Katie & the Critics

by Rick Rockwell

America loves Katie Couric but the critics aren’t all that impressed.

Surprised? Don’t be.

The critics are journalists. The general audience has different standards. One of the critics defending Couric and her performance, David Zurawik wrote in The Baltimore Sun this week that he agreed with CBS President Leslie Moonves that it was time the CBS News not be for purists any longer. “The network with the oldest audience for TV news needs to find a way to attract younger viewers,” Zurawik wrote. (You can find his article here.)

Here’s some news for both Zurawik and Moonves: the CBS News hasn’t been for purists for a long time. Dan Rather went a long way to destroying that and various network bureaucrats helped him along the way.

Some critics noted the House of Murrow did not fall when Couric took over and they cheered that she could be more serious than when she anchored Today on NBC. Others, like Tom Shales, more astutely noted, that Murrow’s legacy was destroyed long ago by the notion there was a need for more entertainment in the news. Couric is certainly not to blame for that. (However, Shales mostly trashed Couric’s reworking of the CBS anchor role as a continuation of that sorry trend. See his article here.)

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of those sexists who can’t stand seeing a woman anchor the news. When they were evening news co-anchors, Barbara Walters and Connie Chung weathered far too much criticism merely because of their gender.

Couric has also complained of the “residual sexism” behind the criticism of her ascendance as the first woman to regularly solo anchor the evening news for any major network. (Although many women have filled in as solo anchors over the years and Elizabeth Vargas for all intents and purposes became a solo anchor on ABC not so long ago when her co-anchor Bob Woodruff was injured in Iraq. But why look at the fine points when we can go along with the Katie Hype Machine?)

Open sexism was apparent in many of the reviews of Couric’s performance. Almost every review mentioned her clothes or fashion sense. Some focused on her legs. Zurawik wrote that Couric was “showing lots of leg during a taped, sit-down interview with New York Times columnist Tom Friedman.”

In The Boston Herald, Mark Perigard also mentioned Couric’s clothes and legs. “Too bad somebody made the decision it was necessary to play up Couric's assets over her intellect,” he wrote, “You never saw Dan Rather's biceps.” (Check out the full article here.)

I do recall however a dust-up over Rather wearing sweater vests on the news early in his tenure. But mostly anchors like Walter Cronkite and others did not have to endure critics commenting on their physical attributes and fashion sense. Couric shouldn’t have to endure such comments.

But this is what happens when you hire a celebrity journalist to anchor the news instead of a purist who is interested in strong news content like Ted Koppel (now with The Discovery Channel after parting ways with ABC News).

Nevertheless, CBS must be very happy with its $15 million investment in Couric. The ratings for her program are the best for The CBS Evening News since 1998. In a week she has jumped the newscast from third place to first, although her real impact won’t be known until the novelty factor wears off. Of course, with a celebrity anchor that may never happen. And that’s just what’s wrong with most television news today.

(The author contributed news stories to CBS News during the Rather era. He has served as a producer for ABC News and as a producer and reporter for the PBS NewsHour.)

(The photo attached is courtesy of CBS.)


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