September 6, 2007

Katie Couric at One Year; Somebody Fire Her

By: J.P. Freire

Any discussion that involves the comparison between men and women in the workplace requires some concessions, depending on your audience. If it’s a public discussion, the concession one must make, no matter how fraudulent, is that Society has held women back for ages, and now, finally, they’re getting their good turn. Nevermind the fact that advances in science and technology have done more to provide women with opportunities than any legislation or social movement.

In fact, there’s an eerie reliance on the Great Man Theory, or the Great Woman Theory, I guess, to explain why American women are more liberated than they used to be. Madeline Albright’s role as secretary of state or Hillary Clinton’s potential presidency is treated as groundbreaking because it might inspire the young to realize their dreams are in reach. But ours isn’t a nation of orphan girls. There are plenty of mothers who have actually made career decisions, and if you asked them why they didn’t become symbols themselves, I doubt they would pin it on patriarchal elites.

CBS ran with that as a theme one year ago, when they hired Katie Couric to replace Dan Rather as anchor of CBS News. If you can’t remember the ad campaigns, or the cushy handoff, then just poke around and maybe you’ll find something. Katie Couric is not just a reporter, a journalist — she’s Eve with a stenopad.

There’s irony in relying on the CBS Corporation to take steps for the benefit of women everywhere. There’s even more irony in the marketing blitz that included the spread of rumors regarding what the music for the show would be like. The garbled message was clear: Katie Couric is a serious newswoman, so serious, she thinks she shouldn’t just tell you what happened, but what you should feel about it:

Obviously, that sensibility is what created the groundswell to bring Couric to the evening newsdesk. Except there was no groundswell. While feminists suggested that women needed “Katie” to succeed, Maureen Dowd rolled her eyes, noting that Couric claimed she took the job at her daughter’s feminist-themed urging. (Instead, Dowd continued, perhaps we ought to look at the number of zeroes on her paycheck.)

After some b-roll showing an active marketplace and discussing that it seemed safe, Couric offered, “Of course, that’s what the U.S. military wants me to see, so you have to keep that in mind as well.” That skepticism isn’t a province Couric travels very well. It sounds more like that’s the sort of thing you’re supposed to say, to suggest you and you alone are going to find out What They Aren’t Telling The American People.

It falls flat. Couric’s trip to Iraq is a PR stunt aimed to gin up credentials for an anchor who isn’t taken seriously as a reporter. Creating a peaceful Iraq seems like cakewalk by comparison. When Couric first arrived on the evening news, she was billed as someone who had wanted a change, who had wanted some challenge. Saying so, however, was an admission that her early morning hugfest wasn’t a good venue for hardhitting interviews, and the fact that she was moving on to the lead position in the evening news seemed hard to fathom.

The New York Times suggests as much:

A year ago Leslie Moonves, the chief executive of CBS, was intent on retooling the evening newscast to showcase Ms. Couric’s sparkling personality, with the hope of attracting women and younger viewers. Now CBS News is seeking to tweak Ms. Couric’s image to suit the expectations of its core audience.

…Which has essentially left Ms. Couric adrift. Unfortunately, it’s hard to take seriously the sort of boutique newsmaking that goes naturally with such a sparkling personality. CBS has seriously erred in aligning Couric’s femininity with her journalism, not because chicks can’t do journalism, but because Couric’s brand of journalism is based on human interest stories. A dislike of Couric doesn’t require an equal dislike of Dana PriestAnne Applebaum, or Kate Phillips.

Even if she’s trying really hard, her years of softlens personal interviews have instilled a tendency to emphasize the lifestyle side of a story. Witness this “behind the scenes” take as Our Katie reveals herself to be the only female in the CBS Baghdad Bureau. Really. Watch it. It’s like “Cribs” if it were hosted by Matt Lauer.

If anyone wanted to convey the message that Ms. Couric is to be taken seriously as a journalist, they may have wanted to think twice about her skipping around the Baghdad bureau pointing at all the surly producers who look less than thrilled to be on camera. Ms. Couric doesn’t shy from looking too cute, either, herself in a hoodie and flip flops (which she’s proud to kick up for the cameras, mentioning that she borrowed them from another reporter who is dressed almost exactly the same).

When she approaches this reporter, it turns out that the reporter is British and has a certain amount of knowledge about the efforts in Iraq. But Couric’s late night chat with her British gal pal (who repeats the current wisdom on British military efforts) smacks more of a slumber party than a bunch of journalists gearing up for big news. Even when Katie is trying to be hard-hitting, she still brings The Today Show with her.

Now, watch as Christiane Amanpour interviews Muslims for her special series on radical Islam. Maybe it’s just the accent, but Ms. Amanpour doesn’t look like she’s about to start blowing bubbles or ask about the interviewees’ relationships.

Couric’s blog is worse.

I guess the big question is whether this government can form some kind of functional coalition that successfully brings the Sunnis into the fold. But before they can be elevated to the level of partners or members of a collation government, they would need to get basic services like electricity and water; it is a matter of both necessity and dignity.

That insight is followed by warnings against drinking bottled water (the plastic is bad for the environment, and for you). Of course, never mind what is she holding in her hand during her tour of Baghdad with General Petraeus. Let’s instead pay close attention to her question to Petraeus: “Isn’t that critical … to get a hundred percent support by the Iraqi people, to give them the things they need to live — electricity, water, fuel…?”


Or this:

“General Petraeus, in 2004 this place was a hellhole. This is where those contractors were killed, and burned, and put up on that bridge… right?”


“Why was there so much anger? Why was this place seething so much?”

“I think because there was this initial sense of having been ejected from power and influence.”

“Because they were Sunni?”

“… Yes.”

“And Saddam was a Sunni, and Sunnis felt disenfranchised.”

It’s not that Couric is unintelligent for continually making simplistic, uninteresting observations and asking such a basic questions. Her bad taste really just seems rooted in a genuine disinterest in her subject (she admitted not wanting to go to Iraq at one point, but then renegged the quote). When sitting in an armored vehicle with an accomplished general who is charged with succeeding in the face of terrible odds, stating the obvious in the form of a question doesn’t advance an interview. He’s the Ulysses S. Grant of the War in Iraq and the interview feels like a coffee break with Katie and Dave, not a Portrait of the General at Wartime.

In July, rumors about Couric’s possible departure were raised in conjunction with an embarrassingly whiney interview in New York magazine, in which she blamed readers and her network for her lack of success in a new slot. If ever there was an occasion for her to become even less thrilled with her new digs, it’s in Baghdad where a bullet-proof vest is the catch-all accessory. Either she comes back talking about how much of a thrill it was, or she’ll realize this job is for the birds.

The Times reports that CBS News is lagging behind the broadcasts of ABC and NBC, and could possibly be a reason for the push to Baghdad. The same report suggests that the title of Couric’s Iraq dispatches, “Americans in Iraq: The Road Ahead,” marks a new path for her. But Couric needs to get a handle on The Road Behind and The Road Underneath. Maybe then she can move forward and leave all the First Female Anchor nonsense behind.

J.P. Freire is editor of Brainwash Magazine.