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Katie Couric

John Paul Filo, Cbs

Rash Report: CBS anchor Katie Couric becomes the news

  • Article by: JOHN RASH
  • Star Tribune
  • April 1, 2011 - 4:38 PM

 The introduction to "The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric," which once featured a voice-over by Walter Cronkite, is now done by actor Morgan Freeman.

That news-to-entertainment shift is fitting, given the career considerations Couric is publicly mulling.

Will she host a daytime talk show and be the heir apparent to Oprah Winfrey, who has her last show on May 25? A correspondent for CBS's "60 Minutes?" A combination of both?

 Or will she stay anchored to the newscast with a new, albeit less lucrative, contract?

That she's even weighing such options shows that Couric, and network news, have entered a very different era.

The avuncular Cronkite, once considered the most trusted man in America, was also one of the most influential.

His brief tears upon reading the news of the death of President John F. Kennedy captured the country's sorrow.

And his clear-eyed assessment of Vietnam as a "stalemate" led Kennedy's successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, to say, "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost America."

America lost Cronkite as an anchor in 1981, when he retired without any Couric-style public fuss. But Cronkite's journalistic jones never shut off. He later admitted that he regretted his retirement within a day, "and I've regretted it every day since."

Cronkite's successor, Dan Rather, also greatly regretted his departure. Yet his was not voluntary, but due to a journalistic scandal over forged documents.

In style, he was the anti-Cronkite, and often became news himself with confrontational interviews that made him especially untrustworthy in the eyes of some Republicans. But even detractors didn't doubt his passion for his craft.

Rather was always seemingly in the eye of the hurricane -- literally, in many cases -- be it with Watergate or White House coverage spanning several presidencies.

And even Bob Schieffer, CBS' savvy veteran brought in to stabilize the news institution after Rather, is going strong at 74 and still hosting "Face the Nation."

All this history wasn't lost on another CBS icon, David Letterman. He counseled his colleague Couric when she recently said on his show that she was "figuring out what I want to do."

"Once you take the anchor job, that's what you do," scolded Letterman, later adding: "It's not a temp gig."

When David Letterman is your network's voice of reason, and keeper of a CBS legacy that goes back to Edward R. Murrow, you've got problems.

It wasn't supposed to be this way for CBS. Couric's good-natured cheer was as popular as Cheerios in the morning, resulting in demographic dominance for NBC's "Today Show."

With much fanfare, she broke into the old boys' club of network news anchors at a time when women were the majority of viewers. And unlike NBC, whose prime time had devolved from "Must See" to must-flee TV, CBS had the highest ratings.

But in part because she treated her opportunity as a "temp gig" and not a journalistic calling, Couric has been unable to pull CBS out of last place. According to Nielsen, the "CBS Evening News" averaged 6.43 million viewers during the first quarter of 2011 -- a two-decade low.

Comparatively, "NBC Nightly News" had 9.81 million viewers and "ABC World News" had 8.65 million.

There's no evidence that Couric's historical status as a sole female anchor (Barbara Walters and Connie Chung were co-anchors for a brief time at ABC and CBS, respectively) has made a difference.

"It's not just a male-female thing," said Alex Jones, who heads Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. "It's up to the individual -- a mixture of gravitas, an ability to communicate with authority, and also a warmth that makes people say this is someone I want to spend time with."

Jill Geisler, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute (who broke some barriers of her own as the first female news director of a major-market TV station in Milwaukee) agrees.

She believes Couric's struggles are not a gender issue, but could be partly due to feelings engendered by her interview with then-Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, which is still a sort of political Rorschach test.

Viewers are "not discriminating about gender, but are discerning about bias," Geisler said. "There are some people who are Sarah Palin devotees who will forever believe that the questions were unfair, not that the answers were insufficient."

Couric's interview with Palin played to her strengths because it was much like a "Today Show" couch chat. It affected not only the 2008 presidential race, but the 2012 one as well.

The interview was the first unscripted major media moment for Palin after her well-received acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention.

Couric innovated in other ways, too. She was an early adapter online, and without a cable partner like MSNBC to turn to, she created her own YouTube channel for longer interviews and behind-the-scenes videos.

But for the first time, Couric's career timing may have been off, as an information inflection point of hard news -- the Great Recession, the Gulf oil spill, three Mideast wars and a triple disaster in Japan -- has highlighted TV journalists who seem as natural in a flak jacket as they do in a suit.

That talented lineup includes Couric's colleague Lara Logan, NBC's Richard Engel and CNN's Anderson Cooper.

Of course, Couric is not the only TV journalist who has blurred boundaries between soft and hard news, or politics and pop culture (sometimes as a participant).

I was in an audience of advertisers in New York in 2009 during an NBC event featuring its comics Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon, Jerry Seinfeld, Rainn Wilson and Tracy Morgan, among others.

It wasn't lost on us that the quickest quips, all ad-libbed, came from news anchor Brian Williams, who was hosting the event. Williams also routinely matches wits with "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart, and has done cameos on NBC's "30 Rock."

And ABC's anchor, Diane Sawyer, who's married to Mike Nichols -- director of "The Graduate," among other films -- interviewed a parade of Hollywood heavies with a pulse on pop culture when she hosted "Good Morning America."

Upon Rather's departure, CBS network president Les Moonves proclaimed that the days of the "voice of God" anchor are over. He was right.

But he should now add that the days of turning to an established news celebrity are over, too.

The constant crises roiling the world suggest that if Couric leaves, her replacement should be an anchor who has come from the reporting ranks. The job itself will elevate the new anchor, so there's no reason to get a big name to try to shake ratings up, as CBS did with Couric.

That's not to say her replacement couldn't come from a network morning show. Sawyer, and even NBC's iconic anchor/author Tom Brokaw, were both elevated from the morning-show couch to the evening-news anchor desk.

But each had the hard news chops, the professional and personal passion, and the charismatic chemistry needed to bond with viewers.

So did another anchor, who started out his TV career hosting the "CBS Morning News" with a hand puppet named Charlemagne.

His name was Walter Cronkite.

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John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial board member. His column, Rash Report, appears on Saturdays. Follow John Rash on Twitter @rashreport.

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