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Excerpt: Spin Sisters
A longtime women's-mag editor argues that powerful women in the media business use their positions to sell American women unhappiness and liberalism.- March 12, 2004
Remember way back when Rosie O'Donnell was the "Queen of Nice," when her syndicated talk show was almost as popular as Oprah's? For an hour every weekday, she seemed like such a cheery girlfriend, always so good-humored and smiling. Why, we were even supposed to believe that Rosie—such a cut-up—really, really, really had a crush on Tom Cruise.
That was all before a German publishing conglomerate turned McCall's, America's oldest women's magazine, into Rosie, a publication that was supposed to appeal to millions of readers who were allegedly just like Rosie, described by the magazine as a young working mother interested in kids, cooking, and crafts. Were they kidding? How many lesbian moms with multimillion-dollar bank balances, bodyguards for their kids, and a political point of view to the left of Madonna's live on your block? Calling Rosie typical is like saying Princess Di was just a single mom trying to juggle two kids, keep a wardrobe up-to-date, and still find time for volunteer work.
Now, anyone who actually knew Rosie and admired her gift for comedy might have called her talented and very funny but, quite frankly, never nice. I suppose it's possible to find something phonier than Rosie's relentlessly upbeat on-camera persona—Pamela Anderson's chest comes to mind—but it's not easy. Still, that didn't stop the media from gushing over Rosie's daily doses of hearty good nature. And pretending that she, in her uniform of dark man-tailored suits, was maybe just a wee bit tomboyish. In cover stories in a battery of women's magazines including Redbook, Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping, and, I admit it, Ladies' Home Journal, her "niceness" was hailed, and Rosie was extolled as a talented comedienne, a good mother, and a generous philanthropist, some of which may be true.
But nobody ever mentioned she was also hell on wheels.
I was part of the spin. As the Journal editor, I had the job of organizing several cover stories on Rosie, including photo shoots. It was never pleasant. Rosie did not like to have her picture taken. Rosie did not like to tell anyone her correct clothing size. So when she arrived at the studio where the magazine's cover was to be shot, the dozens of outfits hanging on the rack waiting there for her didn't fit. Already angry when she walked in, that made Rosie even madder. Rosie also didn't like the photographer who was taking her picture. And she didn't like the makeup artist or the hair stylist or the fashion consultant, all of whom had been hired at great expense to make her look as attractive as possible. Rosie didn't even like to smile.
But you'd never know it to see the final cover with Rosie beaming from the newsstands like your new best friend with a bright and peppy cover blurb to cap off the charade. That was part of the spin, too.
Once I gave a luncheon for Rosie. It seemed like a good idea at the time. To get her to be the guest of honor, the magazine contributed a large sum in her name to one of her favorite charities. This, by the way, happens all the time. It's the way celebrities hit up publications to give to the star's pet philanthropic projects. Our luncheon for a couple of hundred guests at the Rainbow Room, on the top Rockefeller Center, was held during the first year of Rosie's talk show, when she was very popular. Many of the guests were fans and were eager to get close to her. They assumed Rosie in person was like the Rosie she played on TV. But Rosie, looking bored and sulky, was having none of it.
She sat glumly on a raised dais with Libby Pataki, the pleasant, down-to-earth wife of the governor of New York, and me. When a perfectly polite woman came up and asked for an autograph, the Queen of Nice harrumphed that she didn't give them. Libby Pataki murmured something noncommittal like, "Oh, that's interesting." Rosie looked annoyed. When she finally got up to speak, she turned and snidely said, "Listen, Lib, you don't like that I don't give autographs? Well, I only give them to kids. To anyone older than that, I say, you want my autograph? Get a fuggin' life."
Rude and crude. But Rosie was the star of the moment. Everyone laughed and applauded, thrilled that Rosie had shared with us the nasty way she brushed off her fans. This wasn't a crowd who would ever challenge a celebrity's inappropriate behavior, much less take on the hottest ticket in town. "That Rosie, she's so outrageous. Isn't she great?" they chattered, reaffirming each other's instinct to never, never, never criticize a star.
* * *
While she hosted her daily talk show, Rosie employed a contingent of very experienced publicists from PMK/HBH, the most powerful celebrity public-relations firm in the country, who accompanied her virtually everywhere. In fact, one publicist insisted that when the Journal did a cover shoot in Miami with Rosie, she, too, had to be flown there, at the magazine's expense, just to make sure her client was "comfortable." Highly paid hand-holders go with the territory when it comes to celebrity day care.
When Rosie decided to end her daily television talk show, she was also about to publish a book about her life called Find Me. In a hit-and-run maneuver, Rosie wanted finally to tell the truth about her homosexuality to the American public. Although leaving television, she expected to continue to oversee her magazine.
Her "coming out" was a carefully orchestrated two-month-long media campaign, overseen by Cindi Berger, a top PMK publicist, described by the New York Post as one of "The 50 Most Powerful Women in New York." Cindi is one of the Precinct Commanders of the Access Police, the handlers who control press entree to movie, music, and television stars with an iron fist. She oversees a whole stable of "problem kid" clients including Sharon Stone and Mariah Carey and those insightful foreign policy analysts, the Dixie Chicks, whose headline-making behavior makes them all media favorites. Cindi is in charge of deciding which of her stars will be made available to appear on which magazine cover, which network television newsmagazine show will get the exclusive interview, and which will be shut out. You thought editors and producers picked who would appear on their covers and shows? Not exactly. But more about that later.
Cindi, who says she shares Rosie's political philosophy as most in the media do, was in favor of her client's new honesty but wanted to package the disclosure very carefully. She arranged for a highly promoted two-hour primetime interview special on ABC with Diane Sawyer.
The Sawyer interview would focus not on the talk-show host's own personal story but rather on a related issue that was important to Rosie, her outrage that in the state of Florida, where she lived, homosexual couples were not allowed to adopt children. Cindi had researched opinions about the issue and believed women in would be interested in Rosie's point of view.
Then, to further take the edge off Rosie's admission, Barbara Walters, another of Cindi's clients, pitched in. Weeks before the interview, Barbara casually mentioned on her show, The View, that Rosie was gay, as if it were no big deal. But what was made a big deal was Rosie's determination to assist the ACLU in overturning the Florida adoption law. That aspect of the primetime special was promoted twice on Good Morning America and on ABC affiliates' local news programs. World News Tonight anchor Peter Jennings carried an excerpt from the special as if it were major news. Even the title, "Rosie's Story: For the Sake of the Children," fit right in to the carefully created ACLU propaganda campaign.
Finally, the big night of the Sawyer special arrived. Political correctness reigned, and everything was done, as it usually is, to make sure that celebrity equaled credibility. If a star says it, hey, it must be so. No Media Queen would be so churlish as to contradict or even ask one tough question during a highly promoted primetime interview that was sure to garner really big ratings.
During the program a gay couple who had tried to adopt several hard-to-place foster kids was featured and portrayed very sympathetically. On camera, a sociologist, Dr. Judith Stacey, ripped to shreds the notion that it was damaging or inappropriate for gays to adopt. Dr. Stacey is the Streisand Professor of Contemporary Gender at the University of Southern California. Yes, that Streisand. The only person willing to express and to explain his support for the law was a mild-mannered young then-state senator named Randy Ball. Savvier Florida politicians may have realized that their television skills would be no match for Rosie and a sleekly produced major network special in the debating department.
When Ball said he opposed Rosie's position because he adhered to the Bible and its views on homosexuality, Diane Sawyer looked pained and practically sniffed at such intolerance. But when Rosie explained her religious philosophy with a rhyming lyric from the long-running musical Les Mis—"My soul belongs to God, I know. I made that bargain long ago"—Diane seemed to brim over with respect.
Now, I happen to know the author of the English lyrics of Les Miserables. He is a British journalist named Herbie Kretzmer, known as the Kosher Butcher of Fleet Street when he was a theater critic because of his particularly acerbic reviews. I imagine he thanks God every morning for the royalties he gets from the world's most successful musical, but I don't think he considers himself either divinely inspired or on par with the authors of the Old Testament.
To no one's surprise, least of all mine, Diane's Primetime interview got high ratings—and Rosie's book hit The New York Times bestseller list. According to a satisfied Cindi Berger, everyone out there really knew all along that Rosie's flirting with "her Tommy" Cruise was just shtick and that her carefully stage-managed revelation was no big deal. And Rosie herself, gleeful that all constraints were off after the finale of her talk show, told a nightclub audience a few weeks later with relish, "The bitch ain't so nice anymore."
* * *
And so another successful episode in audience manipulation seemed to end as planned for everyone involved in this clever little marketing scheme. Rosie and her publisher had a bestseller, Diane and ABC had a ratings hit, Cindi and PMK had scored for their client, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found itself and its issues discussed round-the-clock on network and cable television.
But then a funny thing happened. The newsstand sales of Rosie magazine plummeted from a high of over 700,000 copies a month at the magazine's launch to a low of around 200,000. Despite one of the most carefully constructed coming-outs since New Coke, half a million women just stopped buying.
Were those young mothers out there who cared about "kids, cooking, and crafts" shocked that Rosie was gay? Maybe some were. Did they disagree with her far-left political views? Again, some probably did. But I don't think either her sexual proclivities or her politics were the reason for such a steep decline in sales. I think that the readers of Rosie, whether they cared about Rosie's disclosure or not, just couldn't help but realize they had been had. Rosie wasn't who she had pretended to be. And those readers decided they were just not going to be scammed at $3.50 a copy anymore. Because of the dramatic sales decline it wasn't long before the publishers of Rosie magazine, Gruner + Jahr, began an ugly fight with the star about the direction of the magazine. Both sides aired their differences in public and then sued each other for millions. It wasn't pretty.
The drama of the rise and fall of Rosie made headlines all over the country, but the selling and telling of Rosie wasn't that extraordinary, at least not to me. Seeing a celebrity image created out of whole cloth was nothing new. Believe me, it happens all the time. But what doesn't happen very often is the chance to see a media rollout as tightly controlled as Britney Spears's virginity watch go south.
Why am I telling you this story?
Because it's a perfect example of calculated Girls' Club spin. Obviously Cindi's goal was to make the women watching the Primetime special unquestioningly (and unthinkingly) sympathetic to Rosie by framing her coming-out as part of a one-woman crusade to change what she argued was an antiquated, bigoted Florida law. To accomplish this she was assisted by Diane and, to some degree, by Barbara, and the rest of the gang at ABC. After watching the special, if you weren't sympathetic to Rosie "for the sake of the children," you felt there was something very wrong with you. If you didn't agree with Rosie, well, then you didn't really care about needy kids. And who wants to feel she doesn't care about kids?
Of course, Rosie messed it up when she declared so gleefully that the bitch was back. (Her publisher's counterclaim was that the bitch had been there all along, having temper tantrums in her corner office.) But then who could blame daytime viewers and magazine readers for thinking for so long Rosie was the Queen of Nice? She had been packaged and sold to you as exactly that by the best in the business. Only when Rosie let down her hair (metaphorically speaking) and then chopped it off (not so metaphorically), did women realize that Rosie just wasn't such a cheery, smiling Cutie Patootie after all.
Still, if false notions about celebrity were all women's media was selling, it probably wouldn't matter much. But that isn't the case. What you are also told and sold are some very negative messages about your own lives, and that's a lot more important. Women's media often wants you to buy notions of unhappiness and victimization and all the political baggage that goes with it in just the same way Cindi and Diane and Peter and Barbara wanted you to buy Rosie's "selfless" coming out and her political agenda. Behind that spectacular snow job was the power of the evening news, an evening newsmagazine, and a morning talk show complemented by celebrity news shows and lots of coverage in newspapers and weekly magazines hyping the story.
Myrna Blyth was the editor-in-chief of Ladies' Home Journal from 1981 to 2002 and the founding editor-in-chief of More magazine. This is excerpted from Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness and Liberalism to the Women of America, by Myrna Blyth. Copyright © 2004 by Myrna Blyth and published by St. Martin's Press. Excerpted with the permission of the publisher. You can buy Spin Sisters at Amazon.com.
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