Back in April of 2006, we wrote "TV: Katie Was a Cheerleader" and, as a result, a group of people (regular readers) have regularly asked that we take a look at The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. A smaller group has written that we can never examine the broadcast because we know and like Katie and can't be impartial.
We're not sure whether we supposedly can't be impartial because we know someone or if that's specific to Katie Couric. That confusion derives in part from a minor media 'watchdoggie' who loathes Couric, makes no secret of loathing her, being among the ones e-mailing to say we'd offer "nothing but valentines" to Couric. E-mailing multiple times. Never say we don't love a challenge.
"Good evening everyone and welcome to network television's first ever evening newscast in prime time," declared Couric broadcasting in the slot usually reserved for The New Adventures of Old Christine last Wednesday. And with such a broadcast, how could we afford not to comment?
Yes, we know Katie. Yes, we like Katie. We've made no attempt to hide that fact. And that means we'll pull punches? Oh, silly goose, you don't know us at all.
Two complaints on Wednesday's broadcast.
First up, dangling earrings. No. No. And no. Like many anchors -- and normal people -- Couric has a tendency to move her head. No one needs the shaking earrings. It was distracting and another pair should have been chosen prior to air but, once on air, someone should have caught that every time Katie moved and the earrings started swaying, there was a distraction.
Second, who passes legislation? In the US, the legislative branch (Congress) passes legislation. The White House signs it into law. (If the White House vetoes it, Congress can override the veto with a two-thirds majority vote.) Are we all up on the basics?
"President Obama got his first big legislative victory this evening," Katie declared at the top of the broadcast, "when the White House passed his economic stimulus package, the most expensive piece of legislation in executive history."
Really? The White House passed legislation? Wow. Was it a roll call vote?
It was a flub. And it required an on air correction. From Katie. She's the one who said it and probably had no idea she'd said that. (She presumably meant the House of Representatives.) That's why you have people in a control booth. That's why, during commercial breaks, it's pandemonium during a news broadcast. Someone should have caught it and should have pointed it out. Had they, a correction probably would've been included in the broadcast.
We called a CBS News exec friend. We said we were going to write about the Wednesday broadcast and had a question about the first segment.
"You think we were carrying water for Barack too?"
That was the immediate response.
No, actually, we didn't think that. The story -- and the discussion that followed it -- were pretty straight forward. If we'd seen Barack bias, believe us, we'd call it out.
He seemed to calm down and explained that Newsbusters, a right wing outlet, was all over them about supposed bias in that segment. They even did a transcript and . . .
Newsbusters did a transcript?
Well then we can just link to them and note that they called out the error --
We were informed they accused CBS of bias but didn't catch any error.
So we explained the error and were told it should have been corrected but asked if they got it right in the voice over? Yes, the voice over at the top of the show, over the theme music, got it right. It was thought that if it was caught, the thinking was most likely, 'It was set up already, so anyone who caught the flub would most likely grasp that it was a flub.'
We actually had more complaints about that attitude than over the flub.
But those are our two complaints about the broadcast. No more dangling earrings and there was a flub that went uncorrected.
Otherwise a very strong half-hour that demonstrated why Katie Couric was the right choice for CBS and why the network's evening news is a better and still improving show.
What do we mean?
Couric was ridiculed months before she ever began anchoring the show in the fall of 2006. The ridicule did not let up for the longest -- and in some quarters, never has. When she moved from the shock of the attacks, she especially began to stress that she wasn't a news reader.
For whatever reasons, we really didn't grasp what she was saying, the point she was making, until we watched the Wednesday night broadcast. (Actually both the Wednesday broadcasts -- first the regular evening news and then the prime time special.)
Ann Curry, whom we also know and like and that's never prevented us from disagreeing with her either, is the news reader on Today. She was in that role when Katie Couric left NBC's Today to move over to the evening news on CBS. Ann is very talented at her job. If you've never watched Today, the two hosts come on, after the theme music and voice over, and might banter (depending on which hour of the broadcast it is) or be solemn, but they do it for a few minutes and then someone tosses to Ann. Ann then has around five minutes to offer up a series of headlines. In a very compact period of time, she has to touch on several different issues and touch on them enough so that if you've never heard of the development before, you can still follow it.
There's an art to what Ann does (and Ann can do a lot more than that and frequently does on Today) and, once upon a time, a network newscast in the evening was pretty much that, with a few reports from the field and a commentary at the end of the program in some cases. The evening anchor as news reader really doesn't exist on ABC or NBC and both Charlie Gibson and Brian Williams were doing their anchoring before Katie's first broadcast. It's really strange that the expectation for Katie was news reader -- expectation among the chattering set -- and it wasn't that for Brian or Charlie.
Pinning it off on Katie goes to gender fears. If she's not tightly controlled, she'll fall apart! Or the audience will!
Reality, the only ones falling apart are the ones demanding she be a news reader. And don't bore us with the crap about, "She was expected to be a news reader because she was coming to the network news from a morning entertainment program." Uh, no, she wasn't. Today was under NBC news. Good Morning America, where Charlie hailed from, has long been -- proclamations in the network commercials notwithstanding -- a division of ABC entertainment. If anyone should have had something to prove, it was Charlie Gibson who chose to move over to entertainment from news when he left news for GMA. But it was about gender fears so it was glom on Katie and pretend that if she didn't have that 'structure,' the whole news industry would crumble.
She's best when she's allowed to follow her own instincts. Which includes the discussion she and Chip Reid had following his report on the House passing the stimulus proposal. That was also true of the conversation with David Price following his report on the ice storms that had left many without power across the United States.
Among the things that stood out the most were the smooth transitions and how quickly and fluidly the broadcast moved. They are hitting their stride and that includes finding the rhythm for the broadcast. Rhythm is set by pace, by alternating types of segments and by camera changes. The latter was especially impressive Wednesday night for all live segments.
All live segments? Couric filed a pre-recorded report.
She introduced it by explaining, "The army is cracking down on sexual abuse in the ranks. A third of service women and six percent of service men say they have been victims. This week the Army said it will hire more prosecutors to bring perpetrators to justice. Meanwhile critics say the military needs to do more about another crime, women being assaulted, beaten, even raped by their military husbands or boyfriends. A CBS News investigation finds more than 25,000 spouses and domestic partners have been attacked over the past decade. Nearly ninety spouses have died."
The segment featured Couric's interviews with survivor Jessacia Patton and the Army Director of Family Affairs Lynn McCollum.
Patton explained how her husband, who had done two tours in Iraq with the Army Rangers, beat her and their daughter Bella. Despite that and, Couric informed, despite pleading "guilty to child abuse after beating three-month-old Bella and then, a few months later, in a drunken rage, threatening [Jessacia] with a gun, he attacked and raped his wife" but saw no punishment (one night in jail) until he "threatened his fellow soldiers and went AWOL" -- at which point, the military decided to prosecute and he was sentenced to seven years.
Jessacia Patton opened up during the interview and that's part of Couric's skills. She does listen when you're speaking, she does appear interested (she's yet to fall asleep on camera, that would be ABC). And that interest is part of her image. It allows someone like Patton to share a very difficult story, to relive it for the cameras. ("I think I laid there for about an hour and just cried. I had given up. I didn't even care if he came in and he killed me. I was broken.")
It's that same skill that draws out the moments that are making people appreciate Couric all the more. We are not Sarah Palin haters. We did not vote for her but we have defended her from sexist attacks. We have especially defended her with regards to Saturday Night Live's attacks on her (those were attacks, when you sexualize Palin by having Tina Fey play her lifting up her skirt, you're attacking the woman, you're not offering a parody of her). Couric did with Palin what she did with Barack. With Barack, there were whines about how mean she was to him. The same people applauded the same treatment of Palin.
In both cases, Couric wasn't mean. Katie was doing her job. Her job is to ask the questions. Her job is to get memorable footage -- which hopefully illuminates some aspect of a politician -- for broadcast. That is her job. She does it very, very well.
And she demonstrated it again during one exchange of her report:
Katie Couric: According to a number of conversations with victims advocates, the army usually rallies around the soldier and leaves the victim to fend for herself and then when she finally does get help, the complaint is the system is entirely stacked against her.
Lynn McCollum: It's disturbing to hear those kinds of comments. Over the last couple of years, we've really put into place, um, and increased the number of victim advocates. One of our biggest challenges because we're a larger bureaucracy is getting information out.
Couric Voice Over: It's not only the victims that aren't getting help it's also the soldiers. CBS news has learned that in case after case soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan have raised red flags regarding their mental health problems but they're often ignored with devastating consequences. In this post-deployment health assessment obtained by CBS News, this soldier clearly indicates concerns for potential conflicts with his spouse or family members and that he "might hurt or lose control with someone" but nothing was done. A year later he murdered his wife.
Katie Couric: He put it right here on a questionnaire and nobody did anything about it. How can that happen? If you have all these systems and services in place.
McCollum looks into the camera and makes a face, sort of a grimace, then she declares, "I need a break, guys." The camera shows her off to the side, speaking with at least three people -- two men (one in military uniform) and one woman. Couric is shown looking over her notes while the four employees of the Army confer. McCollum finally returns, sits back down and offers, "Obviously, I think, in this situation, a mistake probably was made."
It's a powerful moment and the sort that Mike Wallace would be praised for. It's also Couric's job. It was her job to ask the questions that made Palin uncomfortable and it was her job to ask the questions that made Barack uncomfortable. On the latter, she wouldn't have had to ask him about the 'surge' four times if he had answered even once. It's her job to ask the question that makes Lynn McCollum uncomfortable.
If people don't like their own responses, it falls back on them. Michelle Pfeiffer, seated across from Barbara Walters in the 90s, explained it very well, "I realized that you can ask me any question but I don't have to answer." And you don't.
But a skillful journalist can motivate (or, yes, even trick) you into answering and Katie Couric has that skill.
That allowed Americans Wednesday night to see just how in denial the military was about the abuse going on. A soldier completed an assessment before rejoining his family in which he expressed that he might harm his family and he received no help or assistance despite that answer. He went on to kill his wife. Confronted with that by Katie, McCollum suddenly needs a break. She needs to confer at length. When she returns the best she can offer is "a mistake was probably made." Probably.
If you watch the segment more than once (click here to view the video), you may notice not only the appalling response by McCollum, but also how Katie pushes the question. She has this semi- smiling, semi-puzzled expression. And it draws McCollum in. Katie Couric is a very skillful journalist.
That doesn't get noted or recognized as often as it should nor does she receives the same level of praise she would if she were a man doing the exact same job.
We noted her style was uniquely her own and that Mike Wallace would be praised for doing something similar. Some of you might have even thought, "Mike Wallace used to do that." You might have gone further and thought, "Mike Wallace invented that."
No, he didn't.
Jaqueline Susann was always vocal about feeling Wallace ripped her style off -- an interview style she had already pioneered long before the two of them were paired up for Night Beat. How weak must be Mike Wallace's reputation that even allowing for a possible debt to the author of Valley of the Dolls is seen as such a grave threat?
And how the weak the ego and great the fear that led to the relentless attacks on evening news anchor Katie Couric long before she ever sat down at the anchor desk.
That really is what the attacks were -- attacking the 'other'. This decade Katie, Brian and Charlie became network evening news anchors. Only one was ridiculed and treated as a novelty and curiosity. It wasn't the one who fell asleep on air, the one who ticked off guests (such as Gore Vidal) by cutting interviews in the middle and claiming the feed was lost (when it wasn't). That would be Charlie Gibson.
There was never a question of whether or not Charlie Gibson could anchor the network news. Go back and search the coverage following the announcement that he was taking (stealing) the job from an injured journalist and a pregnant one. No one ever questioned it. Despite his record of falling asleep on live TV.
Of the three, Charlie would have been the one to question. For those who care about news, some of the remarks Brian made in the lead up to Tom Brokaw's retirement should have been troubling.
But it was Katie who was ridiculed. It was Katie who was ripped apart. It was Katie, and only Katie, who was expected to stick to the news reading format -- one abandoned long ago.
Or, to note one media 'watchdoggie,' it was "Katey." Despite repeatedly ridiculing her, years after she's the anchor, he finds time to attack her last year and she's "Katey." That's cute. Male or female, that's the sniping of the failed ego of a failure at work.
Katie has a talent for the news and its her talent. She's not Walter Cronkite in a dress, she's not a carbon copy of Diane Sawyer. She's Katie Couric and, now that she's allowed to run the show, she's able to utilize her talents and provide a half-hour of network news that does inform, that does hold the interest. That's not just because she's a journalist in a landscape of personalities, it's because she's a gifted journalist. And that's why CBS Evening News with Katie Couric is the only network newscast that is improving and still growing. Translation, Aged In Wood was intended to be a one-off joke in All About Eve, not a description of the evening news offerings from ABC and NBC.