Sunday, April 16, 2006

TV: Katie Was a Cheerleader

Who knew it was a war crime? Katie Couric was a cheerleader and an army of Beate Klarsfelds are on her trail in an attempt to warn America of this dangerous contravention of the law. We imagine it's only a matter of time before the tribunal is held. The cheerleader as Eichmann, no doubt, sends shudders through the hearts of many women on the left, center and right, since they too may be charged.

Couric's apparent crime, for some on the left, is saying that Navy Seals "rock." That moment was immortalized in Michael Moore's FAHRENHEIT 9/11 and seems to be the chief piece of evidence that will be introduced when the commentators gather at the Hague.

For some of the left, though not all, that's at the root of their pursuit of Couric. It's the gift of impunity that allows them to operate in a fact-free environment as they compose the charges against Couric. But those who hear such a statement and nod agreeably are also engaged in the national pastime of bash-the-bitch.

Bash the bitch is as American as apple pie and rush to judgement, so who are we to complain?
If it makes us "America haters" to say "Just a minute now" then so be it. Let all the ones partaking in bash-the-bitch wrap themselves in Old Glory, we'll call it the way we see it.

Here's what we see. A woman's trashed. For what she did?

Oh cookie, please, it's for being a woman. Read the commentaries. "Cheerleader" is a trumped up charge -- as usual, the true crime is gender.

This is brought home best in the commentary of one woman, sports writer Barbara Walder, who charges that "Couric Isn't Qualified to Anchor News" -- the exclamation point is, apparently, implied. Walder tells us that "there are truly talented newswomen who could do the job" but she's unable to pull an example out of her sports bra as she goes on to trash Elizabeth Vargas, Connie Chung and Barbara Walters as equally unqualified.

Let's be clear, we don't like Barbara Walters (whom we both know). If you cut the prick, she bleeds Nancy Reagan red. That's a given. Also a given is that regardless of what we think of Walters personally, professionally she is capable of anchoring. At the heart of this bash-the-bitch are two issues. One is the state of TV news, the other is gender. As the two converge, we've got a feeding frenzy on our hands.

Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman's "Katie Couric Versus Amy Goodman" offer the closest thing to genuine criticism we've seen. But where they fall short is in grasping what news on the big three is and has been for decades.

They wouldn't want Amy Goodman as the anchor of a newscast on any of the big three. Amy Goodman with editorial control would be fired by the corporate owners within weeks, if not days, of her first broadcast. Amy Goodman without editorial control wouldn't be Amy Goodman.

They make a list of what they see as Couric's crimes and fail to note that those are the crimes of mainstream media. It didn't happen overnight, it didn't happen in the last ten years. It is one reason that, in the early nineties, CNN took off, because Americans interested in the news were disgruntled with what they'd been offered for some time.

All the talk of Edward R. Murrow fails to note how far along McCarthyism was when he finally called it out. That was a case of the system righting itself, not a case of brave journalism. (Nor were his interviews with the likes of Marilyn Monroe brave journalism.) But we want to kid ourselves that there was a really good time (a "golden age") for broadcast journalism (corporate journalism). In doing so, we want to deny not just what went on in the supposed golden age but what's occurred in the decades since.

Those screaming about Couric's qualifications as "anchor" fail to note the decline of the producer. Celebrity journalism doesn't start with Couric, it starts with America annointing the anchor and networks rushing in to cede editorial content to the anchor.

That's reality and those with broadcast experience who aren't noting that development (a huge one) need to do a little more thinking. The anchor as celebrity ("trusted voice") did a great deal to damage the news content. That predates the announcement of Couric as the new anchor of CBS' Evening News. (Couric will, as do all anchors now, have editorial control.) The monopolies of the nineties ("synergy!") did not create the current state of broadcast journalism. ABC, to offer one example, has had a full dance card of changing partners for decades. Network news has rarely been brave in any decade and citing random examples doesn't change the fact that a top ten list of a decade can be matched, easily, by a worst one million list for the same decade.

One thing that has changed over time was the person who controlled on air content. As that shifted away from producers to "readers" you did a nose dive -- not from a lofty perch but from a squishy middle. Another thing that changed? There was a time, years ago, when the news was an "untouchable" at CBS. Profit wasn't the bottom line. (It was helped, as one retired network executive pointed out to us, by the huge profits to be made in soap operas -- where actors worked for peanuts and in obscurity from the mainstream media -- that vanished long ago.)

Much is made of the fact that The New York Times killed their own story on the impending Bay of Pigs invasion. The Nation did report it. Where was broadcast news? As with the case of most stories over the years, no where to be found. That was in the glory period where profits and advertising dictated content far less than they would come to do. So the commentators would be wise to surrender the notion of a golden age.

There was a time, as with print, when "polls" weren't the topic but issues frequently were. But audiences relying on broadcast news were as much victims of the cold war craze as were the ones reading bulletins from the John Birch Society. There was a difference in degrees but not in content.

Some trotted out Dan Rather as the anti-Katie. He is that. As freakish as he came off, he certainly wasn't Katie Couric. (He was a lot like Nimoy's Mr. Spock discovering emotions for the first time or Jodie Foster's Nell on her first trip to the grocery store.) He also didn't fight the good fight. He read copy, which he wrote or helped to write at times, and he relied on producers.

Mary Mapes, a former producer who worked with Rather, is a name that's popped up as well this week. Some have taken to recommending her book. It's a really bad book. We feel for Mapes but her ignorance shines through in the book. Why did Mapes feel the need to write a personality book (as opposed to leaving out the bits on grandma and making a case as a reporter)? Because she's a product of broadcast journalism and has internalized all the principles at play.

She seems to think she's the first victim of a cowardly corporation. With no historical evidence at her finger tips, she writes a really bad book that tells you she's a nice person (we're told she is) and that she got screwed over (we'd agree with that). She offers nothing on what was done to April Oliver -- either because Oliver is "too hot" to mention or because she's unaware of what happened less than a decade before CBS fired Mapes. Too bad, because what was done to Oliver was done to Mapes and until Mapes can discuss the issues from that perspective, she's wasting everyone's time except for a few partisans.

We support Mapes reporting on the National Guard. The corporation stabbed her in the back. The "investigation" wasn't a journalistic inquiry. Take out "National Guard" and you've got the April Oliver story all over again. When Mapes is ready to connect the dots, she may have something to say. Until then, she's just twisting in the wind.

One of us has family ties to print journalism, the other to broadcast journalism. We know the horror stories of what gets play and what doesn't. We know that the situation has gotten worse and we know it was never all it was cracked up to be to begin with. We can present you with the mainstream argument (concessions must be made when catering to a broad, divergent public) but we've never bought into it. Truth is truth, you tell it or you don't. The list of journalism martyrs doesn't include Dan Rather. It does include Gary Webb, April Oliver, Robert Parry, John L. Hess, and many others.

So the notion that Cheerleader Katie is somehow degrading the evening broadcast (they're apparently afraid she'll show up on air with pom-poms) is laughable. Whether they grasp it or not, they're defending the state of news today when they trash Katie Couric's hiring as something out of bounds.

Katie Couric's hiring is more valid than Brian Williams because Couric brings an audience with her. We're going to turn to overt sexism now but, please note, bash-the-bitch is a national pastime. All who get caught up in it are not sexists. A feeding frenzy causes many to lose their grip on their better judgement. The fact that some have lost their grip and joined in the trashing doesn't make them personally sexist.

"Katie Couric's not qualified." That's the assumption that's pushed. She's not qualified because she's a woman. They won't say it bluntly and outright, however, that's what they're getting at. Even our sports bra wearing critic is saying "Couric's not qualified because she's a woman" by the context of her argument. Couric, we're told, hasn't been all over the world interviewing famous politicians. Walters, on the other hand, has done that. But our "pro-woman" writer dismisses both. Couric for not hopping the globe and Walters for . . . reasons never stated.

We don't confuse grasshopper with newscaster. We're fully aware that for years the anchor path came out of London. You became the London correspondent when you were being groomed for anchor. It gave "polish." (That's another topic commentators with broadcast experience might consider tackling.) Lack of globe trotting is cited as a reason Couric's not qualified.

It's interesting how this works. A woman, a mythical woman, can be an anchor. But a real woman, for instance, one with children, apparently can't be. It's that glass ceiling, you understand. Couric gave birth to her first child in 1991. Her decision to stay close to home for her children (especially after the death of her husband) is suddenly one of those choices that we're not to respect and we're going to call a liability.

That's what the "no globe trotting experience" nonsense is. It's not honoring women's choices. It can be dressed up in "This male has reported from Japan and from France and . . ." but it's just the usual nonsense of a woman 'can do anything' -- but to succeed she better pattern her life after a male peer. That wasn't an option for Couric and those slamming her for choosing to have a solid home base are slamming her decision to focus on her children.

That's not a choice either of us would make but, as feminists, we recognize her right to make that choice and we respect it. We are aghast that a supposed pro-woman female commentator wants to slam Couric for a personal choice without ever noting the choice Couric made.

She doesn't bring enough experience to the job of anchor? Well that depends on what you grade as experience. And sexists are quite happy to note stamps on passports but never to note the very real experience of raising children or the very real loss of a spouse. On the latter, Couric's reporting (at Today) has been stronger because of her "experience." Devaluing what a woman brings to the table isn't feminism.

Doing a set up in front of Big Ben, reading text written by someone else, doesn't round you out or give you "experience." Reciting what someone tells you in your earpiece as some upheaval goes on around you doesn't give you experience.

Let's talk Barbara Walters because Jocketta trashes her too. Again, we don't like her as a person and avoid her when we encouter her. However, Walters was a trailblazer in broadcast journalism. Ignorance doesn't give you the right to trash her accomplishments. She was not the first female co-host of Today but she was the first to carve out a solid spot for women. Knowing that she made a bunch of celebrities cry isn't an excuse for not knowing that she interviewed world leaders throughout the seventies at ABC. We don't care for her personally or politically, but we do not devalue what she accomplished. Nor do we ignore that her attempt at co-anchoring the evening news was destroyed by sexism. (Both on the set and in the country.) For all of our disagreements with Walters, we would applaud ABC announcing her as the interim anchor of World News Tonight while they figure out what they're doing. She's earned it.

It was interesting to see Couric dismissed by so many. What it reminds us of is Meredith of The View. People don't know what they're getting as the game show host transfers to Today. That's because the left offered no critique of The View. If they had, they'd grasp that something very vile is headed to morning news. If they had, reporters would be pestering the woman with questions of, "Who will apologize for you on air now that Walter's can't?" But they're apparently not aware of that because it was a show with four women (sometimes five) so obviously it wasn't to be studied or examined.

By the same token, until Media Matters came along, The Today Show (and other morning news programs) weren't the topic of serious, repeated examinations. Which is why your commentators can provide only tidbits (which read like they came from the press release CBS issued last week) or feel that Moore captured Couric in his documentary. He captured a very real aspect of morning news, he didn't capture Couric. We love Moore's film but groaned at the clip since there were many better clips to use featuring Matt Lauer.

So let's tell you what no one else will because they don't have the knowledge to. Greg Palast's wonderful book The Best Democracy Money Can Buy shocked many with its revelations. It shouldn't have shocked Today viewers throughout. In all the coverage of Couric that notes this accomplishment or that accomplishment, we're not surprised when the mainstream ignores the Florida coverage -- they ignored Florida in real time.

Couric is not "the left" and that's our biggest fear in writing this -- that someone will read this and misunderstand ("I can love her, she's the left!" or "I always knew she was one of those disgusting lefties!"). What she and others at Today did do was make a serious committment to covering Florida during the recounts. That meant covering news that pleased Republicans and that meant covering news that pleased Democrats and news that pleased no one. Those involved in the fight (and it was a fight -- not surprising after what went down as the election night/morning coverage drew to a close) wanted to provide the widest perspective they could.

This wasn't The Nation televised. This wasn't Democracy Now! goes to network TV. It was the finest coverage that broadcast or cable news offered on the situation. (Disclosure, we have many friends at Today who were involved in the fight to get that sort of coverage on air.) It's not surprising that the mainstream articles don't cover that because they weren't interested in Florida's recounts (they were interested in a rush to "closure"). But those who have no knowledge of Today would do well to familiarize themselves with that coverage before claiming Couric has no experience with breaking news or that she's just a personality. This was ongoing coverage and Couric was there when Jack Welch had his tantrum on election night/morning and back in the studio hours later to co-anchor Today. The easiest thing in the world for everyone at the program who fought hard (and they did fight hard) would have been to just toss in the towel. They could have just said, "Oh well the big boss wants Bully Boy, let's all just back away and cover something else." That didn't happen and among those deserving credit for that is Couric.

Here's another thing they don't tell you. Katie Couric moderated an on air discussion regarding the invasion of Iraq. That didn't happen on the blessed NewsHour. World News Tonight didn't provide a forum for citizens to express their feelings (pro or con) on the invasion. Today did. And Couric and staff fought for that. Not, before lefties get a soft lump in their throat, because of a position on the war but because the issue was news and because a discussion was needed. We faulted them, in real time, face to face, for not making it more than one segment and for not letting students speak more, but the fact remains that on broadcast (corporate) television, you saw that in only one place as the nation geared up for war.

Couric wasn't golfing with Poppy Bush. (So she didn't have to correct herself, on air, after denying, on air, that she had been.) Couric was never rumored to have bragged about how she was going to "get" Kitty Kelley. That's why we would have chosen a different clip from Today for Michael Moore's film. When fluff enters Today, it's often brought in by Matt Lauer. The former weatherman has no problem with news exploding in his face because, as someone who predicted the weather and often got it wrong, he's used to being wrong and used to never apologizing. That's why he can turn to the camera and repeatedly announce how great it is to bring you "good news" such as a kidnap victim being found! Even when people who know the victim and a police official tried to caution him on air, Laurer was in feel-good "No rain tomorrow!" mode. There wasn't a lot of concern when that story blew up in his face, but there never is.

We're not saying Couric doesn't get things wrong. We are saying, and talking to anyone at Today would bear this out, that she does work at her job. She does prepare for it. Those clippings on air aren't props.

Currently, there's a mini-battle of the wills going on. Bob Woodward and David Corn are in debate over what Woody did or didn't do. Woody claims he got it right in his book (which he laughably plugs like crazy throughout his response) and that the Downing Street Memo and other recent reports do not contradict what he said in his snooze of stenography. He argues for his journalistic reputation. (Well someone has to.) Corn would do well to examine an interview Woody gave on Today. Woody's defense for not reporting the truth when it happens is that he saves his stories for his books and not the paper. That doesn't allow for lying (we'll use the word) on air. If he's going on air, he needs to tell the truth. He didn't in one interview. He spoke of "calcium of the backbone" (the Bully Boy's alleged calcium of the backbone) repeatedly to the point that Couric finally had to interrupt him and ask him to put that claim aside.

Now, and Corn should follow this up, is "calcium in the backbone" a premeditated decision to go to war? Viewers weren't told any of the things that Woody now claims he knew (and would later report in his book). Yet, with the war going to hell, Woody wants to act as though he always got it right. He cheerleaded the war and he may be fortunate that he didn't do so on the page of the Washington Post; however, as with his commentaries to listeners and viewers on Plamegate, he left a lot unsaid that he should have disclosed. More than that, his "calicium in the backbone" argument disguised reality.

That moment in TV history goes unremarked upon because it's largely undocumented by the left. But it did take place. (We would advise Corn to use a transcript because Woody's dipthong is annoying and still haunts us.) There's a lot that took place but, just as Meredith will get a pass for xenophobia and other offensive comments, Couric's own accomplishment won't be noted -- because neither program was considered worthy of study by the left.

Yet now that Couric is going to the evening news, suddenly voices from all sides want to slam her. Since Jocketta couldn't offer any examples (despite her claim) of women worthy to anchor the news, we spoke to female producers and on air news personalities at CNN, CBS and ABC. (We avoided NBC, in all of its configurations, due to the war against Couric NBC conducted in an attempt to decrease her value enough for CBS to lose interest.) Producers were the most vocal, especially those with children, who noted that they alternated the trips around the country and abroad with periods where they could be home with their children ("a responsibility no man ever talks about" one noted). But the question on every woman's mind was exactly who did qualify after you've eliminated every woman from Katie Couric to Barbara Walters?

They're not, as one on air pointed out, going to give the job to Linda Ellerbee (who is respected among peers but dead to the networks). It was thought that Lesley Stahl has had some nice moments of late on 60 Minutes but her connections to the attacks on Social Security wouldn't go over well with those aware of them. (A problem for a number of names of a certain age.) They racked their brains to come up with one name but couldn't. Connie Chung was damaged goods (first from the fights with Rather who didn't want a co-host, then from CNN's attempts to turn her into "Connie!").

It was noted that ABC had stood behind Elizabeth Vargas originally but, with the tragedies Bob Woodruff experienced while attempting to report from Iraq, they seem to be weakening their show of support in the face of the news that she's pregnant. The word for that, as pointed out repeatedly, is "sexism." When a woman's job may be in jeopardy because she's pregnant, that's sexism. Family leave guidelines aside, her pregnancy has resulted in whispers of ABC's losing support for/interest in her as an anchor.

As one woman at ABC put it, "If you're beyond child bearing years, you're 'too old' to be an anchor. If you get pregnant, you're not committed to your job."

Let's be clear that we're not defending TV news. We never would. Katie Couric is now queen, but as Cher repeatedly noted during her time at the top of TV in the seventies, "I'm queen of a crappy medium." That applies to TV news as well with few exceptions (historically and now, though some try to kid). You're telling a story to what you see as a largely uninformed audience and you're doing it in less and less time. There's not even a pretense of interest in international events (from the executive suites) at this point.

But the announcement of Couric as the new anchor is a chance to blast her. Because? Not due to her own work which the commentators seem unfamiliar with. Not due to the nature of the historical tragedy that is TV news (which is even worse on the morning shows). But because she didn't go global. That's not the issue and Jocketta damn well knows it. If it were the issue, Barbara Walters (who went global more than many and was a first, for this country, at getting those international leaders to speak on camera to women) wouldn't also be disqualified by Jocketta. What it comes down to is that Katie Couric's life involved choices and there's no respect for the choices she made.

A mother anchoring the news. A mother with young children. That's not "experience" in their book. Experience is only what the White Male defines it as. That definition isn't feminism. We've avoided noting Couric's own opinions in this (nor did we speak to her for this) but we will note that one of her concerns when the issue of anchoring was first brought up was how it would effect her children?

That's a concern for many women when they consider a job transfer or promotion. But that doesn't cut it for "experience" in the White Male world. Could that result in a new level of understanding in evening news when potential stories about working mothers are considered?
The White Male critique says it doesn't matter, says it's not an issue. Which is strange when you consider the number of working mothers in this country (and, in fact, worldwide). What about the input she can bring on issues of working women, on issues of grief, on issues of medical treatments and medical spending?

Those apparently don't matter either. It just matters whether or not she was "groomed" by being made a London correspondent. That matters. Alan Cowell, London correspondent for The New York Times, can't find a story with both hands and it staring him in the face. But apparently he would have the sort of "experience" that's necessary for the job.

See, a man in London (and traveling other places) has a world wide 'understanding.' A working mother with children, apparently, can't grasp anything. The message is: Your life experiences have offered no insight, have offered nothing. It goes to what we value and what we don't. In this instance, the commentators aren't valuing the very real experiences of women. Translation, neither David Brinkley nor Chet Huntley were ever pregnant so what can pregnancy or motherhood teach anyone?

Katie Couric is not going to make TV news "soft and fuzzy." Those with that concern not only do not know their history, they've also obviously never watched Dateline. It's a crap medium with declining ratings and when the prestige leaves any occupation, women are allowed to enter. Let's be serious. But let's also note that a woman's experiences can enrich their own understanding and that of others.

It honestly reminds us of all the (male written) movie reviews praising various male-coming-of-age stories as "universal." Male is still the measurement. In 2006, it's still the measurement. What Couric has done, something most of the commentators are unaware of, doesn't matter. It only matters if she meets the White Male template mistakenly hailed as "universal."

There was a time when those sexist standards were questioned. It's a shame to see so many accept those standards as articles of faith. That doesn't mean that all participating are sexist. (We think Jocketta is, at the very least, a masculinist.) What happens is someone offers a critique. It's funny. It's a fun topic. So people rush to weigh in. And when the bulls eye is a woman, it gets plenty of attention.

Katie Couric, who has yet to debut on the evening news, is not responsible for the state of evening news. Nor is the sorry state a recent development. (Why do you think Bill Moyers moved to PBS in the first place?) We respect and admire the work Amy Goodman does. As a result we wouldn't curse her with the wish that she anchored an evening newscast on corporate media. Democracy Now! would not be the same program on one of the big three because network news has never been interested in covering the topics Goodman covers. That was true before Democracy Now! and why Goodman and others had to work so hard to end the blackout on East Timor. For those who want to look the other way (many did for years), your evening news didn't provide you with that story. It took independent journalists (and activists) to make that news. From 1975 to 1991, the evening news wasn't concerned with the realities in East Timor. You want to make a list of our White Male Gods who anchored during that period? Do so and then come talk to us about brave corporate journalism.

As two who've grown up around journalism, we know the scandals, we know the things that just aren't discussed. We don't kid ourselves about the state of corporate media or that the narrowing we've seen in recent years represents anything other than a narrowing (not, as some would have you believe, a devastating blow to a brave medium). We're aware, for instance, that all the mash notes for Mike Wallace fail to note where he "developed" (stole -- from a woman, naturally) his interview "style." In an early version of this (distributed to members of The Common Ills community) we noted which brave newsmen were bed wetters in junior high, who warmed the bench and other tidbits that are as relevant to the current discussion of Couric as some of the nonsense that's been put out. We also noted that Couric's experiences have never been used as a weapon (in the manner of clutch-the-pearls artiste Cokie Roberts who is so fond of issuing orders to the public by intoning "As a mother . . ."). The experiences have, however, allowed some perspectives to enter the coverage that would otherwise by silenced. (And had been for many years.)

We noted that Couric has yet to advocate censoring the news because children might be watching. However, Brian Williams did just that, on The Tonight Show, before taking over from Tom Brokaw on NBC's Nightly News. It's a funny sort of criticism going around where a man can advocate censorship and raise no hackles but a woman, as widely noted, who has moved beyond the accepted limits (because information needs to be provided) is slammed.

Couric's not made xenophobic statements, she's not hosted a game show. She has legs and favors skirts which is apparently a sign of a mortal flaw. The Lord and Savior Walter Cronkite never had his bare legs shown while anchoring the news! And that apparently is the measurement. What a man did. How he did it. Why he did it. That's the "norm." That's the "universal." Only it's not. And it never was. But the cries of "she's destroying the news!" (note the "she") are so much more fun than addressing the reality of broadcast journalims (historical and modern day).

If women learned anything from the trashing of Katie Couric last week, it was that today, we're all cheerleaders. In their eyes, we're all cheerleaders. Our own work isn't addressed and there's no desire to familiarize themselves with it before weighing in. Call us when it's our turn to stand trial at the war crimes tribunal.
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