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Gender Politics and Morning Television: A Discourse Analysis
of the Media-Constructed 'Duel' between Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403
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This study examines print coverage of the ratings war between
Katie Couric, of NBC's "Today" show, and Diane Sawyer, of ABC's "Good
Morning America". Drawing on feminist political economic theory,
this study uses discourse analysis to demonstrate how coverage of
Couric and Sawyer reinforces stereotypical ideologies about women in
powerful positions. Coverage of these newswomen supports the
historical gender politics of the television news industry by placing
responsibility for high ratings squarely on their shoulders and by
manipulating competition between them to generate media revenue.
Gender Politics and Morning Television: A Discourse Analysis
of the Media-Constructed "Duel" between Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer
Speculation that Katie Couric will depart NBC's "Today" show to
become the primary anchor of the "CBS Evening News" when her contract
expires in May 2006 picked up momentum in the fall of 2005 with a
flurry of national media coverage (e.g. Gold, 2005; Johnson, 2005;
Zurawik, 2005). If Couric does leave "Today", a show she has been
with for 15 years, it will be a major coup for CBS and arguably could
create a large crack in the glass ceiling of the male-dominated
television news industry1. Couric is currently the highest paid news
personality, male or female, on the air (Ostrow, 2005). Put simply,
Couric's level of cultural exposure and salary status place media
representations of her in prime positions to contribute to opinions
and attitudes about gender, especially about newswomen and women in
similar organizational positions.
In the midst of the publicity about her future as a newswoman,
Couric, along with Diane Sawyer, co-anchor of ABC's "Good Morning
America" ("GMA"), has also been implicated in the center of the
ratings "war" between "Today" and "GMA". This study examines,
through a discourse analysis, visual and verbal language of
mainstream print coverage of the media-constructed 'duel' between
Couric and Sawyer. This study is based on the postulate that
television newswomen featured in network morning news shows carry the
burden of towing the bottom-line. The goal of this study is to
demonstrate how, although women may have made slight gains in
television news, media representations of Couric and Sawyer, and the
extent to which they are held to credibility-reducing double
standards, support the gender politics that are historically embedded
in the field of television news.
Context of the Issue
Studies of the numbers of women and minorities in television
newsrooms have been conducted for decades. Recent studies
demonstrate that the numbers of women entering television news are
slowly rising but that women, and other underrepresented groups,
still have ground to gain in news broadcasting professions (Stone,
2001a; 2001b; RTNDA, 2005). The history and status of women in
television news is considered in the next section, which is followed
by a theoretical discussion of feminist political economy of communications.
History and Status of Women in Television News
To understand women's roles in and contributions to television
news, and the current state of the industry for women, it is
necessary to describe women's participation in this historically
male-dominated field. Before television, women worked in print
journalism organizations, mostly behind the scenes. Women's job
duties, and issues they were allowed to cover, were relegated to the
margins of newsroom culture (Chambers, Steiner, & Flemming,
2004). World War II offered female journalists' opportunities to
cover "hard"2 news, since many male journalists and news managers
were sent off to war. Female journalists became the lifeline between
information and the society during this time.
As the war ended, men returned to the United States to reclaim
their positions in the country's newsrooms. Women who picked up the
slack in newsrooms were again pushed to the margins and sent to cover
"women's issues" for women's pages. Nevertheless, male news managers
realized that a large female audience existed and was ready to be tapped.
The arrival of the television into American households in the 1950s
opened another avenue for delivering news to the masses. Women began
to hold positions in television newsrooms behind the scenes but were
rarely allowed to report the news. When they were assigned stories,
they were often about "soft"3 issues that were considered not as
important as the "hard" news stories usually covered by men. The
woman most credited with opening doors for other women in television
news is Pauline Frederick (Sanders & Rock, 1988; Marlane,
1998). Frederick began her career as a freelance radio journalist
during World War II. Frederick was the first woman under contract
with a news division of a major television network; she covered the
1948 presidential election on television for ABC (Sanders & Rock,
1988). Other women would follow Frederick and eventually open
additional doors for television newswomen4.
Several historic events have also had significant implications
for women's opportunities in America's newsrooms, especially in
television newsrooms. The most notable was the Civil Rights Act
(1964), which prohibits discrimination based on gender, race, color,
creed, or national origin. This was followed by the Kerner Commission
Report (1968), which criticized media (under)representation of women
and minorities. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted
the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Act in 1969 but these
neglected gender as a basis for discrimination. The FCC revised the
EEO in 1971 to include gender as a form of discrimination amidst
pressure from the National Organization for Women (NOW). Demographic
data obtained from Vernon A. Stone indicates that the numbers of
women hired in television and radio broadcasting slowly began to rise
in the early 1970s (Stone 1988a). This can be seen as a response to
the provisions put in place in the 1960s.
Some prominent television newswomen hired in the early 1970s
include Connie Chung, Rita Flynn, Joan Lunden, Jane Pauley, Maria
Shriver, Carole Simpson, Leslie Stahl, and Mary Alice
Williams. These women gathered for a "Donahue" special in 1988 to
discuss their struggles in network news and their perceptions of the
future for women in television news. Some of the struggles in
television news that these pioneers, and others, cite are sexism,
looksism, ageism, and racism (Donahue, 1988; Alter; 1989; Marlane,
1988; PBS, 2003). Balancing a career and family was also noted as an
issue faced by women in television news (Donahue, 1988; Mercandetti, 1991).
Annual studies of the television news industry have been
conducted since the 1970s by Vernon A. Stone and by the Radio
Television News Director's Association (RTNDA). These studies have
established employment trends which demonstrate that a
disproportionate number of white males report and make decisions
about news. Stone's data indicates that women made slight gains in
certain areas of the industry, primarily in reporting and anchoring
positions, whereas increases in hiring of other minority groups
remained stagnant during the 1970s and 1980s (Stone, 1988a,
1988b). Stone's (1988a) data indicates that between 1976-1986 whites
accounted for approximately 88 percent of all people in the
television workforce nationwide. Women made up approximately 27
percent of television news employees while men accounted for nearly
Stone's (1988b) research also examines who works in news director
positions in television newsrooms. News directors usually make all
or most of the decisions regarding what and how stories will be
covered; this position is considered a middle-management position
(Stone, 2001b). Stone's data demonstrates that between the years of
1972-1986 more women entered news management positions but other
minority groups were widely excluded from these roles in
newsrooms. Men held 99.5 percent of news director positions in
1972. Race information for this year is not included in the study;
however, race is discussed in the next paragraph. By 1986 the number
of male news directors had decreased to 86 percent, meaning that the
number of women increased by 14 percent over a 14 year span. This
trend indicates that women made small gains in newsroom management
between the years of 1972-1986.
Data concerning race did not demonstrate significant increases in
the number of minorities hired in news director positions. No data
is included for the years 1972 and 1976 in this study. In 1982
whites accounted for approximately 98.2 percent of news
directors. Four years later, in 1986, that number had not even
decreased one percentage point (97.4%). Overall, Stone's data from
the 1970's and 1980's indicates that women and minorities were
under-represented in television newsrooms between the years of
1972-1986. The number of women hired to work in television newsrooms
slightly increased during that time while other racial minority
groups remained solely at the periphery of television newsrooms.
Ziegler & White (1990) studied the number of female and minority
correspondents featured in news stories to determine if things had
changed since the implementation of the Kerner Commission
recommendations in 1968. They found that not much had changed; women
and minorities were still under-represented at the time of their
study in the late 1980s. Ziegler & White (1990) asserted that this
trend was indicative of the social status of these groups.
The trends demonstrated by Stone's early research continued
throughout the 1990s. By 1994, white men held 54 percent of newsroom
positions, white women held 28 percent of newsroom positions,
minority men held 8 percent of newsroom positions and minority women
held 10 percent of newsroom positions (Stone 2001a). By 1994, women
held nearly 21 percent of news director positions (Stone,
2001b). Stone (2001b) states that women broke through the "glass
ceiling" in television news during the 1990s; women held 36 percent
of positions in the television news workforce and 21 percent of news
director positions. This indicates that women made gains during this
time, especially white women, while other minority groups, especially
African American's were also hired in increased numbers.
The slight growth in the numbers of women and minorities in
television news from 1972 through the 1990s should have served as a
predictor of future newsroom employment trends that continues to show
increases in women and minority hires. However, not much has changed
over the past 20 years. The most recent data from the annual study
of the RTNDA shows that the number of women and minorities hired
hardly increased between 2004 and 2005 (RTNDA, 2005).
As of 2005, RTNDA data indicate that 79 percent of all news directors
are male and 21 percent are female, 88 percent are white and 12
percent are minority. Caucasian's represent the majority of
executive producers (87% total; 45% male; 55% female), news anchors
(77% total; 43% male; 57% female), and reporters (75% total; 42%
male; 58% female). Other positions, such as weathercaster, sports
anchor, sports reporter, photographer, internet specialist, managing
editor, and assignment editor are still dominated by Caucasian
males. Further, women have made gains but only in entry-level
reporting positions and in positions in small market stations that
have fewer viewers. Both women and minorities are still
under-represented in middle- and upper-management positions; these
are the positions that are responsible for making daily decisions
about what is news and how news ought to be covered.
Despite the slight increase in the numbers of women in television
news over the past 30 years, struggles still exist. Rutenberg (2002)
explores the so-called demise of the glass ceiling for women in
television news. The article addresses the changing of the guard at
the news desks of the major network's evening newscasts and debates
whether the first female appointment will be made to those
positions. In this article, an unidentified female network news
executive asserts that a "new generation of female correspondents" is
in place in network news divisions. Rutenberg (2002) concludes the
article with a telling quote from NBC News correspondent, Campbell
Brown, about her perception of the gender barrier in television news:
To me it's a nonissue. Clearly because of the groundwork of the
people who came before me, who are ahead of me and have broken down
so many of the barriers, I don't feel that there are any.
Gender is still an issue, however, for newswomen both in and outside
of newsrooms. The Stone & RTNDA studies mentioned above support this
fact. Several examples of gender as an issue in news have also made
recent news headlines.
For example, veteran newswoman, Marina Kolbe, brought an
age-discrimination lawsuit against CNN in 2005. Kolbe is suing CNN
for violation of the Age Discrimination Employment Act (Becker,
2005). This accusation comes on the heels of a former CNN vice
president who settled her age-discrimination lawsuit against the news
giant out of court in 2004 (Anderson, 2004). Hence, age
discrimination for women in network television news still
exists. More importantly, Becker (2005) argues that discrimination
probably happens more than it is reported by women, probably out of
fear of losing jobs or other forms of retaliation.
Another struggle in regard to gender for women in TV news is
situated in the coverage of ABC's naming of Elizabeth Vargas and Bob
Woodruff as successors to Peter Jennings as co-anchors of World News
Tonight (WNT). Most of this coverage has focused on Vargas and the
fact that ABC decided to go with a male-female duo to replace
Jennings. The pair debuted on January 3, 2006 amidst news headlines,
such as "Network news tries to make headlines: ABC is the latest to
retool the traditional nightly newscast" and "Anchor duo to succeed
Jennings at ABC News: Bob Woodruff, Vargas rare network pairing,"
which allude to the deviant approach ABC decided to take (e.g. Kurtz,
2005; Pennington, 2006). Additional coverage has focused on analysis
of Vargas' facial expressions and vocal intonations and juxtaposed
her news style with Woodruff's (Laurance, 2006).
Further, when Woodruff was seriously injured in Iraq in late
January 2006, news coverage focused less on Woodruff's injuries and
instead grappled with who would fill in for him while he recovered
(Gold, 2006). Most coverage neglected the possibility of Vargas
anchoring solo until Woodruff returns (Gold, 2006)6. In mid-February
2006, Vargas also announced that she was pregnant, which garnered
news attention questioning her role in the future of WNT (e.g.
Shister, 2006; Steinberg, 2006). The point here is that the ability
of a father-to-be in a similar network position to handle work and
family would not likely be questioned. One article did, however, pay
mention to the fact that Vargas is "breaking news, the glass ceiling,
and stereotypes" because she is the first Latina to anchor an evening
newscast (Munoz, 2006). This cursory sampling of coverage of Vargas
illustrates that there is still doubt about whether a woman is
capable of anchoring the evening news solo and demonstrates that
women's physical conditions and news styles remain issues in newsrooms.
The most recent, and perhaps blatant, example of gender politics
at work within the culture of TV news is a slide-show essay featured
on Slate.com entitled, "TV's Aryan Sisterhood7" (Shafer, 2006). The
slide-show provides images and commentary, complete with a "Periodic
Table of Blondness," that chronicles the changing hairstyles and hair
colors of a majority of female network and cable anchors and
correspondents. While some may find this an amusing display, or even
a critique of diversity among those who report the news, it
undermines these women's contributions to their profession and helps
support the male-dominated industry by placing these women in
objectified, secondary, trivial positions.
The information above indicates that women and other minority
groups are still under-represented in the television news
industry. Further, obstacles for women to gain entry into and
momentum within the industry, including ageism, balancing career and
work, focus on physical appearance (looksism), and the debate about
women's places at the nightly news desks, still exist. Therefore, it
is reasonable to contend that a majority of mainstream media
representations of television newswomen, such as the print coverage
of Couric and Sawyer that is the focus of this study, do little to
bring attention to their journalistic qualifications and
contributions to the profession. Instead, this type of coverage,
which often focuses on looks or other trivial aspects of their lives,
perpetuates stereotypes about these television newswomen and, more
broadly, about women in similar professional positions. The
following section addresses the underpinnings of feminist political
economy of communications, which further theoretically informs this study.
Theoretical Frame: Feminist Political Economy of Communications
Feminist political economy of communications and media is based
on the "alliance" of feminist media theories and political economy
(McLaughlin, 1999; Steeves & Wasko, 2002). Feminist media theories
assume that women are oppressed and seek to identify sites in media
organizations and/or media content that contribute to this oppression
(Van Zoonen, 1994; Steeves, 1987). Feminist critiques of media
usually focus on representations of women in mass media content that
lead to reinforcement of social ideologies and stereotypes of
women. A hearty body of literature addresses media representations
of women, gender inequality, and stereotypes (e.g., Goffman, 1978;
Jhally, 1987; Creedon, 1993; Kilbourne, 2001).
Van Zoonen (1994) notes that scholars from diverse backgrounds
now incorporate feminist critiques in their work such that feminist
media theories now include examinations of women, and other groups,
who are marginalized based on race, ethnicity, class, creed, and
sexuality (p. 15; e.g. see Tuchman (1978b), and Lafky, et. al
(1996). Three feminist perspectives are acknowledged as guiding
forces in feminist media studies: liberal feminism, radical feminism,
and socialist feminism (Steeves, 1987). Further, Steeves (2004)
notes that contemporary trends of feminist theory include postmodern,
post-structural, and international perspectives, which seek to
understand representations of women and women's experiences from
beyond a white-middle class perspective.
Political economy of communications examines the relationship
between media and communication systems and society, and the
influences among media ownership and policies and organizational
behavior and content (Mosco; 1996; McChesney, 2000; Wasko,
2004). One of the central goals of the political economy of
communications is to locate sites of power in media and communication
industries to understand how their order and control are maintained
through production, distribution, and consumption practices (Mosco,
1996; Wasko, 2004). Political economy of communications questions
the efficiency (and social benefit) of traditional systems of
economics; it is a critique of capitalism that is often influenced by
Emphasis on commercialization, or commodification, of media
companies and the products they produce is one direction of political
economic analyses. Wasko (2004) asserts "more and more of the
media/communication landscape is filled with commercial messages" and
notes that the tabloidization of the news is of concern to media
political economists (p. 311, p. 317). Tabloidization in regard to
representations of television newswomen is of interest here.
Scholars contend that the fields of political economy, cultural
studies, and feminist theory are ripe for integration, despite
conflicting views on certain points. McLaughlin (1999) calls for
"a feminist political economy that reconciles the insights of 'the
politics of representing the Other' with a much-needed material
dimension that only a political economy approach can provide," (p.
327). In other words, cultural studies from a feminist perspective
neglects the structural forces that support the very media products
that feminist cultural studies seeks to evaluate. The relationship
between cultural studies and political economy has been contentious;
cultural studies theorists criticize political economists for having
too narrow a focus, whereas political economists criticize cultural
studies theorists for focusing only on media products and neglecting
the processes under which those products were developed (Mosco, 1996;
McLaughlin (1999) argues that many feminist scholars are stalled
in cultural studies, which limits feminist inquiry and overall
advancement of the feminist agenda (p. 330). She explores
differences between feminist theories, cultural studies, and
political economy and delineates the ways in which scholars have
deepened the divide between these approaches at the expense of
adequately addressing larger questions of power and domination. A
feminist political economy resolves problems of only considering
representation and/or class in studies of culture and cultural
artifacts. McLaughlin (1999) envisions a feminist political economy
as one that explores cultural representations and the circumstances
under which those representations are produced and consumed.
Steeves & Wasko (2002) expand McLaughlin's argument and
specifically address the "friendly alliance" that feminist theory and
political economic theory share. One commonality of feminist
theories and theories of political economy is that they both seek to
uncover sites of power and reveal marginalized voices in media
content/structures. Steeves & Wasko assert "the aims and methods of
socialist feminism are most compatible with political economy," (p.
17). They note that differences in emphases make these theoretical
bodies difficult to merge, yet they share foci that are ostensibly
dependent on one another.
Feminism, particularly socialist feminism, is concerned with
deconstructing symbols (hence the emphasis on critiques of media
representations of women and other minority groups), because
patriarchy is explained as ideology, whereas political economy is
concerned with structural forces that produce and mass disseminate
media content because class oppression stems from economic
structures. Steeves & Wasko (2002) stress feminist political economy
allows for explorations of media content and organizational
structures of media conglomerates. Therefore, a feminist political
economic approach accounts for sites of power from two distinct, yet
related, directions: internal structural organizations of the
companies that produce mediated messages and media products intended
for external reproduction and consumption by society.
At this point it is useful to address a recent article of media
from a feminist political economic perspective that informs this
debate and underscores the need for this type of research, especially
in regard to the complex relationship between women and media.
Ross (2002) discusses the political economy of broadcast news
from a feminist perspective.
Women continue to function as commodified bodies that their/our sex
is always the primary signifier no matter how else we are producing
or making news, and that therefore the political economy of news
production relies on reducing women to cheap(er) labor as workers in
the industry and on sexualizing them/us in the social world more
generally (when they are not erasing us altogether from social,
political, economic, and cultural life) as yet another way of selling
sex (p. 112).
The point is that in many respects women in broadcast news are no
longer at the periphery of the newsroom but that the current
direction of the news puts these women in a double-bind. Broadcast
newswomen must negotiate between being taken seriously as good
journalists and giving in to the commercialistic demands of a
gendered organizational news structure.
This study addresses the following research questions, which are
based on the review of the literature above and the heavy media
attention that the ratings "war" between "Today" and "GMA" received
in the spring and summer of 2005:
RQ1: How are Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer represented in recent
media coverage about "Today" and "GMA" ratings?
RQ2: To what extent are Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer linked to the
ratings race between "Today" and "GMA"?
RQ3: What are the implications of this coverage in regard to
representations of television newswomen and
representations of women in media?
These questions provide avenues in which to begin to address
representations of media sources that are produced by news and
information industries still dominated by white men. These questions
address the ways in which television newswomen become further
commodified, as objects to be bought and sold, to the benefit of
capitalist media companies and at the expense of women who work the
Sources for this study consist of newspaper and magazine coverage
of the ratings race between "Today" and "GMA" published between April
and August 2005. The initial source was a cover article in the June
6, 2005 edition of New York magazine (Gordon, 2005). The headline of
this article, "Divas at Dawn," and the accompanying photo that ran on
the cover of the magazine conveys competition between Couric and
Sawyer and masks the ratings "race" between "Today" and "GMA". A
Lexis-Nexis search for additional print coverage of the ratings
"race" was conducted and it was determined that the coverage began in
April 2005. Coverage was monitored until it dissipated in late August 2005.
This search yielded 20 articles that addressed the "duel" between the
veteran newswomen between April and August 2005. Articles appeared
in regional newspapers (The Post and Courier; Charlesttown, SC),
national newspapers (The New York Times and USA Today), and in
magazines (New York, and The New Yorker). Articles published in more
than one publication were excluded from the evaluated
sources. Articles were feature stories, business news stories, and
opinion pieces. These sources demonstrate the extensive national
coverage that the ratings race between "Today" and "GMA" received.
Discourse analysis is used in this study to evaluate meanings
embedded in the visual and verbal language contained in these
sources, which are intertextually dependent. Rose (2001) asserts
that discourse analysis "refers to groups of statements which
structure the way a thing is thought, and the way we act on the basis
of that thinking" (p. 136). Discourse can be composed of visual
(photographs, graphics, etc.) and/or verbal (written statements,
words, etc.) texts. Intertextuality refers to how meanings conveyed
by groups of texts are dependent on one another, and are keys to
discourse analysis. The purpose of this study is to evaluate print
media representations of these high-status women and to demonstrate
links between representations of gender and economic domination in
the form of show ratings.
Headlines, article bodies, and any accompanying visual images of
each print source (discussed below) were examined for themes that
convey stereotypical inferences about women and/or femininity that
are connected to discussions of show ratings. Specifically, the
extent to which the sources stereotypically represent Couric and
Sawyer and the ways in which these stereotypes are connected to
"Today" and "GMA" ratings was assessed. To address the issue of
intertextuality, each source was evaluated individually, and all
sources were evaluated in relation to one another. The analysis and
discussion in the next sections demonstrate the ways in which the 20
sources evaluated for this study, when considered together, support
particular cultural ideologies about women in powerful positions, and
specifically the extent to which Couric and Sawyer are victims in a
media-created race that is both literally and figuratively dictated
by the bottom-line.
A majority of the articles that covered the ratings race between
"Today" and "GMA" were published during the last week of April 2005,
days before the May 2005 sweeps period began, and during the first
week of June 2005, the week after the sweeps period ended. The
publication dates of these sources are significant because viewer
ratings measurements are assessed during sweeps periods; coverage of
this issue could ostensibly influence program ratings. Further,
coverage appeared in several major publications with ties to New York
City: The New Yorker, New York magazine, The New York Observer, USA
Today, and The New York Times. This is important to note because
these publications are nationally recognized and/or distributed,
"Today" and "GMA" are both broadcast from ground-level studios
located in midtown Manhattan, and because New York City is the media
capital of the world.
Overall, sources fit into two distinct categories: 1). Source
Compares Ratings & Couric/Sawyer (Category One) and 2). Source
Compares Ratings & Does NOT Compare Couric/Sawyer (Category
Two). Out of 20 sources, 13 are classified in Category One and seven
are classified in Category Two. Category One sources discuss ratings
between "Today" and "GMA" and compare and/or contrast Couric and
Sawyer on a number of levels, including physical appearance,
personality, public perception, and co-worker's opinions. Category
Two sources discuss ratings between "Today" and "GMA" and may mention
Couric and/or Sawyer but do not compare and/or contrast the two women
to one another. A discussion of Category One articles is below,
followed by a discussion of Cagetory Two articles.
Category One: Source Compares Ratings & Couric/Sawyer
Throughout coverage in Category One, Couric is described in the
following ways: "perky" (Greppi, 2005), a "fire-breathing diva"
(Shales, 2005), "pocket sized" and "warm" (Jacobs, 2005),
"flirtatious yearbook editor" (Wiser, 2005) and the "former girl next
door" (Ostrow, 2005). Sawyer is described as: an "Ice Queen"
(Ostrow, 2005; Reublican American, 2005), but "becoming more
down-to-earth and accessible" (Shales, 2005) and "folksy and likable"
(Findlay, 2005). Sawyer is also characterized as "luminous cool" and
"a giantess" (Jacobs, 2005), and a "haughty homecoming queen" (Wiser,
Two articles propel the ratings race literally into a debate
about who is a better newswoman (Gliatto, 2005; Wiser, 2005). One
source, entitled "Diane vs. Katie" mentions the ratings race and then
uses the scoring criteria from ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" to rate
both women (Gliatto, 2005). They are judged in three categories:
on-air persona, exclusive "gets," and chemistry with male
colleagues. The other source, entitled "Couric vs. Sawyer: Who's
Your Source of Morning Anchor?" again mentions the ratings race and
compares Couric and Sawyer in seven categories: time on early shift,
high school counterpart, silly stunt low point, nonverbal clues that
the story is a serious one, legs, and awkward babbling (Wiser, 2005).
Eight authors cite an article published on April 25, 2005 in The
New York Times by Alessandra Stanley (Auletta, 2005; Dorsey, 2005;
Findlay, 2005; Jacobs, 2005; Spirit, 2005; Traister, 2005; Van
Munching, 2005; Wiser, 2005). According to the date range of the
sources obtained for this study, Stanley's article is the first
published account of the ratings race between "Today" and "GMA" that
frames it as a war between Couric and Sawyer. Therefore, this source
deserves in-depth discussion.
Stanley's piece was published just days before May 2005 sweeps
began. She acknowledges that viewers "turn[ed] to ABC's Diane Sawyer
as a refreshingly wholesome, down-to-earth alternative," implying
that "Good Morning America (GMA)" is making gains on "Today's" nearly
10-year reign as the number one morning show in the United States
because viewers prefer Sawyer to Couric. This article departs from a
discussion of the ratings and turns to focus on Stanley's clear
dislike for Couric. Stanley implicates Couric as being primarily
responsible for "GMA" catching up to "Today" in the ratings (and by
extension suggests that Sawyer is responsible for "GMA's" ratings
surge) when she writes:
Inevitably, Ms. Couric's on-air persona changed, along with her
appearance and pay scale. But lately her image has grown downright
scary: America's girl next door has morphed into the mercurial diva
down the hall. At the first sound of her peremptory voice and
clickety stiletto heels, people dart behind doors and douse the lights.
At the end of the piece she says of Sawyer, "Her golden good
looks never change, and she handles interviews and chatter with her
genial co-host Charles Gibson with a poised, creamy insincerity that
never varies or falters."
Stanley's piece is important in this discussion for several
reasons. First, it is overtly sexist because it portrays Couric as a
power-hungry steam roller who will stop at nothing to get what she
wants; it attacks her success, both popularity and monetarily, by
suggesting that she is not liked by (unnamed and unreferenced)
co-workers. The language used to describe Couric reinforces the
stereotype that successful women in powerful positions are abrasive,
aggressive, and mean, which is amplified by the contrasting reference
to her "America's girl next door" image and Sawyer's unchanging
looks. Second, the Couric/Sawyer dichotomy erected in this article
supports the stereotype that women are competitive with one another
and places them in "evil" versus "virtuous" positions. Third, it
implies that "Today's" ratings depend on solely on Couric and that
"GMA's" ratings have increased largely because viewers prefer Sawyer
over Couric. It is true that viewers tune in to watch with whom they
identify, but factors such as, issues that are covered each morning,
production values, and the chemistry among the entire cast also
influence viewer ratings. Fourth, as mentioned above, this article
is the first source to frame the ratings race between "Today" and
"GMA" in terms of Couric and Sawyer, and is cited as such by several
other articles that were published during subsequent months.
Another Category One article that deserves detailed attention as
part of the subsequent coverage of the morning show ratings is a
piece published in the June 6, 2005 edition of New York magazine
written by Meryl Gordon. The magazine's cover reads, "Divas at
Dawn: How Diane Sawyer Ate Katie Couric's Breakfast," which is
followed by the article's interior headline, "Duel at Sunrise" (p.
22). The image on the front cover represents Couric and Sawyer as if
they are in a Wild West showdown, with their backs to one another as
they engage in a stare-down.
In the article itself, Gordon spends significant time comparing
the physical attributes and personalities of Couric and Sawyer. For
example on page 25, she asserts that Couric switches "hairstyles with
Hillary Clinton-like zeal," which is accompanied by a photo timeline
of "Katie Through the Ages" denoting "The Early Years," The Golden
Years," and "The Diva Years." Conversely, Sawyer is described as
having "strikingly good looks," characterized by her blond hair,
five-foot-nine frame, and mention of her reign as America's Junior
Miss years ago. However, Gordon also calls Sawyer an "Alpha Woman"
(p. 26) and suggests that Couric and Sawyer have changed roles as
"America's Sweetheart" and the "Ice Princess" respectively.
This article mimics Stanley's approach to the ratings issue and
reinforces competition between Couric and Sawyer, which further
places the ratings race on their shoulders. Comparisons of these
newswomen's personalities, public perception, and physical appearance
strengthen the binary divide that exists between Couric and
Sawyer. Further, the article supports stereotypes about successful
women and the attractiveness factor that has historically been a
challenge for women in television news.
One additional point this article raises presents another factor
in the ratings race. Around the time that the ratings race began
making national headlines Tom Touchet, then the executive producer of
"Today," was released from his duties. Gordon indicates that
Couric's influence weighed heavily on the networks decision to remove
Touchet (p. 76), but in an earlier USA Today article, Couric stated,
"I wish I were that powerful and calling the shots," (Johnson, 2005).
Gordon also notes that Jeff Zucker, Couric's boss and former
executive producer of "Today," does not think there is "an issue with
talent" (p. 26). Zucker's assertion releases Couric from ratings
responsibility to a certain extent but does not diminish the hundreds
of column inches that have been devoted to the converse. NBC
declined to make Couric available for an interview for this article,
and as a result it reads like a pro-"GMA" assault on
Couric. However, Couric did speak to Ken Auletta for his piece which
ran in the August 8 & 15, 2005 edition of The New Yorker, which is a
Category Two source and is discussed below.
Sources that Acknowledge the Couric/Sawyer Issue as Diversion
Three articles in Category One indicate that the war between
Couric and Sawyer masks the real war—the quest for ratings and
increasing the bottom-line (Jacobs, 2005; Ostrow, 2005; Traister,
2005). For example, Joanne Ostrow's article published in The Denver
Post contains the headline "Couric vs. Sawyer Hides Real Fight:
Network Survival". However, the lead sentence is: "It's open season
on Katie Couric as the death match between the Ice Queen (Diane
Sawyer) and the former Girl Next Door (Couric) gains traction." This
statement returns to the "fight" between Couric and Sawyer. Several
paragraphs later Ostrow turns focus back to the business side of
morning television and quotes media analyst, Andrew Tyndall, as
saying," 'I put a lot of credence in a lot of the churning that's
going on' in the battle between "GMA" and "Today"" and that Tyndall
"sees through the catfight angle." This article tries to divert
attention away from Couric and Sawyer but that intention is subverted
by the language used in the lead sentence. The words "death match"
and the "Ice Queen" and "Girl Next Door" labels attached to Couric
and Swayer provide a hook that does little to divert attention away
from the "catfight."
Alexandra Jacobs, of The New York Observer, stated in a June 2,
2005 article that the fight between Couric and Sawyer is "a beautiful
opposition, even if slightly false" just after her lead paragraph
equates the battle between them being played out in the media as a
"catfight". Jacobs states:
Good Morning America's recent ratings surge against the long-dominant
Today show has framed a good old-fashioned catfight, as irresistible
as Alexis and Krystle wrestling in the mud (and no crying sexism,
please: early-a.m. TV is women's playing field, just as late-night is
men's. It's simple demographics): ABC's Diane versus NBC's Katie.
This paragraph itself could be the subject of a paper on media
representations of women but for now, in rebuttal to Jacobs'
contention that morning television "is women's playing field," it
must be noted that ratings between Jay Leno and David Letterman are
never talked about in sexist terms. Further, Jacobs intentions of
calling attention to the diversionary tactics of this "catfight" is
muted by the article's title, "Diane Targets Tiara," and by the
comparison of Couric and Sawyer that consumes the end of the
article. Jacobs asserts, "Katie is a woman's woman, and Diane is a
An article published on Salon.com by Rebecca Traister is the most
critical of the media-fabricated "duel" between Couric and
Sawyer. She begins the piece by implying that there is a cultural
obsession with aggression between women. Further, she accuses the
media of sensationalizing this story to make it more interesting—if
the discourse were merely about business, would media consumers
really care? Furthermore, she alludes to the behind-the-scenes
decision-makers, who are likely white males, as the ones who are
hiding behind the Couric/Sawyer façade. As Traister states:
Painting powerful women as long-nailed, sharp-toothed
competitors—which, incidentally, they sometimes are, just like their
male peers—are a digestible ways of dealing with them. We can
marginalize them as shrieky playground girls, thereby turning them
from real-life professionals into familiar and unthreatening
caricatures of femininity.
Traister hit the nail on the head here. The only downfall is that it
is one critical take on an issue that has received far more
trivialized coverage about women making money for the networks by
using Couric and Sawyer as profit-seeking laborers for various other
These articles illustrate that, to a certain extent, focus on
Couric and Sawyer is inevitable because their faces symbolize their
respective shows in the public eye. Despite Traister's article,
which the importance of should not be diminished, the Category One
sources that aim to redirect emphasis from the "catfight" to a
general business focus, actually illuminate competition between
Couric and Sawyer, and further perpetuates perceived public dislike
Category Two: Source Compares Ratings & Does NOT Compare Couric/Sawyer
Auletta's piece, entitled "The Dawn Patrol," ponders the cultural
status of morning television news and gives Couric an opportunity to
speak up about the ratings coverage and representation of
her. Couric told Auletta, "I feel like a human piñata. The
disappointing thing is that no candy is going to spill out! This may
not be a lot of fun, but it goes with the territory, unfortunately,
of being successful and female, probably" (p. 69). This article
treats Couric and Sawyer with more respect than much of the other
coverage discussed in this paper. Auletta provides historical
context about "Today" and "GMA," credits both women with their
respective contributions to television news, and pays homage to their
hard work and dedication to their profession. The piece is more of a
dual biography of Couric and Sawyer, and a historical map of morning
television, than it is a pontification about their poplarity and who
ought to reign supreme. Auletta's article is a refreshing take on
the ratings issue. Yet, it is still central to the discursive
formation that supports cultural ideologies about Katie Couric and
Diane Sawyer because it discusses morning television show ratings in
the context of both women.
Another source published before Auletta's was also an outlet for
Couric to speak out about the ratings race, the competition between
her and Sawyer, and the future of "Today." This source was published
in USA Today on April 28, 2005, three days after Stanley's piece
appeared in The New York Times, and was written by Peter
Johnson. The crux of the article is that Couric does not agree with
the way she has been portrayed in media coverage of the ratings
race. She defends her position on the show, indicating that she and
Matt Lauer split duties evenly, and acknowledges that, at the time,
"GMA" had the "Big Mo" or big momentum. Johnson's piece defends
Couric and in a way aims to remove her, and by extension Sawyer, from
the center of the ratings discussion.
Two Category Two sources frame the ratings race as a business
competition (Saunders, 2005; Steinberg, 2005). Couric and Sawyer are
mentioned in both pieces (photos of both women also accompany The
Times article) but the ratings are dealt with in terms of viewer
preferences of the shows, not the show's anchors, and of the show's
production and management teams. While these two pieces do not
specifically implicate Couric and Sawyer as being at the axis of the
ratings war, they are present in both pieces, and as such are
covertly associated with the ratings competition. These articles
refrain from stereotypical language and tend to concentrate on
business aspects of the ratings race. Keep in mind, however, that
Couric and Sawyer are still imbedded in these texts.
The Stanley (2005) piece mentioned in the Category One discussion
above was the basis of two reports that do not focus on the "duel"
between Couric and Sawyer. Instead these articles focus solely on
Couric's responsibility for slight falls in "Today" ratings which
compromise its position as the top morning news program for the past
10 years. The respective titles of these articles are: "Ratings Show
it May Soon Be Time for Couric to Step Down" (Dorsey, 2005) and
"Curtains for Katie: Her Cuteness Becomes a Liability" (Spirit,
2005). The difference in these sources is that Dorsey attributes
"Today's" loss in ratings to Couric's non-favorability among viewers,
which he associates as a negative impact on the $250-$500 million in
revenue "Today" brings in to NBC annually. Conversely, Spirit,
spends her column inches lamenting on why America may have changed
their minds about Couric and offers her opinion of Couric as
"demanding and petulant." Again, both of these pieces do not
explicitly focus on competition between Couric and Sawyer but they do
link Couric to show ratings and profit.
In similar vein to Traister's critical piece on the ratings
"catfight," Category Two sources tend to reframe this issue in terms
of business and refrain from overt comparisons between Couric and
Sawyer. However, Couric and Sawyer are still imbedded in this
conversation because of their respective high-profile positions on
"Today" and "GMA."
Couric and Sawyer are represented in binary opposition to one
another, which perpetuates the stereotype that women are in
competition with one another. Specifically, Couric is represented as
aggressive and power-driven, while Sawyer's "good looks" and
laid-back persona are emphasized. In print media coverage, Couric
and Sawyer are both held solely responsible for their respective
show's ratings as the roles of their male-counterparts in the
rating's battle is never mentioned. The implications of this
coverage in regard to representations of television newswomen and
representations of women in media are addressed in the discussion
Print media representations of Katie Couric and Diane Sawyer
place them in a binary relationship that pits them against one
another. Couric is demonized in this coverage and portrayed as an
aggressive bitch who wields power inside the walls of NBC to get what
she wants. Sawyer is glorified and portrayed as laid back,
easy-going, and a "GMA" team player. Words, such as, "former Girl
Next Door" and "fire breathing diva" used to describe Couric are in
stark contrast to labels, such as, "luminous cool" and folksy," that
are attached to Sawyer. Add the Wild West image of these two women
from the cover of New York magazine to the mix and the dichotomy of
Couric as "evil" and Sawyer as "good" is clearly established.
Inherent in this binary relationship is the notion of competition
between Couric and Sawyer. Yes, their profession requires them to be
in competition with one another to a certain extent because they are
high-profile anchors for competing networks. However, the knock-down
drag-out fight that is portrayed between and among the sources
evaluated for this study is based on manipulation of the issue that
feeds into America's obsession with sensational "news." Many of the
stories evaluated here focus less on the ratings race between "Today"
and "GMA" and instead heavily focus on competition between Couric and
Sawyer. Competition between Couric and Sawyer then becomes
representative of the ratings race between "Today" and "GMA" due to
their high-profile positions with these news programs.
Discussion of the stereotypical language used in print coverage
evaluated for this study underscores the fact that representations of
women in media still contribute to the marginalization of women,
especially those in powerful positions. These representations
further support dominant social ideologies about masculinity and
femininity and specifically punish Couric and Sawyer for their
successes in television news.
Beyond issues of stereotypes, the link to tabloidization of news
presents a larger issue that must be addressed. Representations of
women in news, such as those examined here, are particularly
detrimental to women in news, especially when they become news
themselves. In this case, Couric and Sawyer are dually implicated in
the tabloidization of news, as producers because they are women in
the profession, and as subjects of the news of the day.
The coverage uses Couric and Sawyer to attract audiences, as
controversy sells. For example, Couric and Sawyer become the focus
of tabloid fodder which is gendered. Couric and Sawyer together have
become targets of market-driven journalism, commodified in the name
of product sales by the very profession to which they have dedicated
Further, the tabloid-style coverage evaluated here demonstrates
that a discursive formation exists in regard to the ratings race
between "Today" and "GMA" that starkly implicates Couric and Sawyer
as bearing the ratings (and profit) burden of their respective
shows. These representations help sustain economic structures of
media companies because, simply stated, they sell magazines and
This study is theoretically significant because it delineates the
gendered nature of capitalism, which feminist political economy of
communications critiques, and illustrates how women are ostensibly
used to garner profits,. Further, it demonstrates how a cultural
studies approach can be integrated with a feminist political economic
framework. This study indicates that studies of cultural products
benefit by also studying the economic and organizational
circumstances under which they are produced. As evidenced by this
study, television newswomen are laborers in the news industry but are
also cultural products to be consumed by audiences. When television
newswomen appear in the news as subjects of the news, they
automatically become producers of news and news products. This helps
sustain the capitalist structure of news organizations.
The point here is twofold: 1). Competition between Couric and
Sawyer seems to be manufactured by the media to generate revenue; it
is frivolous and contributes to a news agenda that focuses more on
celebrity-driven sensationalism than "hard" news, and 2). It
contributes to the marginalization of women through stereotypes and
positions these newswomen as the rating-generating minions of network
executives instead of the qualified, award-winning journalists who they are.
Just when the numbers indicate that women are making slight gains
in television news, print media representations of a "duel" between
Couric and Sawyer remind us otherwise. Television news is still
guided by a profit-driven structure, as evidenced by the fabrication
of the "catfight" between Couric and Sawyer, and as the latest RTNDA
(2005) study shows, this structure is still largely controlled mainly
by white men.
The issue addressed here, the gender politics of morning network
news, and more generally gender politics in the television news
industry, raises additional questions that have been asked by
communication researchers over the years: Does the heightened
appearance of women in television news as subjects of news contribute
to the current market-driven direction of news? Will more women
behind the scenes make a difference?
For now it is important to remember that coverage of women who
anchor and report for network and cable television networks, whether
it be coverage about Elizabeth Vargas' pregnancy and how this might
effect ABC's WNT, Ann Curry's battle with her neighbors about her
recent home remodel (Singer, 2005) or the length of her hair (Lennon,
2005), or the media created "duel" between Couric and Sawyer studied
here, has implications for public perception of newswomen's
credibility. Representations of newswomen that focus on anything but
their professional contributions to television news further
marginalizes them, especially when they become the subjects of
frivolous "news". When this happens, their positions in television
news become reduced to magazine sales and ratings revenue, which
supports the patriarchal capitalist system under which they are employed.
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1 If Couric does move to CBS she will step into Dan Rather's position
at the evening news desk; Couric then would become the first woman to
be the sole, primary anchor of a nightly (Monday-Friday) evening news
cast on a broadcast network (Zurawik, 2005).
2 "Hard" news is defined by facts, targets male-points of view, and
tends to rely on male sources (van Zoonen, 1998, p. 36; Djerf-Pierre
& Lofgren-Nilsson, 2001, p. 6).
3 "Soft" news is defined by issues, targets a general audience, and
tends to rely on female sources (van Zoonen, 1998, p. 36 ;
Djerf-Pierre & Lofgren-Nilsson, 2001, p. 6).
4 There are a number of women who are considered pioneers in
television news (e.g. Christiane Amanpour, Marlene Sanders, and
5 Mary Alice Williams is currently a contributing correspondent to
the PBS series "Religion & Ethics." She is one of the "founding
anchors and designers" of CNN and was one of the "highest ranking
female executives in American television," (PBS.org, 2005). After
her tenure at CNN, Williams moved to NBC where she became the first
woman to earn an Emmy Award for anchoring an evening newscast
(PBS.org, 2005). It is important to note that she was not the
principal anchor for the newscast; a woman has yet to be named
principal anchor of a nightly network newscast.
6 It must be noted that Vargas has been anchoring WNT solo with Diane
Sawyer or Charles Gibson occasionally co-anchoring with or filling in
for Vargas. Media reports have begun to speculate that Sawyer is
vying to take over the primary WNT position, which could possibly
result in Vargas moving to Sawyer's position at GMA (Gay,
2006). However, another report indicates that Sawyer wants Gibson to
get the job (Dana, 2006). This potential move has also been linked
to Sawyer's competition with Couric (Dana, 2006; Gay, 2006).
7 This slide-show did feature two men, NBC's Chris Matthews and CNN's
Lou Dobbs, but the intended focus of this slide show is newswomen,
which is evidenced by its title.