Katie Couric, the anchor of the CBS Evening News, was in Georgia on Friday, Jan. 5, in a car parked outside a Nathan’s hot-dog stand. It was two days before her 50th birthday, just after 1 p.m.
At the moment, Ms. Couric was occupied on her cell phone, discussing the Bush administration’s claim, trotted out by the First Lady on MSNBC, that the media is overly negative about the situation in Iraq.
“I do think it’s a conundrum,” Ms. Couric said, “because—hold on two seconds.
“Yes, I’d like a hot dog with everything on it. Hi, yes, I am Katie Couric. Nice to meet you too!”
She had started this job four months ago, at a salary of $15 million a year, with a contract of four years. The network spent around $10 million advertising Ms. Couric and refused millions more from advertisers in the form of in-house spots.
Ms. Couric was en route from Fort Stewart—where she had interviewed a raft of servicemen and their families for “Honor and Sacrifice,” a weeklong series of reports pegged to the President’s Jan. 10 announcement of his plan for Iraq—to Savannah, where she would catch a plane home. She would return on Monday to anchor that night’s newscast, again flying home the same night.
“Sorry,” she said. “I’ve thought about it a lot, and I do think, for security reasons, it’s sometimes hard for journalists to get a broad perspective of what’s going on in Iraq.”
Ms. Couric is responsible for obtaining and quickly disseminating some such broad perspective to approximately 7.5 million American television viewers every night. That is between one million and two million fewer than her competitors at NBC and ABC, depending on the week. She is the first solo female anchor of a national network newscast, and that suits her in that she must be what she mostly already was: starlet, cultural icon, feminist pioneer, media doyenne and now, theorist of the war.
“I’m not saying it’s all hunky-dory by any stretch,” she said of things in Iraq. “It has been hard to give the overall picture and even to tell the story in a multi-dimensional way, to show a day in the life of the average Iraqi or profile the Sunni family living next door to a Shiite family …. ”
Her loaded-up dog arrived at last. “Isn’t television glamorous?” Ms. Couric asked.
Her lunch called to mind an old joke about what the Dalai Lama said to the hot-dog vendor: “Make me one with everything!” Only in this case, the punch line isn’t a double-entendre; it’s a lifestyle choice. Ms. Couric isn’t looking for spiritual unity. She actually wants everything.
She wants it in a way that makes her the ultimate 21st-century career woman. She is a smart, rich, yoga-fied prima donna, surrounded by assistants and adoring underlings. She makes more than Brian Williams or Charlie Gibson, instead of some fraction of their manly dollars. At the same time, she’s a frequently self-described “single mom” raising two polite daughters in a dangerous world, waiting in line at the movies, hastily applying her own eyeliner and scarfing trans fats.
There is already tension in the sprawl between the $60 million contract and the advertising and the calls—from her army of publicists—for less media attention. There is tension between the morning chitchats of her 15 years at the Today show and the structure of evening news. Certainly there is tension in being two women, the uptown society lady and the just-a-regular-news-gal.
Unsurprisingly, then, she was having two birthday parties.
The first was with workfolk, on Jan. 4, at 4:30 p.m., in a conference room at the network’s studios on West 57th Street. She wore a powder-blue cable-knit cashmere sweater and rushed—she is often rushing—to the casual gathering with her executive producer, Rome Hartman. There was vanilla cake with chocolate frosting and green lettering on top.
The second, on Jan. 13, would be held among the jewel cases of Tiffany. It sounded like a little girl’s dream. Everyone would be there, and the dress code was black tie optional.
"I’M GOING TO TRY TO HAVE COFFEE or lunch with a different correspondent every week,” Ms. Couric said. “It’s one of my many New Year’s resolutions. I’ve gotten to know some folks, but there’s still a lot of people I want to get to know better. The newsroom is pretty quiet. It’s a very collegial environment. People are busy working. They have a lot going on. It’s a nice open space that lends itself to a lot of camaraderie. People are really nice there.”
But not everything is hunky-dory. Under Ms. Couric’s regime, the broadcast’s already tight 22-minute news hole has evolved in other ways: Correspondents have gotten less airtime and the anchor more; big-get interviews run longer and sometimes higher in the broadcast.
There has been scattered conflict between the star anchor and the network’s impressive bench of on-air correspondents. Ms. Couric described herself as a “significant investment” for the network—and if her bosses didn’t use her to her fullest abilities, she said, that would make her a “bad investment.”
“I look at it as a good thing for the correspondents,” Ms. Couric said over lunch one day. “Now, instead of having to rush to get pieces on the air every night, they get an extra day or two to work on them.”
The correspondents, and their agents, don’t uniformly see it that way.
In the newsroom—called the fishbowl—are crammed three groups, compared by one dramatic industry type as the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds of network news. There is the old CBS crowd of Mr. Rather’s era; the new CBS crowd of Mr. Hartman’s; and the privileged clutch of producers who came to the network with Ms. Couric, the NBC crew. They aren’t exactly warring factions, nor are they a seamless melting pot.
Since Ms. Couric joined the network in September, there has been staff shuffling. All executives said those moves were in the works before her arrival. The medical correspondent, Elizabeth Kaledin, was moved to Sundays and her contract not renewed, making way for Ms. Couric’s longtime medical advisor, Dr. Jonathan LaPook. Kelli Edwards, Ms. Couric’s first network publicist, was “promoted” down to the Early Show. One veteran producer had asked to transfer off the broadcast, two network sources said. He was denied.
The tight-knit NBC crew includes producer Lori Beecher; booker Niccola Hewitt, who landed Ms. Couric’s interview with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Jordan; Bob Peterson, another of her producers who was hired as the “creative director” of the Evening News; writer and former on-air personality Mary Alice Williams; and producer Matt Lombardi.
Members of this group often accompany Ms. Couric to the many swanky benefits and events thrown in her honor. There was a Nov. 17 gala for the American Cancer Society, for which Ms. Couric dressed herself like a head of state and attended as such. There she received honors for her substantial efforts to increase awareness of colon cancer, the disease that killed her husband, Jay Monahan, in 1998. The ceremony was in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria, and Ms. Couric’s NBC crew sat at the designated CBS table, two away from the head table where the anchor sat with her daughters.
Ms. Couric is always mobbed at events and rarely has time to eat or socialize. She is also accompanied at all times by her assistant, immaculate, devoted and prompt. She is protective of Ms. Couric and her daughters and a ruthless guardian of the anchor’s busy schedule. That is yet another way in which Ms. Couric resembles Hillary Clinton, with whom she has shared an independent publicist, Matthew Hiltzik. (The Senator had him first.)
Mr. Peterson and his colleagues have developed a subtle hand signal—a two-finger peace sign saluted up and out from the forehead—that they use instead of a wave to communicate with their boss across crowded banquet halls. He demonstrated at the Waldorf. The same signal was employed by others at a Museum of Television and Radio event honoring Ms. Couric on Nov. 13.
At that event, Pat Mitchell, the former head of PBS and an old friend, said in her opening remarks about the anchor that “you can detect an unerring sense from her of what really matters.” At this, back in the second-to-last row, Andy Rooney came momentarily alive to nod enthusiastically and lift an empty glass.
Later, Ms. Mitchell described Ms. Couric as having a “golden gut.”
It is in that respect that Ms. Couric perhaps most resembles her fellow Big Three anchors and alumni—the belief, often taken for arrogance, that she knows best.
“Katie and Peter [Jennings] are alike in many ways that are fascinating to me,” said Paul Friedman, the executive in charge of the CBS Evening News. “They are very smart. They have terrific instincts. And like him, she believes in herself. Sometimes she believes, as he believed, that she knows better than anyone else in the world what is right and what is wrong.”
AFTER THE MONTHS OF BRAINSTORMING, tinkering, big-idea generation and throwing-it-against-the-wall that began well before Ms. Couric announced she was taking the job in May 2006, her broadcast is in a distant third place. Her newscast has found some new viewers in the 25-to-54-year-old demographic demanded by advertisers, but it has alienated almost as many as it has gained with innovations that aren’t sitting well with former CBS loyalists.
The anchor, her producers and her executive team—CBS News president Sean McManus; Mr. Friedman, who was Peter Jennings’ longtime executive producer at ABC; and Mr. Hartman, a veteran of 60 Minutes—are continuing to tweak the broadcast, seeking the perfect balance of traditional elements and Couric-tailored innovations.
“I don’t think there’s going to be one day when I say ‘Aha! That’s it. We’re a success,’” Ms. Couric said during a conversation over lunch in December.
Success, she said, was a hard quality to quantify. Aren’t ratings a pretty easy way of quantifying it?
“That’s really not how I operate,” she said. “That’s not how I measure success.”
“We’re exactly where we thought we were going to be, ratings-wise,” said her boss, Mr. McManus, who alongside his star will be held chiefly responsible for the success or failure of the new Evening News. Mr. McManus said he felt “tremendous pressure” to make the project work.
Anyway, the ratings issue will sort itself out, Mr. McManus said. How? “If you put on a better television program, more people will watch.”
There is in the news division a professed unwavering belief in quality as an attraction for the masses.
Most—but not all—weeks, Ms. Couric is up in total viewers over her popular, temporary predecessor, Bob Schieffer. Where both NBC and ABC are losing younger viewers, she has gained 35 percent over last year in some weeks.
But her ratings gap is largest during big news events, like the President’s meeting with Mr. Maliki in Jordan on Nov. 30, when, despite landing a brief interview with Mr. Maliki—Charlie Gibson at ABC had a full-length sit-down—Ms. Couric trailed her competitors by nearly two million viewers.
To a degree, Mr. McManus blames the media. The reporters who cover television are “predisposed to negativity”—didn’t we hear this from Laura Bush?—about Ms. Couric, he said, and thus have ginned up “an absurd set of expectations for her.”
Mr. Friedman said he could imagine “lots of venal human reasons that people have been, I think, essentially unfair to her.”
All the fiddling has been in service of a single goal: “to be nimble and smart,” said Mr. Hartman during a meeting in his office on the morning of Dec. 12. “This is not a laboratory experiment, though. It’s not something where you can apply the scientific method.”
“It’s not brain surgery,” said Mr. Friedman in his own office on Jan. 4, “although from some of the mistakes we’ve made, you’d think that it was.”
“The most stunning thing about this experience has been to discover how resistant people are to change,” Mr. Friedman said. “In the beginning, we seriously underestimated—as in, we were mistaken—about how different the audience wants you to be at 6:30. The answer, it turns out, is ‘Not that different.’ That has been a great disappointment to me.”
“The second shock to me was that there is a big part of our audience out there who still finds it difficult to have a woman anchor,” he said. “That stunned me. But it’s true.”
Other novelties have received mixed reviews.
One of Ms. Couric’s innovations—or corruptions—of the form is that she occasionally offers up her own reaction to the stories that appear on her broadcast. A vestige of her chattier Today Show days, these frequent interjections are the subject of much deep thought and close analysis in the halls of CBS—and the subject of sniggering elsewhere in television news.
A sampling: On Sept. 7, after a piece about the cervical cancer vaccine that mentioned teen sex practices, Ms. Couric, a mother of two adolescents, told correspondent Jonathan LaPook that he had “just ruined my day.” On Oct. 27, she handed correspondent Steve Hartman a pair of pink slippers after his feature about a Texas sheriff who makes his prisoners wear pink. On Oct. 30, in her introduction to a story about Arnold Schwarzenegger, she mimicked the California governor’s pattern of speech.
“I don’t think any of us wants to inhibit her honest, sincere reactions,” Mr. McManus said. “We don’t want to lose sight of why we hired Katie Couric.”
Mr. Friedman said he likes some interjections and finds others to be “dead wrong.” “Sean and I disagree on some of these examples,” he said. “It’s a matter of feel and taste.”
Ms. Couric batted the issue away.
“I think I’m pretty judicious about it,” she said. “I think that, probably it may be off-putting at times to some people who are used to a very, very buttoned-up newscast that doesn’t have much leeway for an occasional glimpse of personality, but you know, I try. I’ve always had the ‘less is more’ philosophy, believe it or not, but there are times when I think it’s personally fine. If people feel discomfort, maybe they should consider a suppository.”
On television, Ms. Couric may be the picture of girlish good taste, but off-camera she is known to have a bit of a salty side.
“Yeah,” she said. “Suppository—very salty.”
DURING A TWO-HOUR LUNCH on Dec. 12 at Gabriel’s, an Italian restaurant in Columbus Circle frequented by CBS higher-ups, Ms. Couric discussed her own vision for her broadcast. Mr. McManus dined with 60 Minutes correspondent Steve Kroft on the opposite side of the room. Ms. Couric had the fish special, which came heavily buttered, atop a bed of broccoli rabe. Messrs. McManus and Kroft came by on their way back to the office to say hello and lavish tasteful praise.
The meal presented a convenient metaphor.
“If news is broccoli,” Ms. Couric said, aiming her fork in the direction of her plate, “then our job is to make it more appetizing to people, so more of them want to eat it.”
The news is narrative. From Monday night’s transcript, in the report from Fort Stewart: “Unidentified Child: I’m sad that my daddy’s leaving.”
“Our common interest is in being really ambitious in stories and storytelling,” Mr. Hartman said. Mr. Hartman talks about news in almost spiritual terms, often not even bothering to attach an article: It is always story.
“During our meetings this summer,” he said, “we never spent much time on anything other than our ideas about story.”
Like Brian Williams, Ms. Couric has begun a blog. Unlike Mr. Williams, her blog—called Couric & Co. and written, she said, “with help”—is concerned more with her particular feelings about “story.”
Her entry for Jan. 5 is called “Notebook: Legacies,” and it begins with Ms. Couric—or “Ms. Couric”—urging her readers not to forget about everyone who died in 2006, “people who left a huge legacy even if they weren’t famous enough to get an obituary in The New York Times.”
She mentions five. All but one did, in fact, receive full-length obituary treatment in The Times, but that barely detracts from the stated moral: “Everyone leaves a legacy, whether they’re famous or not.”
Other entries on Couric & Co. spotlight the anti-Muslim statements from Virginia Congressman Virgil Goode (titled “Goode Behavior”); what she and her two daughters planned to name their new puppy (“Cecilia”); and her personal memories of Gerald Ford (“a steady hand”).
Katie Couric, blogger, has had only a few opportunities so far to demonstrate the full range of her anchoring abilities on a story of national or international significance. Her most prominent work has included an interview with Michael J. Fox; a 60 Minutes piece about Condoleezza Rice; a tearful fireside chat with the Mt. Hood widow, Karen James; the midterm election (a widely praised evening of coverage—although, at one point, she did quote Rodney King in wondering why Democrats and Republicans can’t just get along); and, most recently, the Ford funeral.
Ms. Couric sees these experiences as vital to helping her develop into the “maestro” of her broadcast. “The Ford stuff was really another great experience,” she said. “Every time I get something under my belt—the midterms, the trip to Jordan, the death of a President—when I’m spearheading the coverage, it’s a great experience for me, and it helps viewers feel more comfortable with me in the role. I love those opportunities—not having to do 12-second intros, but getting to interview people, to talk at some length about things, to make my own observations about why Betty Ford was important to women in the 70’s. It gives me an opportunity to be more myself.”
Like actors and their roles, real newscasters speak mostly about themselves when they speak of their stories. It is this trait that allows a person to appear on live television and guide the country through a war, a national election, a Sept. 11.
The Ford coverage was “a situation that I really—I don’t want to say enjoy—it’s an experience I really appreciated and valued,” Ms. Couric said. “It was really helpful to me, personally and professionally, and also really helpful to the news division. Sometimes, you know, these big events don’t happen all that often. When they do, that’s when hopefully your experience and expertise really pays off—your ease in front of the camera, your ability to juggle balls in the air.”
That solipsism must be channeled into that performance. That performance, in the news division’s theoretical mathematics, is what will pay eventual dividends for the long-depressed CBS Evening News.
“The funny circle of all of this is that we’ll eventually win by quality,” Mr. Friedman said. “And we will win.”