The Tube: No Rating Points for Trying

When CBS president Les Moonves hired Katie Couric for a $15 million-a-year anchor gig at the Evening News back in 2006, he was riding a mandate from the Corporate Board and loving every minute of it. His primetime lineup was a star-studded Nielsen #1. Local affiliates were showing record profits. CBS News, with all those pesky pre-Les lifers, was vulnerable in the wake of Dan Rather’s ethics scandal. Moonves seized the opportunity to take longtime CBS News producer Jeff Fager down a notch. He brought in an A-list celebrity from outside Fager’s jurisdiction, betting on blockbuster ratings and a whole new direction for his third-place news division. Instead, he set up Katie Couric for the worst five years of her life.

To her colleagues she was an overachieving nuisance, Tracy Flick with a Teleprompter, stomping high-heeled across Murrow’s portrait in the CBS newsroom. Moonves guaranteed her a set number of Sixty Minutes segments in her contract and Fager wasn’t happy about it. He threw her only human-interest stories, like that of hero pilot Chesley Sullenberger, and kept her away from politicians and scandal-ridden CFOs. An “unnamed staffer” even complained that CBS News had become “all about hair and makeup.”


Didn’t anyone ever tell these guys that, in broadcasting, “integrity” is often the opponent to innovation? Every time Couric interviewed a guest on the Evening News or filmed an online commentary for the network website, the hard-bitten boys at CBS would leak their umbrage to the newspapers and reign her in. She was America’s highest-paid intern, fitted with Dan Rather’s suit jacket and still crucified when she couldn’t improve his ratings.

It’s too bad. Couric represented something fresh and original in network news, and it wasn’t because of her hair or makeup; she looked like she was trying. Evening news anchors are supposed to portray cool, effortless objectivity, as they did during the age of Rather and Tom Brokaw (whose vapidity William Hurt mimicked so well in Broadcast News). Couric, on the other hand, was straining, desperate to gain credibility in spite of her morning show resume. What she lacked in IQ points or journalistic pedigree she made up in sheer pathological willpower, the kind unchecked by wisdom, unhindered by taste and endemic to modern Americans.

While a more seasoned journalist would have grilled Sarah Palin on the issues and allowed her to fall back into memorized jargon, Couric, in that 2008 landmark interview, hit her with a sledgehammer: “What newspapers and magazines do you read?” Couric knew that Sarah Palin didn’t read a damn thing. How? Because Katie Couric doesn’t read, either. Most Americans don’t. Reading offers no immediate benefit to one’s lifestyle or income level and it takes time away from careerist ladder-climbing. Couric knew that you don’t rise to Palin’s level these days
by virtue of your library card. It was an unpretentious insight on Couric’s part, and an indicator of how relevant an anchor she could have been.

Katie Couric drove to work in the morning like a suburban mom hauling her kids from Latin class to violin, read the news as if rehearsing for a scholarship interview and tackled important issues the same way I tutored innercity children back in high school (“Colleges love that stuff,” I would say). Katie Couric doubts her own intelligence and so she works extra hard in her own self-interest. Just like we all do. For the past five years, CBS had a news anchor with a pulse and a visible set of concerns similar to our own.

Instead of merely reciting facts into a camera, she reflected our own image back in the mirror. If CBS had given her a chance to be herself, she could have built an audience and changed the entire personality of network news. She could have been America’s blandly attractive, less-than-brilliant, workaholic newswoman for the upcoming post-Hope Era. It would have been fitting.

Moonves, meanwhile, conceded defeat on the Couric issue and gave Fager more control over CBS News. They’re plucking some good sport named Scott Pelley from Sixty Minutes to babysit the anchor desk. Of their divorce, Moonves bemoaned out-of-control anchor salaries and Couric discussed the “freedom” that syndication would afford her, in contrast to network news. I doubt they’ll keep in touch.

Moonves should have known, when he hired her, that he was setting Couric up for a beating. He didn’t do enough to protect her. Fager and Co. walked all over the poor woman, abused her, and Moonves barely even monitored the situation. The brunt of Couric’s failure rests with Moonves. His big-spending, star-courting strategies might work well in primetime, but they’re now 0-for-1 in news. The age-old rap on Moonves rings true: Great dealmaker. Apathetic manager. It’s a shame. For Couric’s sake, he could have at least tried.

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