School is back in session for the cool kids and they showed up in droves at their favorite cafeteria at 55th and Fifth. Come on, it’s just like high school — but with better clothes. In attendance: NBCUniversal’s Ron Meyer and Steve Burke, Joe Kernen, Andrew Ross Sorkin, Tom Brokaw, Donny Deutsch and Showtime’s Matt Blank among the media mob scene. It seemed more than a bit ironic that Michael’s looked like an old boys club since I was joined today by Sheila Wellerfor an exclusive first interview about her new book, The News Sorority (Penguin Press), which chronicles the rise of Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric and Christiane Amanpour in television news. While the book’s press release paints the book as a thoughtful, “astute” guide to the behind-the-scenes goings on in television broadcast news and a paean to the accomplishments of these three incredibly ambitious women amid the “impenetrable newsroom boys club,” early reports have instead latched on to the more juicy tales of rivalry and the occasional missteps among the women. Shocking, I know. “It pains me that the news aggregators focused on the catfights,” Sheila told me. “It showed me the knives are out for women who succeed.”
What Sheila is referring to is the headline-grabbing items in the New York Daily News and The Daily Beast. The Daily News ran an item on the book for Father’s Day with the headline “Hate-y Katie” and an unflattering picture of her, which, said Sheila, didn’t exactly thrill her rep, Matthew Hiltzik. “I told him I didn’t plant any of it,” she told me. Lloyd GrovePM’d Sheila on Facebook asking: “What’s this book being passed around the networks like a crack pipe?” and then wrote a lengthy piece about the book for The Daily Beast, which recounted some of the more gossipy exchanges involving the women. “Once a book is sent to a media organization, you can’t control what happens with it,” said Sheila. “I was stunned by the Father’s Day item.”
Sheila didn’t interview Diane, Katie or Christiane for the book (more on that later), but she did talk to plenty of industry “insiders” meticulously indexed in the 472-page tome. She began her reporting five years ago and amassed 150 on-the-record interviews and 35 off-the-record conversations. She turned in the manuscript last fall. I was fascinated to learn that Sheila sent her interview transcripts to “almost everyone” she interviewed for fact-checking. “That’s something I learned to do with my earlier books. It’s a good way of protecting yourself.” Despite the extensive “fly on the wall” recollections by many of her insider sources that painted a very intimate portrait of what it was like working with her subjects, most people, said Sheila, didn’t send anything back for correcting. “Even the person who told me Ben [Sherwood] didn’t give ‘a rat’s ass’ about Diane [Sawyer] after he became president of ABC News stood by his comments.”
A self-described “outsider” to the world of television news, Sheila started by asking Katie and Diane for interviews. Both Katie and Diane declined to talk, but provided a roster of people for her to talk to. “Diane was the most hands off,” Sheila told me but added that several producers at ABC News filled in the blanks. (Interestingly, Diane’s former GMA cohost Robin Roberts — who Sheila interviewed for Good Housekeeping — declined to be interviewed for the book.)
It was Sheila’s husband, author John Kelly, who suggested Christiane, to round out the “Sorority.” Said Sheila: “As soon as he suggested her, it made perfect sense.” At the time, Christiane was moving from CNN to ABC News, so it took a while for her office to get back to her but when she did, she didn’t talk herself but gave plenty of those closest to her the greenlight to do so, including two of her three sisters, Lizzie and Leila. Sheila’s interviews with her producers and camera operators who worked with Christiane in several war zones but mostly Bosnia “brought a different level of energy to the conversations.”
Of course, each woman gave Sheila plenty of material to draw from based on their public lives (more so with Katie and Diane, while Christiane hasn’t done nearly as many interviews). The book is filled with page after page of scenarios that seem ripped from the pages of an Aaron Sorkin screenplay. The pre-publication buzz that comes courtesy of the book’s more dishy anecdotes is likely to surprise no one who actually works in the business and makes the book prime for the HBO treatment. To wit: one ABC News staffer characterized the rivalry between Sawyer and Barbara Walters as “mortal combat,” saying, “Diane and Barbara were determined to kill each other — to wipe each other off the face of the Earth.” In a telling bit of foreshadowing, another source recounted the up-and-down relationship between Sawyer and Ben Sherwood, telling Sheila that after Sherwood “wormed his way in” to the news division after “wooing” Sawyer at the start of the decade, he departed after six months at the helm of GMA because she had “lost faith in him.” When he later returned as president of the news division with the blessing of Bob Iger and Anne Sweeney, two sources weighed in on how Diane and Ben’s relationship was changed. Said one: “He wasn’t beholden to Diane” and speculated the snub could wind up costing her. Another told Sheila: “Ben’s gonna stick it to her. She will pay dearly. She might have met her match in Ben.” As we all know, Diane gave up the anchor desk recently. Sheila told me she heard rumblings about a succession plan with David Muir “two years ago.”
Even with her exhaustive reporting there were some burning questions she wasn’t able to answer. “Women ask me who ‘does’ Diane’s face and I tell them I don’t know!” Sheila told me.
Look for The News Sorority to rocket up the best seller list the moment it’s released on September 30.
Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:
1. Talk about a “Power Lunch” — NBCUniversal’s vice chair Ron Meyer and CEO Steve Burke, CNBC’s Joe Kernen,Andrew Ross Sorkinand Becky Quick
2. Accessory maven Mickey Ateyeh, James Hedges and a lovely blonde gal
3. Producer Jon Hart — Long time no see!
4. Tom Brokaw having what looked to be a very thoughtful discussion with Luke Russert
5. Allen & Co.’s Stan Shuman
6. Dr. Gerald Imber and Jerry Della Femina
7. Manolo Blahnik president George Malkemus
8. Uber agent Esther Newberg
9. Sheila Weller and yours truly
11. Lynn Goldberg
12. BBDO’s CEO Andrew Robertson
14. Donny Deutsch, in his requisite form-fitting t-shirt and jeans, with Jonathan Wald
15. Peter Price and Lynn Sherr
16. United Stations Radio Networks’ Nick Verbitsky and three well-dressed gals
17. 48 Hours Mystery‘s executive producer Susan Zirinsky and a very tan gal we didn’t get to meet. Anyone?
18. Showtime’s main man Matt Blank with ICM’s Patty Kim; Act Two: producer Jean Doumanian with a bespectacled fellow who arrived before her.
21. Euan Rellie who was nice enough to introduce to “another Brit,” Luke Johnson. I chatted with these two dapper gents about the perils of parenting in the modern age (we’ve all got young kids) and then they went back to undoubtedly hatching some big deal…
22. Nancy Behrman
23. Author Ed Klein with his long time agent Ryan Harbage. Ed’s latest, Blood Feud: The Clintons vs. The Obamas debuted on the NYT‘s list at number one and has given The New York Post plenty to chew on. Ed had been writing about the president’s current travails (“The Europeans are calling him Dr. Do-Little”) for the paper of late but he says he’s now turning his attention to his next book. It’s a “political” tome, he tells me but begged off from revealing anything else. Just which politico should batten down the hatches now that Ed has them in his sights? Stay tuned.
24. AllianceBernstein’s Liz Smith
25. PR maestro Tom Goodman with his former CBS News colleague Sandy Geneilus
26. EMI’s Neil Lasher and Mick Artist Management’s Michael McDonald (who reps randy crooner John Mayer, among others)
27. Robert Kramer
Diane Clehane is a contributor to FishbowlNY. Follow her on Twitter @DianeClehane. Please send comments and corrections on this column to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.