The View is a political powerhouse hiding in plain sight

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The View, when it makes headlines, is often dismissed as a gossipy chatfest or a catty “lion’s den.” And, yes, the ABC morning talk show, co-hosted by a panel of five women, deserves some of the condescension. See its archive of ungracious on-air arguments between the hosts, saved online by loyal watchers, as evidence.

But The View, which has appeared weekdays since 1997, is also more serious and influential than many non-fans might realize. Consider that former Vice President Joe Biden recently gave The View his first lengthy press interview after announcing he was joining the crowded field for Democratic presidential nominee. He was followed by Beto O’Rourke, former Texas congressman and another hopeful Democratic nominee, who last week appeared on the show and expressed regret over his fancy Vanity Fair cover story. (He said it “reinforced a perception of privilege.”) A few days later, Senator Amy Klobuchar, also vying for a Democratic presidential run, outlined her concerns about regressive abortion laws in the country. Senator Elizabeth Warren is slated to appear (again) on May 30.

“In addition to Iowa and New Hampshire, it feels like The View is a stop on the political campaign trail,” says Ramin Setoodeh, author of the new book Ladies Who Punch: The Explosive Inside Story of “The View” (Macmillan, 2019) and Variety’s New York bureau chief.

Though the Washington punditry may not have caught up yet, he tells Quartz, politicians know that the show attracts millions of well-educated fans, mostly women, daily. The total audience reaches an average 2.9 million per episode, according to ABC (ABC’s newsier Good Morning America (paywall) remains the most popular morning show, with an average of 4.1 million viewers per episode). More importantly, many of them are undecided voters, women who tune in expecting to catch up with the headlines and “see what both sides have to say,” Setoodeh emphasizes.

Certainly, the hosts know their worth:

What may be even more surprising to the uninitiated is that this version of The View, where political candidates talk tax breaks and healthcare, is closer to what its creator Barbara Walters had imagined from the beginning. That history is one of the reasons Setoodeh chose to write his book.

‘Make it salacious’

Walters, the legendary journalist who also co-hosted the show until her retirement in 2014 (while keeping up with her career in the news division), originally pitched ABC a program that would bring women of several generations together to discuss and take seriously the day’s “hot topics,” the name of the show’s signature segment, he explains. She initially wanted to cover only highbrow subjects, but ABC’s daytime executives asked her to make it salacious, says Setoodeh. They convinced her to cover “tabloid stories, fun stories, tawdry stories, because they didn’t think the daytime audience was interested in smart news,” he told the WNYC public radio show On The Media. We now know that’s not true, he added, “The View has debated everything from George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq to Donald Trump’s tax returns.”

According to Setoodeh’s account, two world events, both major news stories, allowed The View to find its footing: Princess Diana’s death in a car crash, just weeks after the show’s late-summer launch, and the White House scandal involving then-intern Monica Lewinsky and President Bill Clinton, which surfaced later that fall. In both cases, the co-hosts didn’t shy away from the emotional impact of news, the details that women cared about (like the main players’ fashion choices), or the deeper underlying issues. The View, Setoodeh asserts, was first to “mix news with opinion as the main attraction,” at a time when most talk shows avoided politics, believing it could potentially offend viewers. “I don’t know too many shows where women are really allowed to express themselves politically the way we do,” longtime co-host Joy Behar told the author.

Walters’ personal brand and her connections to A-list celebrities and public figures made the show work when most morning shows failed. Few others could have pulled that off. As the New Yorker wrote of Walters in 2008: “She is newsier than other entertainment reporters, and more showbiz than other news reporters.”

Enter the Republican

The next major milestone in The View’s political evolution is Elisabeth Hasselbeck’s arrival as an opinionated conservative co-host, in 2003. Until then, The View’s hosts were all liberals who basically agreed with each other, says Setoodeh. The show’s co-creator Bill Geddie decided that the panel’s diversity needed to include political leanings. Hasselbeck, a former reality TV star (she had appeared on Survivor) “was a voice that didn’t agree with everyone else, but she also represented 50% of the country that didn’t feel like they had a voice at the table,” says Setoodeh. “When they hired Elisabeth Hasselbeck, the show started to grow and become bigger than it was, because it started to become this window into how republicans and democrats saw different issues.”

When Rosie O’Donnell, the comedian and fearless liberal activist joined the show in 2006, the inevitable arguments that erupted were ratings gold. That was a mixed blessing to Walters, who had a reputation as a serious journalist to protect, says Setoodeh. “She wasn’t pleased when the fights were so big that they spilled over into the commercial,” he says. “She wasn’t pleased that Elisabeth Hasselbeck tried to quit one day during a commercial break in 2006, when they were debating in the morning after pill. She didn’t like it when Rosie O’Donnell and Elisabeth Hasselbeck were fighting over the war in Iraq, and went on for 10 minutes uninterrupted with them hurling personal insults at each other.”

And yet, she was ahead of her time, the author argues. “If you watch CNN it’s really sort of like what everyone does: have people debate, and have it go off the rails sometimes, and have viral moments,” he says. The View, he believes, was CNN Town Hall before CNN Town Hall existed.

During the lead up to the 2008 election, the show’s political cache became impossible for Washington to ignore. In 2006, New York senator Hillary Clinton’s first appearance on the show was the beginning of a very public war of words between Donald Trump, then a Manhattan developer and star of The Apprentice, and O’Donnell. The personalized nature of their insults would foreshadow Trump’s run for president against Clinton, Setoodeh points out.

By 2010, when Barack Obama chose to become the first sitting US president to appear on daytime television, he gave that honor to The View. Three years later, after much behind-the-scenes drama, Hasselbeck left the show, taking 30% of the audience with her, Setoodeh says, citing ABC’s internal research. ABC briefly tried to make The View a show about pop culture, but they came to realize that political debate from multiple viewpoints was the show’s animating feature.

So, in 2017, after trying out other conservative candidates, the network hired Meghan McCain, daughter of the late Republican politician John McCain, and later Abby Huntsman, another daughter of a Republican politician, Jon Huntsman, to provide right-of-center perspectives on the Trump White House and its many scandals. Ratings have since returned to previous highs.

A hybrid show that’s “very feminist”

Although The View looks more and more like what Walters first envisioned, it remains not exactly a news show. The hosts are careful about facts, but they still foreground emotions and personalities. Besides, if this were a journalistic pursuit, its stars would be forced to recognize their connections to the White House more often.

Yet its mix is singular: On last Monday’s show, for instance, Goldberg, the moderator, introduced Alyssa Milano’s much-ridiculed call for a sex strike to oppose abortion laws in Georgia as a hot topic. Co-host Ana Navarro, a Republican strategist filling in for Huntsman, and co-host Sunny Hostin, senior legal correspondent for ABC news, proceeded to make unexpected and nuanced arguments about reproductive rights, despite McCain’s repeated insistence that there was no gray area, and other questionable statements that kept Goldberg busy.

One way to look at The View is as “a mess,” journalist Ruth Graham wrote in Slate, referring to its sometimes-sensational coverage and depictions of serious workplace misconduct revealed in The Ladies Who Punch. But, Graham continues, “here’s another way to look at The View. While its daytime rivals peddled paternity-test brawls and soft-focus celebrity interviews, The View was the show that believed that the audience for daytime television—low-income mothers, mostly—could cultivate an interest in politics and policy.” It also “made room for women to disagree” on polarizing issues.

Ultimately, it’s “very feminist show,” Setoodeh told On the Media, and his dishy book backs this up in places. Off-camera women were treated as equals “from the beginning,” he writes. He also details how, in the early years’ morning meetings, former host Meredith Vieira would call in on speakerphone because she was dropping her children off at school. A banished O’Donnell (who had feuded with Walters) once secretly shared the details of the cast member’s salary and perks with incoming co-host Sherri Shepherd, so that she could negotiate a fair deal. Most importantly, this was a show that was the first to boldly feature “an all-female panel arguing—with their fists up in the air—about politics,” Setoodeh observes in the book. And soon, that was no longer unusual.

This story is part of How We’ll Win in 2019, a year-long exploration of workplace gender equality. Read more stories here.