July 11, 2007


Alas, Poor Couric: But pity her not. ( Joe Hagan, New York)

At a May benefit for colon cancer at the bowling lanes at Chelsea Piers, Couric arrives right after delivering the evening news, still in her dark pantsuit, but now with a red T-shirt underneath that reads STRIKE OUT COLON CANCER. Since her husband, Jay Monahan, died of cancer in 1998, Couric has made fund-raising for the disease a major part of her public profile, prompting her most famous TV moment, the on-air colonoscopy in 2000. Standing before a bank of photographers on the red carpet, she mugs with a bowling ball alongside a few B-list celebrities (Steve Schirripa from The Sopranos and RuPaul), flashing a smile that is amazing for how unforced it seems. She bids farewell to Whoopi Goldberg, who apparently has lost weight since Couric last saw her. “Call me, woman!” says Couric, making a phone gesture with her thumb and pinkie. “Now that you’re all skinny and s[tuff]!”

It’s the “girlfriend” Katie, the former Tri-Delt sorority sister at the University of Virginia, the one whose cell-phone ring was recently identified as the Pussycat Dolls’ “Don’t Cha (Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me),” the one who bonded with American women over cooking and fashion and parenting segments on Today. The one who doesn’t fit the mold of an evening news anchor.

Before Couric went on the air at CBS, there was much speculation about whether America was ready for a female anchor. Would she be able to attract new audiences to a dying medium? Or would she turn off longtime viewers of the Evening News who were used to something more stolid and comfortable (and masculine)? As it turns out, the answer to both questions is yes. Couric has attracted new audiences, specifically women; in the New York City market, she doubled the number of female viewers between the ages of 18 and 49 in June sweeps compared with last year. The trouble is that the average evening news viewer is still a 60-year-old holdover from a previous era. And he seems to prefer Old Man Gibson with the glasses on the end of his nose doing line readings of the day’s headlines.

As one CBS News correspondent put it, “Moonves said people don’t want to listen to the ‘voice of God’ anymore. And it’s exactly what they want.”

Couric says that one of the reasons she took the job was because she thought it had value “in a larger societal way.” And it’s hard not to notice that Couric’s personal publicist, Matthew Hiltzik, once handled Senator Hillary Clinton, another polarizing female figure breaking into the men’s club. (Hiltzik orchestrated Couric’s much-touted “listening tour” to dramatize the seriousness of her new endeavor, modeled on the kind he arranged for Clinton in 2000 during her first Senate run.) But Couric is circumspect about comparisons to Clinton. “I mean obviously there are some parallels, but I think discomfort or comfort or perception—you could compare Mitt Romney and Charlie Gibson,” she says, wriggling free of the question.

She’s also wary of playing the gender card now that things aren’t working out as planned. “I’m not naïve. I’m sure there is a percentage of the population that for whatever reason may not feel completely comfortable with a woman in a heretofore male-dominated role,” she says. “I think there’s a whole confluence of factors that contribute to some people not gravitating toward the program.”

But her closest friends—a group of women from her UVA and post-college days that includes fund-raiser Kathleen Lobb, Vanity Fair publicist Beth Kseniak, and Larry King Live executive producer Wendy Walker—believe sexism is a big part of the problem and a major source of frustration for Couric. Media criticism—like Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley’s piece about Couric’s coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings—never fails to describe her clothes and appearance, while those details are rarely observed about Gibson or Williams. “Personally, that really bothered me for her,” says Lobb of the Stanley column. “Because it’s not about evaluating the quality of her work.”

Couric’s response has been to tone down her wardrobe. “I try to give them as little to talk about as possible, without becoming Pat on Saturday Night Live,” she says.

But even conservative pantsuits can’t quell the interest in Couric beyond her performance on the news. The tabloid press has been particularly harsh in its analysis of her romantic relationships. Larry King’s marriage to a woman a quarter of a century his junior barely registers as surprising, but when Couric started dating a preppy 33-year-old entrepreneur and amateur triathlete named Brooks Perlin, the Post gleefully dubbed her a “cougar” for “devouring” a younger man. “It’s all so stupid,” says Couric, agitated. “The people who come up with this garbage and the people who market in pettiness … Do people enjoy this? Is this how they get their kicks?”

Of course, it’s not just the tabloid press that’s on the attack. Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather (with whom Couric says she has always had a “perfectly pleasant, nice relationship”) recently told MSNBC radio host Joe Scarborough that Moonves was “dumbing down” and “tarting up” the broadcast with Couric. Moonves retaliated by calling Rather’s comment sexist: “For certain people in America, they’re not used to getting their news from a woman,” Moonves says. “It’s going to take time for people to adjust. There’s an automatic assumption on the part of certain people that they would rather get news from a man.”

Rather says his “tarting up” comment was taken out of context. “There’s a long list of women whom the public accepts in all kind of roles,” observes Rather, mentioning Christiane Amanpour as one of the most respected reporters on television. Moonves, he says, “thinks the audience is redneck and the press is a bunch of assassins. I have so much confidence in the audience. The audience is not going to buy that. They look at what’s on the air, and that’s where they make their decisions.”

And that, perhaps, gets to the heart of the matter. The reaction to Couric as anchor has less to do with the fact that she is a woman than it has to do with the type of woman she is—or at least the type she has played on TV. Despite a long list of accomplished interviews with world leaders and politicians, from Tony Blair to President Bush to Kofi Annan, Couric has a hard time shaking the perception that she’s light and girlish, as opposed to serious and mature.

She blames it on the later incarnation of the Today show. “I think the show got increasingly soft during my tenure, during the end of it,” she says, referring to the version of the program run by former executive producer Tom Touchet, with whom she often clashed. “And that’s one of the reasons I wasn’t fulfilled journalistically in the job. Perhaps the most recent memory of me in the eyes of some people is of the softer, fun aspects of the Today show, which I totally enjoyed and I think I did well in, but it wasn’t the whole enchilada for me.”

The algorithm for why a news personality appeals or doesn’t turns out to be much more complicated than gender or reporting chops or whether someone came from morning television. After all, Charlie Gibson—the leader in the ratings—came from Good Morning America. Although, as Couric points out, “he was more of an avuncular figure on that show. I was encouraged to show a fun, playful side more.” And Diane Sawyer, Couric’s chief competitor for the mantle of most powerful and respected woman in television news, has done basically the same job as Couric for the last decade, yet no one questions Sawyer’s seriousness and credibility when she bags exclusive interviews or does hard news.

Couric suspects that if Sawyer were doing an evening news broadcast, she might have run into the same issues. “Perhaps.” But as it stands, Sawyer has exceptionally high favorability ratings, topping a Gallup poll last year measuring viewer opinion on TV news people. Meanwhile, as Couric has shifted away from her flirty, funny, line-flubbing, relatable morning personality to a harder, edgier, and ultimately more humorless evening persona, her Q score—the gold standard of favorability ratings—has declined. (As of last year, she was on par with Dan Rather.) [...]

[W]ith ratings hovering between 6 and 7 million viewers a night, CBS News has to figure out how to salvage the estimated $75 million it’s paying Couric over five years. For now, the goal is simply to stanch the viewer bleed. Executive producer Rick Kaplan’s job is to bring consistency to the program. He’ll bring new ideas to the show, he says, “but it’s not necessarily new flaky ideas. Or new sketchy ideas. It’s about maybe some new but basic ideas.”

Couric admits that her original version of the show had problems. “Perhaps some of the pieces were too long, they weren’t as compelling. ‘FreeSpeech’—maybe every night it didn’t hold up.” But she still believes in what they were trying to achieve. “People can get the news anywhere, they don’t have to wait for the television. Take, say, up-armored vehicles: one vehicle that wasn’t up-armored, the ramifications of that on a soldier from Dallas. That’s a humanistic illustration of a news-making story.”

Couric seems determined not to let anyone see her suffer, but according to several people familiar with the situation, she is privately frustrated (“Going through hell,” says one producer) and moody about the ratings. The stress has caused her to blow up at her staff for small infractions on the set. During the tuberculosis story in June, Couric got angry with news editor Jerry Cipriano for using a word she detested—“sputum”—and the staff grew tense when she began slapping him “over and over and over again” on the arm, according to a source familiar with the scene. It had seemed like a joke at first, but it quickly became clear that she wasn’t kidding.

“I sort of slapped him around,” Couric admits. “I got mad at him and said, ‘You can’t do this to me. You have to tell me when you’re going to use a word like that.’ I was aggravated, there’s no question about that.” But she says she has a good relationship with Cipriano. “We did ban the word sputum from all future broadcasts. It became kind of a joke.”

So they banned a medical term because she's a prima donna and they wonder why folks don't take her doing real news seriously?

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 11, 2007 10:04 AM


Posted by: erp at July 11, 2007 11:08 AM

"During the tuberculosis story in June, Couric got angry with news editor Jerry Cipriano for using a word she detested—“sputum”—and the staff grew tense when she began slapping him “over and over and over again” on the arm..."

So that woulb be a dis-sputum, then?

Posted by: Rick T. at July 11, 2007 11:39 AM

Did she ever explain her problem with the word sputum? It's kind of a funny word, but I can't think of any reason why somebody would freak out over it.

Posted by: Bryan at July 11, 2007 11:42 AM

She's the Carl Pavano/Barry Zito of CBS.

Posted by: pchuck at July 11, 2007 11:49 AM

I didn't watch Today, why would I watch her now?

Posted by: Sandy P at July 11, 2007 12:52 PM

“The people who come up with this garbage and the people who market in pettiness … Do people enjoy this? Is this how they get their kicks?”

Please tell me that she - after all of those years in the same business as those "petty people" (Today Show?) - didn't utter something that bone-witted.

Posted by: Mikey [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 11, 2007 1:51 PM

So Katie wasn't fulfilled journalistically?

Whew. She almost had me there.

As erp said - !

Perhaps she should go to Iraq and follow-up on the Al Qaeda massacre at Al Amhari (I think that's the name of the town), the story Michael Yon has reported on. She could be plenty fulfilled, if she has the guts to air it. Who knows, she might even win a Pulitzer (with proper attribution to Mr. Yon, of course).

Posted by: ratbert at July 11, 2007 6:13 PM

It's not often I'm rendered speechless.

Posted by: erp at July 11, 2007 8:57 PM