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Susan, Linda, Nina, and Cokie | An Excerpt from the 2021 Porchlight Narrative & Biography Book of the Year

Lisa Napoli

January 11, 2022

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In the lead up to announcing the Porchlight Business Book of the Year on January 13th, we are sharing excerpts from each of the eight books on the shortlist for the award. Today, we have one from the Narrative & Biography book of the year, Susan, Linda, Nina, and Cokie by Lisa Napoli.

The 2021 Porchlight Narrative & Biography book of the year is Susan, Linda, Nina, and Cokie: The Extraordinary Story of the Founding Mothers of NPR by Lisa Napoli. 

Our friend and former coworker Blyth Meier used to joke that so many of the books we cover are about “how the world is going to end.” It sounds a bit severe, but because of the state of the world and the many challenges and crises we face today, covering business and nonfiction can sometimes feel a little severe—if not quite apocalyptic. But it’s not always so bad.

Sometimes we are reminded of the significant—albeit imperfect—progress we have made, and that this work continues. Sometimes we get books about how the world has been made, and made better, by individuals’ work and example. And the influence of Susan Stamberg, Linda Wertheimer, Nina Totenberg, and Cokie Roberts has been substantial. Chartered in 1970, the fledgling news organization they did so much to give shape and voice to, NPR, is today an institution. It isn’t a perfect institution, but our media landscape would be much poorer without its existence, and National Public Radio would not be what it is today without the considerable influence of the women who Stamberg dubbed its “founding mothers.” Lisa Napoli’s Susan, Linda, Nina and Cokie tells that story. 

The following excerpt comes from the book’s Prologue, which focuses largely on the most well-known of the founding mothers, Cokie Roberts, who passed away in 2019.

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On August 18, 2019, Mary Martha Corinne Morrison Claiborne Boggs Roberts, age seventy-five, did what she’d done for thousands of Sundays. She left her beloved home on Bradley Boulevard in Bethesda, Maryland—the magical, Gone with the Wind–style property she’d begged her parents to buy nearly seventy years before, where she slept each night in the antique cherrywood rope bed that had been in her family for generations—and made her way to the studios of ABC News in Washington, DC.

Her manicured nails polished fire-engine red and her short hair neatly styled to perfection, the woman—nicknamed “Cokie” as a child due to her brother’s inability to pronounce “Corinne”—had learned to enjoy that pampering necessity of television, a turn in the makeup chair. Cosmetic flourishes, like chopping off her long, straight “gym teacher” hair into a more glamorous do when she transitioned from radio to TV, were part of the job. Celebrity came with many perks—like a better table at a restaurant and gratis wine from starstruck flight attendants, if they hadn’t already upgraded her to first class. It also meant being on display on a run to the grocery store.

Glamour wasn’t what attracted the audience to Cokie. The adulation was sparked by the fact that she seemed like a woman in your book club, someone you ran into at the local farmers’ market who remembered your husband’s recent surgery, or your daughter’s recital—a PTA mom consumed with her own family, canning tomatoes from her garden, rushing to church on Sunday morning.

Except that Cokie rushed to church after appearing on national television, where it was her job to break down inside-the-Beltway shenanigans for a rapt audience of millions as if she were dissecting a football game with the guys at the local bar. Except that Cokie knew the inner workings of Washington so intimately that she tutored newly elected lawmakers in its history and protocol. Cokie, unlike anyone else you knew, was on a first-name basis with the power elite. She happened to be one of them herself.

Yes, Cokie might have looked like a prettier version of your average neighbor, but there was no one else like her on earth.

This August Sunday, she joined what the producers called a “power roundtable” of commentators on the long-standing program she once cohosted, This Week. She was emeritus now. Back in 1988, the show had boldly added a skirt, hers, to the boys’ club cast of characters flanking the original host, David Brinkley, the wry raconteur from her parents’ generation, whose career arc spanned the evolution of broadcast news. A North Carolinian by birth, Brinkley first made a name for himself in radio, when World War II instructed Americans in the value of what was then the ascendant medium.

Back then, Washington was infinitely simpler; the burgeoning city was so relaxed, went the stories, that a motorist on Pennsylvania Avenue could drive right up to the portico at the White House and turn around. Media, then, were infinitely simpler, too; covering the White House was a part-time beat. When one of the first studio cameras was wheeled into the newsroom, Brinkley and his colleagues demanded to know, “What in the hell are we supposed to do with that?” As broadcasters struggled to redefine news with pictures, Brinkley morphed and changed and rose to stardom in TV, too—one of a handful of the medium’s plentiful lot of patrician white men so elevated. As homogenous as their makeup was their belief system: “None of us had any ax to grind; none of us had any political ambitions. Our only real purpose in life, and in work, was to tell people what we knew to be true.”

By the time Brinkley jumped from NBC to ABC to launch his weekly inside-the-Beltway analysis show in 1981, cable news and satellites and videotape were accelerating and changing news yet again. And at the exact same time, after years of legislation and lawsuits and activism and sheer determination, women—long marginalized into dead-end jobs as secretaries, researchers, and weather girls, acceptable waystations en route to their supposed true and primary purpose in life, marriage and motherhood—were finally beginning to emerge from the shadows, propelled to the meatier assignments they’d been longing to tackle.

Looking to acknowledge the underrepresentation of half the population, producers of the Brinkley show invited a variety of female pundits on the air for live screen tests. Cokie, who’d been generating a buzz around town for her work as a congressional reporter on National Public Radio and her contributions on its television cousin, PBS, was among them.

Hers was one in the quartet of voices that listeners around the country could hear report the news every day. Colleagues Susan Stamberg, Linda Wertheimer, and Nina Totenberg had each come before her at NPR. They’d joined the network at its marginal and bedraggled beginnings and put it on the map. Together, these four had done more than make careers for themselves in public radio at a time when female newscasters were unicorns. They’d changed journalism, the public’s perception of women, and, while they were at it, women’s perceptions of themselves.

Some women in the 1970s marched for equality, or sat on the sidelines angrily lamenting the lack of it. Susan, Linda, Nina, and Cokie had, through a combination of will, timing, and talent, used their distinctive perches to elevate the status of their sex in a different way—working a hundred times harder than men while wielding microphones, as Susan described them, as “magic wands waved against silence.”

Male reporters would query lawmakers about defense spending. Women, once they were allowed, posed questions that had previously gone unasked about different essential matters, such as health care and schools and equality. What was a policy’s impact, they demanded to know, on the family, on the elders, on the children?

Though NPR has risen over the last half of the twentieth century to its stature as an almighty soundtrack of the American media landscape, hardly anyone remembers its years of struggle to find an audience in a medium called “hidden” or, worse, “bedridden.” Fewer still recall that the place had once come within moments of shutting down. Proud and aware of their influence in creating this cultural and journalistic force, Susan had taken to calling them NPR’s “founding mothers.”

 

Excerpted from Susan, Linda, Nina, and Cokie.
Copyright ©2021 by Lisa Napoli. All rights reserved.
Published by Abrams Press, an imprint of ABRAMS.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Lisa Napoli has had a long career in print, radio, TV, and online journalism. She has worked at the New York Times, Marketplace, MSNBC, and KCRW. She is the author of three previous books, Radio Shangri-La, Ray & Joan, and Up All Night: Ted Turner, CNN, and the Birth of 24-Hour News. She lives in Los Angeles.

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