience, Brown persisted. "But you're not answering my question ... You set a different standard by arguing how important [experience] was with John McCain." Bounds invoked Palin's time as the commander of the Alaska National Guard, and Brown again lost patience: "OK, Tucker, sorry, if I can interrupt for one second, 'cause I've heard you guys say this a lot. Can you just tell me one decision that she made as commander in chief of the Alaskan National Guard ... just one." Bounds replied that whatever decisions she'd made have been more than what Obama's done. "So tell me!" shouted Brown. "Give me an example of one of those decisions. I'm just curious. Just one decision she made in her capacity as commander in chief of the National Guard." When Bounds cooed in response, "Campbell, certainly you don't mean to belittle every experience, every judgment that she makes as commander of the National Guard." Brown exploded, "I'm belittling nothing! I just want to know one judgment or one decision."

The Brown-Bounds melee -- really just a reporter asking a question and demanding an answer -- served as a perfect miniature of a campaign with nothing serious to say about its new candidate, and of its automatic, defensive fallback to slippery intimations that the questioning of that candidate's qualifications must be sexist underestimation. In retaliation for Brown's grilling, the McCain camp pulled the Arizona senator from a planned appearance on CNN's "Larry King Live."

"The issues I've raised and the questions I've asked have been primarily focused on trying to get information about a candidate," Brown told me. "It doesn't matter whether she's a man or a woman. I'm talking about access to a vice-presidential candidate."

But gender was very much at the heart of Brown's next -- and most celebrated -- expression of frustration. The day that Palin came to New York City to meet with world leaders but was kept hermetically sealed from reporters, the CNN anchor took to her chair and unexpectedly went all "Network" on the McCain campaign. "I have had it," began Brown's self-described "rant," "and I know a lot of other women out there are with me on this. I have had enough of the sexist treatment of Sarah Palin." What Brown had had it with, however, was not media treatment of the candidate but the kid-glove treatment Palin was receiving from her own campaign. "I call on the McCain campaign to stop treating Sarah Palin like she is a delicate flower that will wilt at any moment," Brown said. "She is strong, she is tough, she is confident. And you claim she is ready to be one heartbeat away from the presidency. If that is the case, then end this chauvinistic treatment of her now ... Free Sarah Palin. Free her from the chauvinistic chains you are binding her with. Sexism in this campaign must come to an end."

On the phone, Brown insisted that her declamation had little to do with gender. "I was trying to point out, and I thought it was a fair point, what appeared to be a double standard coming from McCain campaign," she said. "There was a degree of hypocrisy in accusing those of us in the media of being tougher on her than we would have been on another candidate because she was a woman. That was not at all the case. We would have been just as tough on any presidential candidate we had so little information about."

But what about the idea that simply having a general election in which charges of sexism can be bandied about -- carelessly in some cases, accurately in others -- because there is a woman vice president nominated gives female reporters more space in which to offer authoritative and often keen commentary?

Several days after our interview, Brown had another sensational moment, this time in defense of Palin and the never-ending, fetishized saga of the RNC's $150,000 shopping spree on her behalf. "There is an incredible double standard here," said Brown on television, "and we are ignoring a very simple reality: Women are judged based on their appearance far, far more than men. That is a statement of fact. There has been plenty of talk and plenty written about Sarah Palin's jackets, her hair, her looks. Sound familiar? There was plenty of talk and plenty written about Hillary Clinton's looks, hair, pantsuits. Compare that to the attention given to Barack Obama's $1,500 suits or John McCain's $520 Ferragamo shoes. There is no comparison." Brown then went on to discuss her experiences as a woman in the public eye. "Women get scrutinized based on appearance far more than men, and look, I speak from experience here. When I wear a bad outfit on the air, I get viewer e-mail complaining about it. A lot of e-mail, seriously. When Wolf Blitzer wears a not-so-great tie, how much e-mail do you think he gets?"

 Brown's point is valid: Her increasingly celebrated insights aren't just made possible by shared secondary sexual characteristics but also by gender-neutral journalistic frustration with lack of access to a candidate. But it is certainly also true that in a year when gender barriers have cracked open, it's instructive to have some female ears and eyes (and e-mail in boxes) through which to filter the political narrative. 

Or maybe, as MSNBC's Rachel Maddow suggests when I run by her my theory that there is a girl-volution happening on television news, it's more than just the roster of candidates competing for executive office (now with more ladies!). It's also the nature of the issues that have afforded female newscasters bigger platforms and a bigger audiences in this election year.

"Gender issues are at work in an obvious way, not only because of Palin and Clinton," said Maddow, "but because this is not turning out to be a terrorism election, it's turning out to be an economy election, and so people talking to Americans need to be able to talk about the economy. And when you ask that question 'What do women voters care about?' there's always abortion and equal pay, but really, when you talk to women voters, you talk about the economy."

Maddow points out that since women make up the majority of the electorate and tend to vote in greater numbers than men, they "always ought to be in the driver's seats, but in this election, they really are." So maybe, she posits, the success of female interlocutors is so great this year because viewers want to hear from people who they believe understand their issues, and "women have a facility for talking about the economy with credibility." Maddow, the Rhodes scholar with the rock-star ratings and foreign policy focus, pointed out that when discussing Afghanistan or Pakistan or troop withdrawal or Guantánamo, "I need to be winning over people who are unaccustomed to seeing someone who looks like me talk about the subject. I need to convince them that I know what I'm talking about." When women talk about the economy, however, Maddow said, "they don't have to prove credibility."

The very fact that Maddow is now on air five nights a week, often talking about the subjects she knows inside and out, is perhaps the season's greatest embodiment of the "You've come a long way, baby"-ness of the television news season. Her show, which is unabashedly nerdy, not to mention unabashedly liberal (if not strictly partisan), has been making ratings history at MSNBC, beating CNN’s "Larry King Live" among viewers 25-54 after just seven weeks on air.

Maddow, who has been a newscaster for fewer than five years, got her national start at lefty radio network Air America but has found a real-news way to eat Jon Stewart's fake-news lunch. She delivers her nightly news roundup with cheek, chuckle and an ample dose of educated perspective, dividing her program among conversation about electoral politics, foreign policy, the economy and absurdist pop culture news, and sparring with formerly menacing culture warrior Pat Buchanan, a figure Maddow has somehow managed to transform into her lovable Republican sidekick.

But the segments that have gotten her some of the most Internet traction -- lighting up her Technorati numbers with OMG! blog posts -- have been the segments in which she has ragged on Sarah Palin. Maddow's debut on MSNBC coincided almost exactly with the day Palin hit the campaign trail, and so far in her tenure, Maddow has managed to get off more than a few knee-slappers about the governor's "Wonder Twin" relationship to Dick Cheney, crowing on Oct. 20, "Perhaps the single biggest anti-buoyancy agent of the McCain-Palin campaign is ... Sarah Palin. There. I said it. I've been thinking it for a long time, there's me saying it."

Probably Maddow's biggest hit was her segment on Palin's surrealist insistence that the legislative report on Troopergate revealed she did not abuse her authority, when, in fact, it found that she had abused her authority. After playing clips of Palin's bizarro-world, opposite-day proclamations of ethical exoneration, Maddow made this bravura commentary: "She is lying. This is a person running for office who's been confronted with an uncomfortable and inconvenient fact, and her response to that is to look into the camera and lie to you. Enthusiastically and repeatedly. I know I am not supposed to use that particular 'L' word, the liar word ... but sometimes the most important thing you need to know about a politician is the frequency and the enthusiasm and skill with which they lie to you ... And saying that a politician is a prevaricating mendacious truth stretcher or whatever other thesaurus words we can come up with for lying is just far less efficient than calling a lie a lie, and a liar a liar."

Maddow doesn't quite buy the hypothesis that as a woman she can harsh on Palin with more intensity than a man could. "I certainly don't feel like I approach debunking Sarah Palin and debunking John McCain as strategically different," she said. "I have not been aware of making those kinds of overt decisions or thinking that there are things I should avoid saying about her because she's female."

"So maybe it's just historical accident," said Maddow of 2008's surge of successful newswomen. Or maybe it's just, as Brown suggested, kick-ass journalism. "Katie Couric and what she's been doing on the Web, with her own hand-held camera?" said Maddow, "She's just being awesome."

When I filled in Maddow about Couric's nutcracker-action figure query, venturing that perhaps Couric gave good question because she understood a thing or two about Clinton's recent career trajectory, Maddow stopped me. "You can see those parallels between Katie Couric's media experience and Hillary's political experience," she said. "But I also believe that Katie Couric is good enough at her job that you'd feel that way if she were interviewing Yasser Arafat. That's just being a damn good interviewer."

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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2008 Elections Cnn Hillary Rodham Clinton Katie Couric Msnbc Rachel Maddow Sarah Palin