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Critics on Couric: She’s Got Legs! But Will Her Broadcast?

Yesterday's crop of Couric reviews had a predictable, Mad Libs quality about them, and a finality that belied the fact that this was night one of...
September 7, 2006

After a single broadcast of The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, the verdicts were in — although, no doubt, some verdicts were in well before Couric appeared on-air Tuesday evening. As USA Today‘s Robert Bianco wrote yesterday: “It’s no big news that Katie Couric provokes strong reactions. That means, in part, that whatever you thought of Couric after last night’s [broadcast] is probably exactly what you thought before — particularly if you came away loving or hating her.” In other words, viewers had strong opinions about Couric well before her CBS debut; their minds were already made up.

And so, it seems, were the minds of many media reporters, columnists and critics, whose next-day Couric reviews had a predictable, Mad Libs quality about them, a certainty and finality that belied the fact that this was night one of Couric’s four-year contract, and a frequent fixation on the superficial. (Katie Couric made her CBS debut last night and, with exactly one broadcast under her belt, I am here to tell you What It Means for Nightly News and for Journalism In General [insert hand-wringing.] Couric wore ____ which was inappropriate/unflattering because it _____. There was a particularly low-gravitas moment when Couric quipped ____. In sum, [hand-wringing and more hand-wringing]). Judging by much of the coverage that preceded Couric’s initial broadcast, many a media critics’ knives were out and sharpened well before Couric even uttered her first word (“Hi …”) Tuesday night.

Two weeks before Couric’s inaugural broadcast,’s Jon Friedman foretold that she would be a “brilliant failure” — which, after viewing Couric’s inaugural run, he tweaked to the more strident “journalistic nightmare.” Couric “dropped the ball” Tuesday night, Friedman wrote, adding that “at its worst, the show reinforced all of the worries of grizzled veteran journalists” — which, Friedman figures, “wasn’t all Couric’s fault … her producer let the cuteness get way out of control.” So much so that the “show was silly at times; full of fluff at others; and, faithfully, All About Katie. All the time.”

And yet, other media commentators praised CBS for achieving precisely the opposite effect: managing to make the debut “be not all about Katie — or even mostly about her … almost as if CBS belatedly made a decision to low-key an event it has been ballyhooing all summer (per the South Florida Sun-Sentinel); not being “a huge showcase for [Couric]” (according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette); and, not going “into Katie overload … CBS’ viewers didn’t see appreciably more of her than ABC and NBC viewers did of Charles Gibson and Brian Williams” (USA Today).

Unlike Friedman’s “sky is falling” assessment, the Washington Post‘s Tom Shales — though he called Couric’s broadcast “frothy, funsy” — concluded that it “did not seem to hasten the decline and fall of TV news.” And yet, Shales continued (touching on a common refrain in the next-day Couric coverage), “it didn’t offer anything really new, either — and on its first outing, it didn’t offer anything news.” Similarly, from Newsday‘s Verne Gay: “But by the time 7 p.m. rolled around, some viewers could be excused for wondering, ‘what happened in the world today?'” and, “Couric ended the big night by asking viewers to write in suggesting a close for her broadcast … While they’re at it, they might suggest a few stories they’d like to see covered as well.” And, observed the Miami Herald‘s Glenn Garvin: “Sleek new set with giant videoboard: check. Rousing new theme from the guy who wrote the Titanic score: check. … Actual news content: Ummm …” Even People magazine panned Couric for going all fluffy. (“Frankly, it was all very unedifying …”)

But, in fact, “news content” was there. (Maybe Shales was too distracted by CBS’ chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan to notice. Logan, who has over a decade’s worth of experience reporting from war zones, kicked off Tuesday night’s broadcast with an investigative piece from Afghanistan on the resurgence of the Taliban. Shales reduced Logan to an “intensely telegenic reporter who serves as foreign correspondent” and dismissed her report as “largely about her” as she “tippy-toe[d] … through a minefield, led by a guide.”) In addition to “news content” from Afghanistan, Couric’s debut broadcast included five “news of the day” reports — four of which were also covered during NBC’s Tuesday night broadcast and three of which also ran on ABC. True, the other two networks aired more “news content” than CBS overall (ABC, for example, noticed that a winner had been declared in Mexico’s presidential election), while CBS made time for new innovations such as the Andy Rooney-esque spoken op-ed segment, “freeSpeech” (which, deservedly, was roundly panned). Shales also grumbled that “a so-so human-interest piece” (about an artist who delivers portraits to orphans around the world) “by Steve Hartman, the schmaltz king, closed the show.” Perhaps Shales found NBC’s concluding Tuesday night segment on “preserving America’s barns” more compelling? Or ABC’s final story on “a new film” about “the Nixon era’s secret effort to quiet a Beatle [John Lennon]” more worthy?

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Another new CBS innovation, called “Snapshots,” consisted Tuesday night of Couric sharing an “exclusive” look at the photos of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’ baby published in the just-out-yesterday issue of Vanity Fair. Forget bad news judgment (which this undoubtedly was), this struck us as bad judgment in general — an invitation for everyone to say, “Told you so. It’s Today all over again.” To wit, the Miami Herald‘s Garvin on “Snapshots”: “[I]t was an investigative scoop, pried with Woodward-and-Bernstein ingenuity from the clenched fists of Vanity Fair publicists, who would rather have red-hot pokers jabbed into their eyes than get half a million bucks worth of free advertising. The photos were presented as part of what apparently will be a regular segment … CBS bosses were apparently embarrassed enough that they opened the piece with footage of the network’s original anchor, Douglas Edwards, showing baby pictures of British royalty 50 years ago as a sort of justification.” And the New York Times‘ Alessandra Stanley made a similar dig: “Perhaps worried that the segment would look too frivolous, Ms. Couric introduced it with a clip of a 1949 CBS newscast with Douglas Edwards showing a baby picture of Prince Charles, as if there were a grand tradition of baby pictures at the Tiffany network.”

Predictably, in nearly every next-day Couric review, the anchorwoman’s clothing choices were mentioned — often sheepishly, in parentheses, with the help of the phrase “for the record” (used in three different reviews, as if to say I realize this wardrobe critique is frivolous but “the record” demands that I include it nevertheless). One example, from the Sun-Sentinel: “For the record, Couric wore a white jacket (a day after Labor Day!) over a simple black top.” The Washington Post‘s Shales dwelled longer than most on the matter of Couric’s attire, observing in his sixth paragraph that Couric “oddly wore a white blazer over a black top and skirt, the blazer buttoned in such a way as to make her look chubby, bursting at the button, which we know she isn’t. It was a poor choice …” And then there was the New York Sun, which led with the audacity of Couric’s blazer: “Wearing white after Labor Day isn’t a fashion crime anymore. But if Katie Couric really wanted us to focus on her reporting rather than her wardrobe, she shouldn’t have flouted one of the oldest rules in the book.” The reviewer went on to bristle that Couric’s “white jacket … wasn’t even winter white.”

Continuing with the superficial: At least nine separate reporters noted the visibility of Couric’s “legendary” or “famous” or “celebrated” legs — startled, apparently, by the reality that when professional women forego pantsuits for blazers and skirts, their legs will be visible. (For comparison, we had to look long and hard to find any media mentions of Brian Williams’ physical appearance the morning after he inherited the NBC Nightly News from Tom Brokaw in December 2004). The worst among the “legs-centric” reviewers? ” The Boston Herald‘s Mark A. Perigard (story headline: “Katie May Have Leg Up, But It’s Not on the News”) who began his review thusly: “CBS is spending $15 million a year on Katie Couric. That comes to $7.5 million per shapely leg. The new CBS anchor flashed her gams just a few minutes into her debut.” And further along, in referencing a segment on terrorism during which Couric sat on a chair across from her guest, Perigard commented that “viewers across America were probably thinking her legs should be registered as weapons of mass destruction” (thereby outdoing any of the cringe-inducing quips that came from Couric’s mouth Tuesday night, of which there were several — such as: “Still ahead … it may be a record discovery of black gold in the Gulf of Mexico, but does it mean you’ll be yelling eureka at the gas pump?”).

And yet, as the Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz observed yesterday: “In the end, it’s not about pleasing TV writers. Couric has to connect with the older people who tend to watch nightly newscasts. And if she doesn’t, the TV writers could turn skeptical in a hurry.”

Could turn? We’d say many of them turned long ago.

Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.