Why Pretend That TV Actually Covers News?

Now that Katie Couric—America’s High Priestess of Perky—will take over the vaunted anchor chair at CBS News, where Edward R.

Now that Katie Couric—America’s High Priestess of Perky—will take over the vaunted anchor chair at CBS News, where Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite once reigned, it’s time for the network news brass to stop taking themselves so seriously.

C’mon, folks, you can relax. We all know that network news isn’t about news anymore; it’s big-bucks showbiz. How else to explain ABC’s recent Primetime Live story, entitled “Outrage After Teen Gets 10 Years For Oral Sex With a Girl?” If someone had pitched Ted Koppel a story about Angelina Jolie finding her “purpose” in life, he’d have run screaming from the room. Thanks to you, Mr. and Ms. Network Honcho, missing teenager Natalee Holloway enjoys better name recognition than the president of Pakistan, old what’s-his-name.

If Daily Show host Jon Stewart can fess up about anchoring the “fake news,” why can’t you admit that you care more about Q ratings than what’s happening in Qatar? When an anchor is judged by how well he cries on cue rather than by the content of his questions; when research dictates that NBC anchor Tom Brokaw snares a bigger audience if he reads the news standing than sitting; when stories formerly relegated to the underbelly of tabloid TV routinely worm their way into that sacrosanct 6:30 p.m. time slot, it tells you the audience isn’t clamoring for a great journalist.

When I was an NBC network news correspondent 15 years ago, the highly mined border between the entertainment and news divisions was already as smudged as the mascara under Tammy Faye Bakker’s eyes. Still, the sanctimonious posturing of news execs channeling Ted Baxter proliferated even as it became clear that the heyday of the deified news anchor was done. Journalistic credibility crashed as TV news heads vied with Washington lobbyists for dead last on the credibility scale.

Of course, when you’re trying to rack up ratings in a culture that cares more about the travails of Michael Jackson than the travesties in Darfur, a story like NBC Dateline’s “Bed Bugs Are Back” transmogrifies the meaning of hard news. Network news can only be as good as the audience demands. And, these days, the audience—rendered catatonic by a steady diet of cheesy daytime talk shows and prime-time reality programs—barely differentiates between a story on Entertainment Tonight and one on Meet the Press.

Which is why Ms. Couric, who’s done everything from dancing with actor Antonio Banderas to chirping her way through “How to Give Your Garage a Makeover,” was tapped to shore up the sagging springs of the CBS Evening News anchor chair. She has elevated fluff-as-fact to an art form.

Besides, as the feverish spinmeisters are gushing, Ms. Couric—who cut her journalistic teeth as a Pentagon reporter—is simply returning to her hard-news roots. Not to mention that those horn-rimmed glasses she’s been sporting translate into instant gravitas and are bound to add to the suspense of her CBS debut. (I can hear the office pools forming: Will she or won’t she wear the glasses?)

Even more important than her ability to ask tough questions, Ms. Couric is, above all, likable. No wonder veteran newsman Bob Schieffer, whose intellect is eclipsed by a charisma bypass, lost out to the terminally congenial Ms. Couric. Still, kudos are pouring in to CBS for taking a flyer on her in the high-stakes network anchor wars. Voice-of-God anchor Walter Cronkite lapsed into lapdog lingo when he praised the “great talents” of a “very beautiful lady.” But it was Today show colleague Ann Curry’s tribute—“I feel like my sister is going off to college”—that really put this landmark event in broadcast news history into perspective.

Not surprisingly, CBS chairman Les Moonves started romancing Ms. Couric even as he declared his intentions to radically rehab the Evening News. So, despite former MSNBC president Erik Sorenson’s protestations that many of Ms. Couric’s talents aren’t transferable, that’s exactly what Mr. Moonves has in mind to woo the coveted 25-to-54-year-old audience demographic. The average network news watcher is a myopic 59, so you’ll know Ms. Couric is making headway when the makers of Viagra, Centrum Silver and other elixirs for the AARP set take their ad revenues elsewhere.

Whatever CBS has in store for Ms. Couric, I wish her all the best. But I confess that I felt a wave of disappointment when word leaked that she’d been hired. It wasn’t because I don’t like her—I was just secretly hoping that Jon Stewart would get the gig. Or that maybe Mr. Moonves would really shake things up and install American Idol malcontent Simon Cowell. Now that might have helped resurrect my faith in the future of network news. Besides, it would have been a lot more honest. Why Pretend That TV Actually Covers News?