Cutting Katie Some Slack

Couric continues to inspire criticism as catty as the day she opened her first broadcast with a friendly, "Hi, everyone."

This week marks six months since Katie Couric’s debut as anchor of the CBS Evening News, yet she continues to inspire criticism as catty as the day she opened her first broadcast with a friendly, “Hi, everyone.”

We can’t remember the last time an anchor’s anniversary was marked with such hoopla. But then again, this is Katie Couric, she of the digital-slimming scandal and the rumors of behind-the-scenes bitchiness reminiscent of The Devil Wears Prada.

Yes, Couric has earned some knocks. She’s losing viewers and her broadcast is heavy on soft news. And yet, with such real and serious issues to debate, many of the judgments levied at Couric remain shallow and misinformed.

Her clothing, makeup and hairstyle are continually scrutinized. Still. Some disapprove of Couric’s chameleon-like wardrobe changes, but who can blame her when every skirt length is noted and every hairstyle mocked? Then there are the pop psychologists who assume they understand Couric’s emotional makeup and motivations.

A snippy, anonymous reader of the blog TVNewser, for instance, pounced on the claim yesterday by Sean McManus, president of the news division at CBS, that Couric is satisfied for the moment with being No. 3 on the evening news totem poll and “patient” as she waits to rise to the top. “That adjective has never been used to describe her,” the reader wrote. “Indeed, she’s the very opposite, and those who know her say she’s unhinged by her failure to do better in the ratings …”

And in a column last week, Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today, blamed Couric’s poor viewer ratings on “her lack of serious reporting experience.” No one would know better about a lack of serious reporting than the man who gave us McNews.

Neuharth, however, should have done his own reporting. Despite her cheery Today years, Couric has covered more than a few breaking news events, including the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the first gulf war. She’s interviewed world leaders and U.S. presidents.

In 1992, when Couric was interviewing First Lady Barbara Bush at the White House as part of a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the Executive Mansion, President George H.W. Bush unexpectedly walked in. Couric ditched Mrs. Bush to grill the president on his role in Iran-Contra and his campaign attacks on challenger Bill Clinton.

In her first months as Evening News anchor, she’s interviewed Bush the Younger and Richard Armitage. And though she broadcasts more feature stories than any of the three newscasts — 206 out of 380 news-hole minutes in February were devoted to features, interviews and commentary, compared with 176 minutes at ABC and 166 minutes at NBC — Couric has scaled back on the soft stuff since her September debut, says Andrew Tyndall, a media analyst who dissects the evening newscasts of the three main networks.

Mercifully, Couric reduced the amount of time devoted to her open-forum opinion segment, “freeSpeech,” which invited some regular people (but mostly celebrities with their PR bullhorns, like Arianna Huffington) to rant uninterrupted.

For a feature with a sharper edge, Couric began a series in February called “The American Spirit” which takes “a hard look at some of the critical social and economic issues facing America today — and the unique ways they are being tackled by four individuals.” A superintendent who provided students with free college tuition, a pediatrician who is working to curb the high rates of medical mistakes and a former Wall Street executive who started a business networking organization for women are among those profiled.

Occasionally the show will take one step forward and then frustratingly retreat two steps. In “First Look,” an Internet feature that began with her first broadcast, viewers get a preview of what’s coming on that evening’s show. While yesterday’s “First Look” touted a catch-up “investigation” of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, last Friday’s had a different priority: get a rare glimpse of Katie’s makeup room! You can take the girl out of Today, but, sometimes, you can’t take Today out of the girl. Oh, well.

Still, there is a disproportionate amount of attention paid to Couric’s personal foibles, the kinds of things that we can’t imagine the critics harping on when it comes to Brian Williams or any of the other male anchors. True, Couric didn’t cut her journalistic teeth covering wars and political campaigns, but she isn’t the lightweight that many commentators make her out to be. More important, vanity, in the TV news business, is not the exclusive domain of our first solo female anchor.

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Christina Hernandez is a CJR intern.