How Meghan McCain changed "The View," and how "The View" changed politics on TV

Salon talks to Ramin Setoodeh, who wrote "Ladies Who Punch" about the history of "The View"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published April 8, 2019 3:10PM (EDT)

Sunny Hostin, Joy Behar, Whoopi Goldberg, Meghan McCain, and Abby Huntsman (ABC/Heidi Gutman)
Sunny Hostin, Joy Behar, Whoopi Goldberg, Meghan McCain, and Abby Huntsman (ABC/Heidi Gutman)

It's the show that changed daytime television, and after 22 years, "The View" is still the one that has everybody talking. But beyond gossipy headlines about backstage battles and on-air arguments, there's a deeper story about how a diverse and unlikely group of women redefined how we talk about news and politics. "It's a culturally important show," says award-winning journalist Ramin Setoodeh. He joined us recently to talk about his buzzed about literary debut — "Ladies Who Punch: The Explosive Inside Story of 'The View.'"

You spent three years of your life on this book. You interviewed over 150 people. You talked to almost every one of the hosts, current and past. What would make someone wade into this storm of crazy?

I've been a journalist for 15 years, and I've covered everything in the entertainment industry. I was at Newsweek for nine years, and I've been at Variety for six years. The one topic that consistently got the most traffic, that consistently got people interested and comments and links to Drudge and links to sites for red states and blue states, were stories about "The View," because it touches on so many parts of our society.

It's women in Hollywood, but it's also Hollywood in politics. It's feminism, and it's the emergence of Donald Trump as a foe and enemy of Rosie O'Donnell, but also of women in general. There's just so much about the show that's culturally important that I started to see it as a book a few years ago.

When I tried to sell the book, I went to a lot of different publishers. We thought we had a really strong proposal, and a really smart proposal, and more than 20 publishing houses passed on this book. They didn't see it, and they didn't understand it. I wonder why that is. I also wonder if I have been selling a book about Jay Leno or David Letterman if there would have been more interest. Women read books and are very interested in "The View," and so are men. It's an important show.

We had Tina Brown in here and had very similar conversations about the way that women with power in the media are portrayed, and the way that they approach the news is portrayed. Things that are interesting to women, even when they're news, are seen as lesser than, and that is an obstacle.

You start out this book with Barbara Walters. She's in her sixties and she's at the top of her game. She has this very unusual project. Tell me a little bit about the genesis of this, because it was so unprecedented.

Tina Fey tells a story about how when she was writing the spoofs for "SNL," the men thought it was a fake show. They didn't realize that there was an actual thing called "The View."

In 1997, Barbara Walters had this idea for a show where she'd be talking to other women about the headlines of the day. She didn't it want it to be a controversial show. She didn't want it to be a scandalous show. She thought it would be a nice counterpart to "20/20" during the day, but the ABC News executives thought it would tarnish her reputation and would hurt her career.

They kicked it to the daytime team, and that's how it got it produced. It was going to be during the day, but there was a chance that the news team could have taken it. They weren't interested in it, which speaks to sexism in news because, this is Barbara Walters. She had to fight so hard to get the show started.

She's broken every glass ceiling. She is doing "20/20" at the time. And that's how devalued the idea of women talking about news was 22 years ago, and still is today.

The project gets launched. They do a big call for all different kinds of women, and then this magic happens at the table that they couldn't recreate with any other combinations.

The first four co-hosts that they tested were Joy Behar, Star Jones, Meredith Viera, and a college student named Debbie Matenopoulos, who was 22 and had never done television. They tried about 150 women, and they couldn't recreate that magic with anyone else.

What was also interesting, looking back at the origins of show, was just how Barbara envisioned it and how it had to be changed. She wanted to be her talking about Syria and New York Times articles, and she was told by daytime executives that they need to think more like Daily Mail articles and sex and scandals and fun stories. She adjusted to that, and she agreed to that.

She didn't want an audience originally when she launched a show. She thought it'd be in a small studio like "20/20," and then they realized they needed an audience. Also originally when she launched, [Walters] was only going to be on two days a week because she didn't want to be too closely associated.

Joy Behar was her substitute, and in those initial test episodes, Joy was testing better than Barbara. The viewers liked Joy better because during the day humor is very important. Audiences didn't know about Barbara's sense of humor because because as a news anchor she couldn't show her full dimensional sides.

She had to approach it as a Barbara Walters brand. This is a Barbara thing, but also keep the stakes low because if it crashed and burned, which was extremely likely at the time, she could pull out and it wouldn't hurt her reputation.

Look how hard it is to do daytime even now. Megan Kelly tried and couldn't do it. Katie Couric tried and couldn't do it. Anderson Cooper tried and couldn't do it. It's a really fickle audience. Queen Latifah. Harry Connick, Jr. Fran Drescher. Rosanne Barr had a talk show.

One of the hardest things to do in entertainment is to launch a daytime talk show. Everyone wants to be Oprah. No one can. It's a really difficult formula to get right. You have to be everyone's best friend. You have to be empathetic. You have to interesting stories. So this novel conceit of having women sit around a table and talk about the headlines of the day could have lasted for two seconds.

One of the things that's innovative about "The View" is it also really is is one of the first reality shows. It's really a reality show. We come into this era of reality in the 2000s. You've got "Survivor," you've got "The Bachelor," you've got "Big Brother," where it's all confessional all the time. Before, all you really had was "The Real World." What it really comes down to is that it's about personalities, and it's about the bickering, and it's about the tension that very quickly emerges. This is one of the great innovations of this weird, beautiful, strange, important show — that it paved the way for what we watch at night.

One hundred percent. "The Real Housewives" could trace to "The View." The fact that these are women that come together that start out as friends but then become frenemies, and then maybe not even frenemies but actual enemies, was a narrative that Barbara never anticipated but became part of the show, and also became something that fueled the show, especially in the later seasons.

And if you couldn't do that, like Lisa Ling, and you wanted some privacy, it didn't work, and you weren't going to make it.

One of the things I uncovered in my reporting was that Lisa was actually fired from the show. We all thought as viewers Lisa wanted to move on and to do other kinds of reporting, but they felt that the numbers weren't going up with Lisa at the table.

When they replaced Debbie Matenopoulos and brought in Lisa, it became a smarter show and viewers liked it. But then as we entered into the Bush years there was this need for more tension and more drama, and the executive producer, Bill Getty, came up with the idea to have a Republican at the table.

Also, if we want to talk about tension and drama, we're talking about Star Jones.

I waited for a year to interview Star, and it was worth every single day. I wrote to her so many different times. She didn't really want to go back and revisit "The View," but I knew she was an important person to interview for this book because she was so hugely influential on the show.

She set the tone, and then she innovated. She really innovated the whole product placement in news in a way that we never saw before, and it really came down to her wedding.

She branded her wedding, and now when you see a home renovation sponsored by Lowes, thank you, Star Jones. You did that. Everything that the Kardashians have, really, thank you Star Jones.

Sponsored posts on Instagram. Star Jones is in a way responsible for all of that, and in book she defends that practice. She says now it's the coolest thing in the world. There was all this tension when I was doing it because people didn't know what it was. She went to ABC. She said she's getting married. She said, it's a story, the story of her wedding and she's either doing it here, or going to do it on another show. And ABC didn't want to lose out on this story, and allowed her to do it, and it hijacked "The View." And it worked. She got Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to come to her wedding.

Star's wedding was that it started this era of the dream celebrity wedding. The fact that you as a celebrity could see the story of your wedding. That you could be on the cover of a magazine with your wedding, and you could get money for that.

It used to be, here's this beautiful wedding. Now it's, here's this beautiful wedding that I'm getting paid to sell.

It's aspirational, and I don't think celebrity weddings were aspirational in that way because Star saw her wedding as the equivalent to Princess Diana getting married. She envisioned it as a royal event in America.

There was a man and a beautiful woman. They were guests at this wedding, and they said, "Make me one of these exactly the same way."

Here's the story. I got it from Star Jones's wedding planner, David Tutera, who actually hasn't really talked about the wedding since it happened. Donald Trump and Melania come to the wedding. This is in November of 2004. They go to The Plaza. They see the ceremony. They love it. They think it's the most beautiful thing, and their own wedding in Florida is only two months away, and they still hadn't planned it.

They asked Star Jones's wedding planner to come in to do the bid to show them what they want, because they want a carbon copy of the same thing. Then they took those plans, and went with someone who was cheaper, and Star Jones's wedding planner is furious in the book about how they plagiarized his wedding plans. And it's true because I looked, if you do a side by side. It's a valid complaint, but I just love that Donald and Melania had no plans for their wedding two months before. Before Melania plagiarized Michelle Obama she plagiarized Star Jones.

Their history of plagiarism starts pretty early.

There are a lot of things we know or we think we know because we've watched them unfold on television — like Star quitting on the air, which turns out was very well orchestrated. All of the lead up and the aftermath, the fallout of what happened with Rosie and Elisabeth the day that they went to the split screen.

You really give context for these big, breakthrough moments. What is it among those things that we've watched as viewers that you feel the public got the narrative completely wrong?

The biggest surprises was that Rosie and Elisabeth were friends. Meredith Viera leaves the show. Barbara Walters asks Rosie O'Donnell to come in and essentially save "The View" because they needed a star to be at the table.

Rosie and Elisabeth were friendly on the show and liked each other, and as a viewers we never knew that. We thought that they were always enemies, they always hated each other. But that 10 minute fight that they had really was about a broke friendship.

It's so interesting that they start by talking about the war in Iraq. And then they go to personal betrayals.

Then it's like every family fight we've ever had at Thanksgiving, where it starts out about Iraq, and then it turns into Grandpa's drinking.

You weren't getting that on Oprah or on Regis and Kathy Lee. There was nowhere else on television where you would see the evolution of politics turn into something very personal.

That is very personal. It blows up the way it does because they care about each other. These are two women who have history.

And that's the reality TV component, too, because it was real. Sometimes we watch reality TV, and we're like, is it manufactured? Are there producers pulling the strings? Is this something that they're pushing the contestants to do? But this was actually Rosie and Elisabeth speaking to each other as if the cameras weren't there, and there weren't 200 people in the audience terrified and horrified.

You would think it would be a career ender for Rosie, and would definitely be an end of Rosie and "The View," but it is not.

It's not. She left that season, but then once Barbara decides she wants to retire, ABC's worried about the legacy and the future of the show, and they think the solution is to bring Rosie O'Donnell back.

Even though there have been HR complaints. Not just, "She was kind of erratic," or "She was a big personality." Behind the scenes, a lot of people were very unhappy with her work and with her demeanor and her interactions with them. You talk about some really mean things she said to people. Really just unbelievably inappropriate stuff that she did, and they bring her back.

It's one thing to treat people that way when you're the boss. She wasn't even necessarily the boss when she was on "The View," and that led to more friction because she was trying to take over Barbara Walters's show. She leaves, and then she comes back, and she once again tries to take over the show. This time it's a completely new team of ABC News executives, and Whoopi Goldberg as a moderator, and that leads to the worst season in the history of "The View." It's really really dramatic what happens with Rosie and Whoopi at the hot topics table.

Even with the cover of this book, the drama continues. This book, the cover is three women. And you've had feedback.

I have. Whoopi saw the cover on her Kindle a few months back, and she was very upset that she was shown on the cover with Rosie O'Donnell, which I found to be kind of humorous because I'm not inventing a scenario that didn't exist. You were on the show for months with Rosie O'Donnell. It's like I'm creating a situation that didn't exist. They were on the same show together, but it got so ugly between the two of them Whoopi doesn't even want to be seen in an illustration with Rosie.

I want to ask about this moment in the show's history, because on the one hand it is innovative. It is important. I really value what the show has done, and what it has brought in terms of an audience very much of stay-at-home moms. It really respects their views and that women who have babies can pivot from the war in Iraq to Alicia Silverstone talking about veganism. That's all real. But the way that the show gets described is "So and So has a hissy fit." "So and So has a catfight." The misogyny, the hatred of women, around this and the way that this show is used to justify that kind of sexism is disturbing to me, and I think disturbing to a lot of women. How do we reconcile that?

I agree with what you're saying completely. Even in this book being published and articles written about this book, I feel like a lot of the press has been focused on the fights. This person versus this person, which is part of the show, but I think this is a much deeper book than just people fighting. It's a book about this culturally important television show. I think in the same way, when Hillary Clinton ran for president, there was just endless press about her demeanor and the fact that as a woman she did this or she did that, or she acted like this, or she wore this.

"The View" is often written about in the same way as Hillary Clinton in that it doesn't get a fair shake sometimes. There's so much focus on the "catfights" and not enough focus on the substance, because the show is full of substance. The fact of women debating waterboarding on daytime television is something to celebrate, and it makes viewers smarter to watch the show. But also there's just so much interest in the fighting.

I actually asked Tina Fey about that too because I think her parodies on "SNL" solidified the image of "The View" as this place where women had a lot of "relational aggression." She thought it was funny that they were trying to pass themselves off as girlfriends, but they really weren't.

I don't know what the answer to that is, but I think it's something that's symptomatic of our society. When you see women written about in the press, it's always different than men, and this show is one of the examples of that.

One of the great examples right now is the way Meghan McCain is written about and talked about. She has really become one of the most galvanizing figures on the show right now, in the way that she is talked about, and the way that she is looked at. What is it about Meghan that is so fascinating, polarizing, that she has become this lightning rod on the show?

Meghan is really the first true conservative that they've had since Elisabeth. They've had a number of Republicans, but they weren't actually acting like Republicans on the show. They would go on the show, and they'd agree with the other co-hosts. Meghan really says what she believes on the show, and she sticks to her conservative ideals. I think now in this era that we're in sometimes it touches a nerve, but it also makes for really good television. I think the formula of The View doesn't work without Meghan on the show right now.

The viewership is up and has been up, and I think it's a result of Meghan being on the show and actually saying what she believes and not just agreeing with the other co-hosts. She's truthful about how she feels. This is a conservative who believes in what she says as a conservative.

The show's been on for 22 years. There's always been confusion and question about, can it survive, can it thrive? What happens when somebody important leaves? Is it now just an "SNL" where it can last as long as the brand is strong? Or do you get one wrong person, and maybe the time for "The View" is over?

I think that it's relevant now because of the Trump presidency, and it's relevant now because we are so obsessed and interested in what's happening in this White House. Interestingly enough Barbara Walters talked about how what launched a show was Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton, and these women talking about that on daytime TV in a really raw and honest way. I think the bookend to that is having women talk about Trump and Melania and impeachment and collusion with Russia, and every day there's a new scandal for them to talk about.

My question as a viewer would be what happens when Trump isn't re-elected, or what happens when Trump isn't the President of the United States, and how will the show evolve. I think that will be the challenge for the executives in charge of the show, making sure the show continues to grow beyond Trump.

Speaking of, there was a question that Elisabeth Hasselbeck asked Hillary Clinton in Hillary's first conversation on "The View."

Arnold Schwarzenegger had just been elected governor of California, and Elisabeth asked if we be worried about celebrities running for office. And Hillary, in a moment of terrible foreshadowing, said. "Oh, I don't think so. It sort of depends on what these celebrities have to do if they're elected."

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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