On the afternoon of Friday, Oct. 31, Katie Couric sat down in the Olympic Flame diner at the corner of 60th Street and Amsterdam, and ordered a cup of coffee. Outside, the weather was mild. Beams of sunlight streamed through the window. A woman dressed in some sort of elfin costume strolled down the sidewalk.
Ms. Couric said that as a kid, her mother liked to dress her up on Halloween as a drunken doctor. The coffee arrived.
O.K., Ms. Couric, it’s trick or treat time: What would you want from CBS, the network that paid you a reported $15 million a year to lure you from your perch at NBC’s Today?
“I’d like an hour,” said Ms. Couric.
She’s already getting that, albeit on an ad hoc basis. On Monday, Nov. 3, the night before the election, the network was giving the CBS Evening News (which is typically a half-hour long) twice its usual length, said Ms. Couric. She was looking forward to the extra real estate. In an ideal world, if she had her druthers, the expansion would be permanent.
“I really would like more time,” said Ms. Couric. “Because I think time is not our friend at the Evening News.”
Not long ago, the suggestion was put about that time was not on Ms. Couric’s side at CBS. According to various news reports back in April, CBS, disappointed with her performance but unwilling to pay the ghastly sum the premature termination of her contract would entail, was letting her run out the clock and then planning to cut her loose. Or it was she, frustrated with the network’s handling of her and her show, who was planning to cut the cord at the earliest possible moment.
But against the odds—she wasn’t allowed the opportunity, for instance, to anchor a single presidential or vice presidential debate for CBS—Ms. Couric has used the 2008 presidential elections to make herself a commodity again. Not the too expensive piece of furniture the Tiffany network had bought and regretted, but the game-changing political journalist she aspired to be when she first took the Evening News. Hers was the most memorable interview of the 2008 election. Über political blogger Mark Halperin named her one of the five most important people in politics not running for president.
Her rising star has not only made life comfortable enough at CBS for her to use an interview with a reporter to request an hour-long program. According to The New York Times, others are looking to steal her: NBC News executives are currently considering her for the most coveted job in political journalism, as the next moderator of Meet the Press.
Memo to CBS President Leslie Moonves: Enjoy the vindication and give Ms. Couric what she needs to stick around!
Ms. Couric dumped a packet of Sweet’N Low into her coffee. In a few days, for the first time in her career, she would be sitting in the anchor chair on election night. “Love politics,” said Ms. Couric.
It was a good summer for CBS News, which had staggered badly during the 2004 election thanks in large part to Dan Rather and Co.’s flawed report on President Bush’s military records. Ms. Couric credited the news division’s rebound in 2008 to the team around her, particularly to CBS Evening News Executive Producer Rick Kaplan, who largely crafted the political game plan.
From the outset of the primaries, Ms. Couric hit the road, met the candidates, kicked their campaigns’ tires and racked up interviews. “I don’t think it’s a secret that sometimes I get frustrated just reading lead-ins to an evening newscast,” said Ms. Couric. “I like to write and report and get out there.”
In a recurring series called “Primary Questions” (which later evolved into “Vice-Presidential Questions” and “Presidential Questions”), she asked candidates personal queries about such things as their fears, their tempers, and their thoughts on—gulp!—marital infidelity. Everyone got a shot at the same question. Their answers were presented back to back, allowing viewers to instantly compare and contrast the politicians. Senator John McCain would say his favorite book was Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and, moments later, Senator Barack Obama would give his nod to the Bible and Shakespeare. The series was great political television: a bit of harmless patter that, on reflection, was actually revealing.
Ms. Couric said it was also a nonthreatening way for her to get to know the candidates. “We built from there,” she said.
CBS’s coverage reached a pinnacle on Sept. 24, a wild Wednesday during which Ms. Couric arguably altered the entire course of the election.
The day began at the Millennium Hotel near the United Nations, where she met Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, for the second post-convention interview with the press-wary vice presidential candidate. Ms. Couric felt that in many ways her subject remained a blank canvas. Before the interview, she prepared a long list of questions, which she then chopped down to the essentials. “I didn’t want to feel so rushed about getting to the questions that I couldn’t do follow-ups,” said Ms. Couric. “I wanted to be able to re-ask the questions if she was circumlocutious.”
That decision turned out to be prescient. Again and again, throughout the subsequent interview, Mr. Palin tried to cling to her talking points. When Ms. Couric pressed for specifics, Ms. Palin stumbled. “But can you give me any other concrete examples?” asked Ms. Couric at one point. Um, no.
By mid-afternoon, clips from the interview were ricocheting around the Web, boggling brains across the political spectrum. Back in her office at CBS, the entire vortex of the political world seemed to be swirling around Ms. Couric. The phone kept ringing. She spoke with Henry Kissinger about preconditions and Iran. She talked to Al Gore about the environment. “This is the craziest day I’ve ever had!” Ms. Couric thought. Things got crazier.
John McCain called. He told Ms. Couric that due to the financial crisis he was suspending his campaign. Ms. Couric promptly wooed Mr. McCain into the CBS Evening News studio for an interview. “I don’t think we need to scare people,” Mr. McCain said on camera, “but I certainly think we need to tell them the truth.”
As it turned out, prior to showing up for the interview with Ms. Couric, Mr. McCain at the last minute, had canceled his scheduled appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman, explaining that he had to immediately rush to D.C. (Ms. Couric said she was unaware at the time of Mr. McCain’s prior commitment).
Across town, Mr. Letterman was taping his show when producers figured out Mr. McCain’s actual whereabouts. Mr. Letterman promptly showed the audience an internal CBS feed, showing Mr. McCain sitting across from Ms. Couric while an assistant dabbed makeup on his face. Some emergency! “You heard it here first, ladies and gentlemen, this doesn’t smell right,” said Mr. Letterman.
Ms. Couric said that the subsequent fallout—Mr. Letterman spent the next several weeks on air battering Mr. McCain—was between the Late Show host and the U.S. senator from Arizona. “I’m on the phone with the candidate, he’s telling me something, and I invite him on the Evening News,” said Ms. Couric. “Sue me.”
“I was just glad I wasn’t the one getting makeup put on,” she added.
Why’d Mr. McCain choose her over Dave? She shrugged. “There were nefarious suspicions that he was trying to distract attention from the Sarah Palin interview,” said Ms. Couric. “I don’t think that’s true at all.”
In the meantime, the Palin interviews were a sensation—generating gazillions of Web hits; inspiring a rip-roaring parody on Saturday Night Live; prodding Bill Kristol into fits of public recrimination; and severely damaging Ms. Palin’s credibility as a serious vice presidential candidate.
“The interviews were important,” said Ms. Couric. “I don’t mean to sound too self-congratulatory, because anytime a candidate does an interview, if it’s properly done, it should be revealing. Quite frankly, I’ve been disappointed by the lack of persistence I’ve seen in a lot of political interviews this season.”
"A lot of people interviewed Sarah Palin," said Mr. Kaplan, the executive producer. "The one they’ll be talking about ten years from now is Katie’s."
Mr. Kaplan said he disagreed with recent suggestions that the impact of the interview was due, in part, to Ms. Couric and Ms. Palin’s shared gender-what might be called the undermining sister theory of what tripped up Ms. Palin. "It didn’t have anything to do with the whether Katie was a woman or a Martian," said Mr. Kaplan. "It had to do with the fact that the quality of Katie’s questions were extraordinary, and the qualities of Sarah Palin’s answers were controversial."
RECENTLY A NUMBER of veteran TV network executives speculated to The Observer that given CBS’s $12.5 billion third-quarter write-down, it seems unlikely that the network could afford to buy out the reportedly $40 million remaining on Ms. Couric’s contract. That leaves Ms. Couric in control of her destiny.
But despite her most recent star turn, some observers doubted whether Ms. Couric would be able to find a company willing to match her current salary, considering the ongoing financial struggles that are sweeping through the media industry.
If they’re right, Ms. Couric will have to expand her media power base within CBS News.
Outside the window, on Amsterdam, a crew of teenagers walked by, caught site of Ms. Couric and flailed for her attention.
“Look, young people,” said Ms. Couric. “See! They actually watch. So our demos are lowering, too!”
Until recently, she had felt anxious about translating herself onto the Web. As a result, earlier this year, Ms. Couric set up a breakfast at Sarabeth’s restaurant with former Today producer turned YouTube executive Jordan Hoffner. And so was born Ms. Couric’s YouTube channel, where she now regularly uploads behind-the-scenes footage of her life on the campaign trail.
Some of it is inane, said Ms. Couric. But she liked the flexibility and spontaneity of the Web. At the Democratic National Convention, she ran into Michael Dukakis going through security. Ms. Couric pounced. “When you’re here in Denver, and you see all this hoopla, do you ever wonder, gee, what if?”
“Look, I owe the American people an apology,” said Mr. Dukakis. “If I’d beaten the old man, you’d have never heard of the kid, and we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
Behind the scenes, Ms. Couric was also pushing for more acreage on big campaign nights. “We have very little real estate,” said Ms. Couric. “On 60 Minutes the political coverage is pretty much dominated by the people who have done the campaigns throughout. So that doesn’t leave a lot of space for me or for people like Jeff Greenfield, who is so interesting, or Bob [Schieffer], who has covered so many of these.”
On the first night of the Democratic National Convention, Ms. Couric and her colleagues added an hour-long Webcast to their coverage. From the get-go, the Webcasts were a breezy hit, with Ms. Couric having fun, rolling with the carnival atmosphere on the convention floor, interviewing Caroline Kennedy one moment, Cyndi Lauper the next. Even if the audience was small, Ms. Couric was happy to have another free-wheeling platform to play on. “It’s much less buttoned up,” said Ms. Couric. “It feels to me more like the Today show environment, where you can kind of shuck and jive a little bit.”
“But you don’t have to dress up for Halloween,” she added.
No, that indignity is finally behind her. Ms. Couric finished her cup of coffee. It was time to head back to the office and get cranking.
So, what about at home? A costume perhaps?
“I’m having an election-night rehearsal,” she said. “I’ll be dressing as Katie Couric, anchorwoman.”