The Breakfast Table

Women in the News

This modern life: Reading e-mails so quickly you mistake real life for a dream. Sorry.

See, you really could be a successful blogger: You not only have a clear mental image of Coleen Rowley, you actually remember seven years later what the South Carolina child-drowner Susan Smith looked like. Or did you mean Andrea Yates? I’m afraid nearly all those people blur into some single, generic, mega-morphed perp-walk photo for me. As opposed to the male killers of my youth (Charles Starkweather, Richard Speck, Lee Harvey Oswald), whom I can still picture perfectly.

The point the Times piece about the network news anchors failed to make strongly or even explicitly is that we now have powerful blond women (Diane Sawyer, Katie Couric) for whom anchoring the evening news would not necessarily be a step up. Being the network news anchor is simply no longer the inarguable professional pinnacle that it once was. Instead, it’s now just one of the starring roles available in TV news—a slightly anachronistic role, about to seem all the more anachronistic if the Next Generation is all male, which I expect it will be. I guarantee you that Katie will remain a bigger star than Brian Williams, and Diane a bigger star than whatever youngish, bland white guy replaces Peter Jennings. As for your suggestion that the failures of powerful women is especially Schadenfreude-ian: lumping the atrocious Linda Wachner and the lame Gov. Jane Swift in with Carly Fiorina and Martha Stewart does the latter two a disservice, I think, but of course you’re right—there is an unseemly special relish for powerful women’s professional failures (e.g., Tina Brown) and tribulations (e.g., Gerry Laybourne).

My daughter’s rash is brand new, and no one connected it to 9/11. I guess now she counts as a new datum in this mystery. But I’m not calling the CDC.

Both of my daughters read Nancy Drew when they were younger, though not as faithfully as my wife or—I’ll confess—I did 35 or 40 years ago. I vastly preferred Nancy Drew to the Hardy Boys, but I liked Tom Swift even better than Nancy Drew (which I know does not speak well at all for my juvenile literary taste). A woman named Caroline I met in college is the granddaughter of Harriet Stratemeyer Adams, and I always wondered but never asked if she was named after Carolyn Keene, the pseudonymous “author” of the Nancy Drew books. Another woman I met in college actually was Carolyn Keene briefly in the 1980s, when she spent a few years writing Nancy Drew books.

I’ve never known any of the famous plagiarists well. (When I ran New York magazine, I tried but failed to hire the journalist Ruth Shalit shortly before she was busted for plagiarism.) I think Doris Kearns Goodwin got kicked around more than Stephen Ambrose because she is more of an Establishment player (Harvard Ph.D., the Pulitzer Prize board, the Harvard Board of Overseers) and thus symbolizes rectitude in a way Ambrose does not; because (apropos Staff Envy, which is related to the intragenerational Peer Envy that drove some of the media’s antipathy toward Bill Clinton) her particular success is more envied by more people in the media than Ambrose’s; because the Ambrose M.O. is more generally recognized as a book factory and thus slightly insulated from plagiarism accusations; because no good deed goes unpunished—i.e., Kearns Goodwin’s after-the-fact attempt at virtue, by confessing undiscovered copying, gave the story additional journalistic life; and at least a little because she’s a woman.

Years ago, I happened to discover a bit of plagiarism by a famous movie reviewer of a famous Village Voice writer’s prose. Or maybe it was vice versa. Anyhow, I never told anyone because it seemed more pathetic than criminal—I felt like I’d be making a citizen’s arrest of a candy store shoplifter. Kearns Goodwin’s acts definitely look more like sloppiness than willful stealing to me. What we obviously need are linguistic gradations between originality and plagiarism—the writerly equivalents of second-degree murder, manslaughter, negligent homicide, and so on.

This is the new Age of the Assistant, huh? Does that make it the B Decade? The Wee Decade? Do you mean in a blowback sense, as vehicles for their masters’ comeuppance? Like, say, the authors of The Nanny Diaries and George Stephanopoulos? In any event, I’m assistant-free. So you can count me out.