Women of Substance

Not being a Greta Van Susteren person myself, I was initially unmoved by the news that the "blond, brassy, and opinionated" (as The Washington Post described her) anchor was moving from CNN to Fox News Channel. So out of the Greta loop am I that I'd never even noticed she's a blond, having long ago dismissed her as more of a "honey-brown-with-frosted-highlights, brassy, and opinionated" type of anchor, which is not to my taste at all.

The wave of Greta coverage left me feeling bewildered and horribly alone. My only companion was Tim Goodman, the San Francisco Chronicle's television columnist, who seemed to be speaking for both of us, when, writing in the first-person plural, he let out a moving howl of existential anguish: "Are we the only people who say, 'Hey, there's Greta Van Susteren talking on television, let's go run down to the liquor store for a half hour until she's gone." I'm afraid we are, Tim.

Me, I'm more of a Katie Couric person, preferring the "empathetic but tough" (Time magazine) interview style of the Today anchor, who a few weeks ago was justly rewarded for all that steely empathy—and for grinning merrily even when Barry Manilow is out on Rockefeller Plaza inflicting "Looks Like We Made It" on a defenseless nation—with a new $65 million contract. I may be alone in not getting Greta, but in loving Katie, I have endless company. Seventy-three percent of America Online members responding to a recent poll voted Katie "the most powerful woman in America." That's a serious honor. AOL has 33 million subscribers—more than 17 times the circulation of The Wall Street Journal-and according to a company press release, their favorite Internet name-searches in 2001 were: 1) Britney Spears, and 2) Nostradamus.

So I wasn't the least bit shocked or troubled by the news of Katie's rich contract, unlike some sad, angry individuals who don't understand what really drives modern American journalism. One British writer went so far as to call Katie's new salary "monstrous." Brits are all envy and no empathy, aren't they?

Ignore the joyless purveyors of anti-Katie venom, who trade in attitude rather than fact. Because the reason Katie is America's favorite, and mine, and why she's on top of the global news business, is rooted in simple fact, as People magazine brilliantly explains in its January 14 cover story: "The fact is, while Couric has jazzed up her look in the 10-plus years she has been on Today—her prim suits and boyish hairstyles giving way to leather skirts, sleek high heels and longer, blond-streaked hair—she is at heart the same sensible beat reporter who until August spent 13 years driving the same Honda (her mother, says a friend, found the 2001 red Ford Thunderbird convertible she replaced it with 'a little flashy') and who listens with equal intensity to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld talk war strategy or to daughter Carrie, 6, kid sister of Ellie, 11, discuss an episode of Rugrats."

That's a very long sentence, but it's packed with hard, glittering facts. And lest the bit about Rumsfeld give you the wrong idea about the basis of Katie's triumph, People hastens to report, just a few paragraphs along, what may be the most important fact of all: She is authoritatively believed to have "the best legs on television."

Of course, only one person can have the best legs on television (one hears quiet rumors about Peter Jennings's legs, but they never make it into the profiles), and, well Greta fans, it appears your girl just didn't measure up.

But the good news for everyone is that while Greta lacks $65 million gams, her move to Fox still got a tremendous amount of coverage. Whether you're a Greta person or a Katie person, you have to agree that all the attention paid to both gals in recent weeks speaks volumes about how far we've come as a profession in taking women journalists seriously. Sure, we still make a point of discussing their hair color and physical endowments in some detail. But in the end, what really matters is the job they are paid to do, and how they perform in that job.

For instance, Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News, was widely quoted praising Greta's skills as an interviewer. Others were widely quoted observing that Ailes is driven by a desire to defeat rival network CNN, and that this was behind the hiring of Greta. "Roger likes to win and he hates to lose, and he hates to lose more than he likes to win," Kevin Magee, Fox's vice president of programming told Newsday. "But Greta is a genuine talent, and she would be here even if she was selling pretzels on the street."

And selling pretzels is no easy trick. This new, enlightened attitude about women became even clearer just this week, when another talented female anchor, Paula Zahn, was in the news. CNN, Zahn's employer, aired a new commercial last weekend that featured a shot of Zahn at work and this voice-over: "Where can you find a morning news anchor who's provocative, super-smart, oh yeah, and just a little sexy?" [Pause] "CNN, yeah, CNN." The Associated Press reported that the sound of a zipper could be heard in the background.

But these are modern times, and so there was an immediate uproar about the insulting spot, which the embarrassed CNN honchos pulled and denounced. Seems some low-level lackeys had produced it, on the theory that in the current media environment, a woman journalist's most marketable asset is still her sex appeal.

Now what ever gave them that idea?