How much abuse can one woman take?
And why is so much of it coming from other women journalists?
It's been another tough week for Katie Couric. It's never easy to be the first woman anything. The good news is that you get a lot of attention. The bad news is that a lot of this attention is likely to turn into criticism, because it comes before you're really ready for it.
So it has been with Katie. As the newscast improves, the attacks have escalated, not dissipated. CBS does a perfectly respectable evening news show, tougher and sharper since producer Rick Kaplan came on board, but you'd never know it from reading the clips.
There's Alessandra Stanley in the New York Times, reporting that Katie intentionally glammed herself down when anchoring from Blacksburg, substituting light-colored slacks and little makeup for her usual costume. So what? Does that make her a less effective anchor or reporter? Does anyone know what Brian Williams has been wearing? Would it even occur to anyone to notice?
But Stanley's piece on how everyone shined but Katie was a wet kiss compared to the hatchet job Gail Shister did on the first woman solo anchor in the Philadelphia Inquirer this week. Relying on "inside sources," Shister reported that CBS now viewed the hiring of Katie Couric to anchor the news as a major mistake, which cannot be fixed, and that they were trying to figure out when and how to get her off the anchor desk.
Shister's story got huge play, notwithstanding CBS' denial of its accuracy, and within a day, Roger Friedman, here on foxnews.com, revealed that he had information suggesting that the main sources for the Shister article were Bob Schieffer, the man Katie replaced, and Lesley Stahl, a very old friend of mine who is now with 60 Minutes. Schieffer was said to be upset because he isn't getting as much air time as he was when Katie first started; no word on Lesley's supposed motive. But whether it was these two or others, there is no question that there are many at CBS who feel no compunction about trashing their network's anchor publicly and privately.
And that's not fair. Or helpful. The transition from doing a morning show to being principal anchor for the network is a major one. It takes time for anyone to find their authentic voice, build credibility in a new role, develop the appropriate presence for the job. Being a constant target for columnists and colleagues does not make those difficult tasks any easier. Nor does the daily fixation with the ratings.
Part of the ratings issue relates to the popularity of the programs that lead into the news, over which Katie has no control. To the extent that the ratings reflect a judgment about the anchor, they should go up as Katie has time to grow into her new position, but that kind of growth doesn't happen overnight.
Constant attention to how much the ratings have gone down under Couric is counterproductive to the task of raising them. If everyone is constantly telling you how disappointed people are with Katie, why would you tune in? It's not enough just to deny the Shister piece; CBS needs to do more to address the backstabbing inside and the unrealistic expectations of instant success on the outside.
But what really gets to me about the treatment of Couric is not the way the CBS suits are dealing with her, but the way her fellow women journalists are. Of all people, you'd think other women in the news business would understand just what Katie is up against and how her future is connected to ours. You'd think women would appreciate the challenge of settling into a role for which there are no role models, sitting in a chair that is usually occupied by older white men and convincing viewers to accept an attractive woman as equally credible.
It's not that women journalists should be giving her a pass because she's a woman, but that they should be the last to pile on because they understand best what she's up against. It hasn't worked that way.
I believe there is a special place in hell for women who do not support each other, particularly in our attacks on the glass ceiling. Too many women fail to understand that when one woman does make it, we all have an interest in her success, and an even bigger interest in her not failing.
If Katie succeeds, we all win; she will have proven that people are happy to get their news from a smart, pretty woman. And if she fails? How many times will it be said that America just wasn't ready for a woman in such a powerful role? We will all pay that price. You can bet it won't be another woman replacing her.
Susan Estrich is the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California. She was Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and the first woman President of the Harvard Law Review. She is a columnist for Creators Syndicate and has written for USA Today and the Los Angeles Times.
Estrich's books include the just published “Soulless,” “The Case for Hillary Clinton,” “How to Get Into Law School,” “Sex & Power,” “Real Rape,” “Getting Away with Murder: How Politics Is Destroying the Criminal Justice System” and "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women.”
She served as campaign manager for Michael Dukakis' presidential bid, becoming the first woman to head a U.S. presidential campaign. Estrich appears regularly on the FOX News Channel, in addition to writing the “Blue Streak” column for FOXNews.com.
Susan Estrich is currently the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California and a member of the Board of Contributors of USA Today. She writes the "Portia" column for American Lawyer Media and is a contributing editor of The Los Angeles Times. She was appointed by the president to serve on the National Holocaust Council and by the mayor of the City of Los Angeles to serve on that city's Ethics Commission. A woman of firsts, she was the first woman president of the Harvard Law Review and the first woman to head a national presidential campaign (Dukakis). Estrich is committed to paving the way for women to assume positions of leadership. Books by Estrich include "Real Rape," "Getting Away with Murder: How Politics is Destroying the Criminal Justice System" and "Dealing with Dangerous Offenders." Her book "Making the Case for Yourself: A Diet Book for Smart Women," is a departure from her other works, encouraging women to take care of themselves by engaging the mind to fight for a healthy body. Her latest book, The Los Angeles Times bestseller, "Sex & Power," takes an impassioned look at the division of power between men and women in the American workforce, proving that the idea of gender equality is still just an idea.