Exclusive: The Dish on That Book About Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer and Christiane Amanpour

LunchAtMichaelsSchool 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.”

Sheila Weller and Diane Clehane
Sheila Weller and Diane Clehane
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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.”