Star news

I can’t help shaking my head at the hiring of Katie Couric to anchor the CBS Evening News. All the talk about getting rid of the oracular voice of news is meaningless. They simply replaced the goofy if stern-faced oracle with the perky and still-cute oracle. And the truth is, it’s not about the voice at all. It’s about the name. It’s about celebrity. This is halfway to hiring George Clooney to read the news (‘I may not be a journalist, but I played one in a theater near you’). They can’t even argue that this is the first woman to anchor the news solo because, thanks to tragedy, that’s what you have on ABC right now.

Mind you, I have no great beef with Couric. I think she and Today got flufflier and fluffier (so much so that my wife switched us, unilaterally, to ABC for news). I think that CBS is merely challenged in the personnel department. They lose Howard Stern and then hire David Lee Roth — which any sane person could have told them wouldn’t work — and now they have him reading the news every day (hey, why not save about $50 million and just have him read the telepromoter every night?). They get rid of Dan Rather and then don’t whom to hire and then hire the biggest name they could grab. If I were Les Moonves, I wouldn’t quit my day job and go into human resources.

What’s saddest about this is that it reveals no vision for the news. The ballsy news exec would have said it was time to break away from the pack and invent the news show for the news age: to perform the equivalent task to what Alan Rusbridger et al are trying to do at The Guardian, moving past paper. TV News needs to move past TV. Toward the end of his tenure, I got to know former CBS News President Andrew Heyward and I saw in him a glimmer of the courage needed to reject the old and create the new. I have no idea what he would have done with the CBS Evening News but I’d have been curious to see how he tried to eliminate the oracle and find a new, human voice for news.

Ah, you’ll say, but isn’t that what they did by hiring Couric? They hired a human voice. Well, yes, she’s more human than Rather. But she’s still a voice manufactured by the TV machine. We don’t really know her any more than we know any other product of that machine. She’s there simply because she’s a celebrity, a news star. And what that tells me is that they still think the news is defined by the person who reads it. They think that’s what matters more to us than the news itself. They think they can keep this old form of lite news — give us 22 minutes and we won’t give you much — and make it liter and it will survive. What they should have done, instead, was blow up the old assumptions. But they didn’t. They just spent a lot of money on them.

: Just phoned into NPR’s On Topic about this very topic with Howard Rosenberg, ex-LA Times and now j-school prof; Jane Clayson, ex CBS morning host; Michael Wolfe of Vanity Fair; and David Blum of the NY Sun. The podcast will be up later.

: LATER: Judging from the comments, I clearly left out an important factor: People like Katie Couric. They really like her.

And I do mean that’s an important factor. Earlier anchors were not likeable and were not meant to be. They were supposed to be trusted, right?

Likeability is a new attribute of journalism.

: LATER YET: Give the new CBS News credit: Its blog quotes even criticism of the Katie crowning.

  • Amen to that — I have been scratching my head since this Couric as Anchorwoman talk began. Saddest part is that she’s going to replace Schieffer, who’s the most-experienced newsman out there today.

    It’s the newsmedia equivalent of one of those “4 point swings” they talk about in hoops.

    If they were just going for sheer entertainment value, and wanted to expand their audience/appeal, they should have just hired Ron Burgundy and his Action News team.

  • Like your family, I switched away from the Today Show when it got to be a mouthpiece for the entertainment side of its network. It was one big ad for other programs. If Couric can do a serious job again, I’m all for it. And as usual I will wait and see. But it would take a lot to get me back from ABC.

  • Jeff,

    I can’t believe you watch those shows or even allow loved ones to do so.

  • qcontent

    . . . but Katie has such a wonderful smile, that is always ready and willing to smile. And, she is so damn cute when she uses it. . .doesn’t that count for something?

  • Jeff,

    CBS hires a well known talent, at once the current record holder for longest run on morning TV and a star on the highest rated (and most profitable ) morning program and…the new 6:30 show is not yet on the air but you now call it a failure? All that is important is what’s on the screen and the funny thing is nobody likes Katie but the viewers; give the gal – and the new news gang at CBS – a chance.

  • I must agree with Mr. Martin.
    You don’ t even know what kind of show will be built around Ms Couric and it is already doomed to fail?

    talk about being an instapundit…you now are a prepundit.

    I think CBS will do something different with this show.
    If they don’t, I guess you will be proven correct.

    But I think this will give the CBS folks the chance to make a lot of the changes you say you seek.

    Hey, give it at least 10 seconds before you condemn it to the ashheap of history.

  • Tina

    I am ready for George Clooney and David Lee Roth! Since I just returned to the U.S. after having lived abroad for a while, I cannot really picture Katie Couric. Buth then, I hardly watch TV news anymore. I get most of my news from RSS feeds, the radio and – yes – the old-fashioned newspaper. I tune into CNN some time but often get fed up with the U.S. look on world news. I hate the local news shows with a passion.
    I did, however, mourn when Peter Jennings died. He was great (I admit that when I was young and impressionable I was once able to watch his show live in the studio) and had a news personality.

  • Allen Barr

    Driving to work today I wondered what you would write about this “news”. On this one you were predictable (thoughtful and for the most part I think right, but predictable).

    The evening news is an anachronism anyway. Haven’t watched it in years. But for those who use it for a world round up, it works. Give her a chance, it won’t get any worse.

  • bk

    I agree that this is the wrong way to go. I keep hoping that someone will drastically alter their news program to promise to give their viewers 2 or 3 times the information that their competitors are giving out, by working harder to collect, edit, and distill, and stop wasting time on non-news. For example, if there’s a sensational trial going on but the new info can be bolied down to one sentence, give viewers that ones enetence, spend another 2 or 3 sentences making fun of the other guys for spending 5 minutes on one sentence of info, and move on.

    Run tickers for weather and sports scores at the bottom of local news. Run a ticker telling the time when you’ll be reporting on upcoming stories. Don’t break for commercials, embed them in your format. That’s the way to go.

  • I share your dread but…

    I believe the president of CBS News is the son of one of the most competent, genuine, and visionary broadcast journalists, James McManus (aka Jim McKay).

    If the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, this could instead be a pleasant surprise.

  • I don’t think JJ is premature in predicting failure… look at what we’re talking about: “what kind of show is built up around here”, as if it’s the difference between “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” or “Deal or No Deal”.

    It would be different if they were instead announcing a major shakeup in production. A bold move (although liberals and Democrats might hate it) would be to hire somebody like a Roger Ailes to build their presentation from the ground up, promise viewers something new that could rival the forward thrust of FoxNews, and maybe do more to interact with the needs of viewers instead of just lecturing them.

    Instead, it’s understood that Couric is also assuming editorial control. So it’s going to be much of the same liberal slant, giving lots of weight to voices of celebrities, and being spectacularly predictable about what is and isn’t considered news.

  • When I became chair of the journalism program at NYU, the first big event I presided at was a lecture by Katie Couric, which had been arranged by another faculty member. It was our prestige event of the year, and the room was packed with hundreds of students and teachers, testimony to the pull of her celebrity. I can recall the rows and rows of smiling students– waiting. Katie was 20 minutes late, 30, 45, an hour, 75 minutes late. We were on the phone to her office and it was never quite clear if she was on her way, or not on her way.

    Finally, her car and driver appeared and then Katie herself. She “explained” that her driver could not find the building. The building is on Washington Square, so we were supposed to believe that the driver could not find Washington Square. (Directions: drive down 5th Avenue to the end. Stop.)

    It did not go well. After keeping hundreds of people waiting over an hour, embarrassing the shit out of me as chair, and delivering the most feeble excuse possible, she walked to the podium and for her “lecture” decided to take us through her resume, describing how she got each job she got along her route to the top, and how she jumped to the next job, because she figured that’s what the kids would want to know. “How I made it.” It didn’t even rise to the level of fluff. Preparation time: zero minutes. Mental effort exerted: zip. Faculty opinion: never again!

    I don’t see this working out at all for CBS.

  • Clinton

    its the nature of the beast. what is tv news but the intersection of news and showbiz. this both explains and, to a certain extent, justifies the obsession with other movie stars. dont make it what its not.

  • weboy

    I think the notion that Couric is “likable” at all is debatable, at best. I think initially given the way she came into Today – the way she ran the gauntlet opposite Gumbel, who didn’t (apparently with good reason) take her seriously – made her a scrappy undedog you could root for. That reality died years ago, and what’s left is a largely out-of-touch, glib mechanism that’s running on fumes. She’s not genuinely warm – she’s the artifical warmth that comes from too many years of faking it.

    I think your initial assessment is spot-on, and I’d add this observation: the successful anchors have been grizzled veterans of field coverage – Walters inclusive – who chafed at the dull routine of being “stuck behind the desk”. Even Vargas comes from that route; she’s a seasoned reporter with clear experience in the issues of the day. Gibson, who may be Couric’s most analagous example of jumping from mornings to evenings has a) had a bumpy road, but b) still has more field time than she. Couric is many things – even, possibly, a still strong interviewer – but she’s not that, and those kind of things matter in the details.

    Couric’s flameout, I think, will be twofold – the “gravitas” question will hang, unrelentingly, over her; and it’s either that she won’t leave the desk when she should be in the field, or she’ll be in the wrong field at the wrong time. Worse, I think she’ll limp along, never quite good enough to win, never quite bad enough to be summarily dismissed, working as a slow corrosive agent on what’s left of the CBS news team reputation. The decision to hire her boggles the mind.

    One other observation – if CBS understood its brand, and why it differs from the current presentation at NBC, they’d never have imported Couric. Ultimately it’s the bad brand stewardship that will get them.

  • Karl

    She won’t last long. She is no good with serious stuff. Of course, since Cronkite, no one has accused CBS of having any intelligence in house.

  • Clinton

    how about that shot of delay on the cover of the ny times? i wanted to draw a little wound in his hand and wrist and a crown of thorns on his head. what was it supposed to mean when he said something like “they dont deserve this, they deserve a republican” in reference to resignation. let me guess this is a do not blog issue. i care much more about this than couric.

  • Joanne

    Katie….Katie….Katie…What were you thinking?

    Being a big fan of the TODAY show I am disappointed about the move Ms. Couric has made. Can America’s Sweetheart being taken seriously? My vote is No. Will CBS News suffer? Probably….Will the TODAY show suffer? NO WAY. They still have 3 great personalities…Matt , Al and Ann (now there is a talent that is one class act! You go girl!! CBS missed the mark not taping into her.)

  • Bob Morrison

    Sorry to “report” that I wouldn’t know Couric is she passed me in the hall.I have pretty much been a CBS News watcher for years from Walter to Dan.
    CBS ,in my opinon made a huge mistake in letting John Roberts get a way.He was good in the field and great “on air”.His age was right and the pre-mature grey hair added a bit of”I’ve been there” to him.
    Let’s just hope Ms. Couric just “reads” the news and doesn’t get to be another Dan Rather,and choose the stories,ect.

  • Kat

    {LATER: Judging from the comments, I clearly left out an important factor: People like Katie Couric. They really like her. } Yes, but then there are those who really do not like her–they REALLY dislike her.

  • Jay Rosen,

    Maybe you and the rest of the socialists at NYU shouldn’t have been so excited to listen to an obvious dimwit.

    embarrassing the shit out of me as chair…

    I was taught (likely around age 10) that one can only embarass himself.

  • DanH

    They should have hired Melissa Theuriau, except the FCC would ban her for being too smokin hot. And not speaking english might be problematic….. or not.

  • I was taught (likely around age 10) that one can only embarass himself.

    Yes, well you demonstrated that.

    Maybe you and the rest of the socialists at NYU shouldn’t have been so excited to listen to an obvious dimwit.

    I wasn’t excited to listen to her; I was dreading it. I was there only because I had to be.

  • afsvfan

    i get my all news from fark and the onion

    why can’t US news grab people from BBC or CBC.
    they know news.

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  • I don’t understand the fascination personally. She is a cute infotainment on air personality. To call her a “journalist” at this point is an inaccurate description. She is no more a journalist then I am. However, basically because of her “Q” rating she has been given a job that historically has gone to journalists, those that have proven themselves over and over again.

    What bothers me is by getting this job and the 60 minutes position she gets this label of a “serious” journalist without anything to back it up. Asking softball questions to the celebrity du-jour is not exactly Peabody material after all. Anyone can write those questions after a cursury Wikipedia lookup (assuming Couric writes her own questions which I hightly doubt). Maybe I will proven wrong, but in this day and age of canned journalism, even a 60 minutes report doesn’t mean its her report and her work. More likely its what her producer, writers and researchers put together with her just following the script and instructions. This practice of the on air “delegating and guiding” the work always seems like consented plagerism to me.

    Local news is already filled with just pretty tele-prompter readers with almost zero journalistic skill. I think this bit with Katie Couric will mark the same change in national news at the other stations decide they have to compete with their own “personalities.”

  • Erebus

    Couric lost me when she ambushed presidential candidate Bob Dole over his connection to the tobacco industry, something she’d never do to Al Gore despite his being historically neck deep in same. Couric doesn’t even try to fake objectivity. It’s sad that people who actually respect her are considered mentally competent to vote.

  • RonP

    who cares? i mean really. the audience for network news is dead and dying – just check what type of advertising they get. the biggest laugh was Andy Rooney’s comments on this – apparently he’s not happy that the perky one is taking over the new desk. boo hoo ron burgundy. it’s the irrelevant commenting on the irrelevant.

  • Nice try Jay.

    Anyway, Couric snaring this CBS contract is a wonderful thing. It’s wasting serious money, futher evidence that Big Media is quagmired in antiquated thinking, and will only serve to hasten its demise.

  • Jeff: Maybe you could ask your son and webmaster if he can hook up a little one-click system for liberal bias by Big Media (which is going to disappear because of it…) complaints. There’s no reason these folks should have to go through the rigamorole of typing the whole thing, and adding the little context-specific cues to make it appear like a response to something you wrote. Automate for the automatic thinkers! (We have the technology.)

  • Only one person used the word “liberal” other than you.

    Personally, I prefer more accurate terms like socialist, communist, and moron.

  • Oh, you could customize it to insert your preferred language and favorite automatisms. Sorry, should have mentioned that.

  • Jay,

    Is there a Big Media?

    If so, is it foundering?

    If foundering, why?

  • Good questions! Now, see with my one-click system that would all be automated. Like it is for you now, except… well, you don’t need a human brain, just a mouse.

  • pashley

    If things were hunky-dory over at TV newsland, it wouldn’t be a big deal, and, indeed, an honor.

    Somehow, somewhere in the journalist world, they have to look around the declining ratings, the prevalence of entertainment over news, the liberal flatulance, and say, wow, that was a big iceberg.

    Rearranging the deck chairs.

  • Personally, I stopped going for network news a while ago. When NBC did a podcast, I started for a while again, but then got distracted by the BBC and NPR. They both do an excellent 5 minute newscast at the top of the hour (which are podcasted almost immediately after they are done), and the BBC has several great programs dedicated to world news (including the podcast World News Select). The BBC World Service covers world news SO MUCH BETTER than any of the networks. Also, their NewsPod program, even though it is Brit-centric, runs circles around the network news. NPR covers the US news, and BBC does the rest.

    Hiring a pretty face isn’t going to solve the problem for me – I want something that brings me a true sense of what is going on in the world, not just this country. How many people know that the Prime Minister of Thailand is stepping down after protests from the opposition? Or that his government, filled with unopposed elected members of his party because of the boycott, will stand election again in another year? I haven’t heard much about that on the network news sites. Until major events like that get mention, I will stick with my current media providers, thank you very much.

  • RonP

    as a yank living in the UK I like the whole interactive thing. if i’m watching BBC or Sky I can hit the old red button to get more info – in the form of multiple choice news feeds. BBC Olympic coverage is much better than whoever is doing it in the US. personally i want facts and expert commentary and i want it when, well, when i want it. one of the main things that the MSM does not understand is the mutability of time. why does any network executive think that i will come and drink from the newspipe at the appointed hour? fat chance.

  • More human than Rather? Are you kidding? She’s the most Stepford of all possible anchors. Rather was at least natural. Katie’s 100% artificial. Ugh.

  • RonP

    i think Rather was getting set to go Howard Beale on us.

  • Jeff is right; they need to shake up the TV news system all together. Instead of the CBS execs going out and finding who they deem the best choice for the anchor spot they should let their customers (by this I mean viewers) choose the next candidate.

    I propose an “American Idol/Apprentice” style event where the people choose who they want to see. They could have Dan Rather, Andy Rooney and Jeff Jarvis as the judges.

  • Fred Jones

    Please tell me how someone whose interviewing capabilities consist mainly and almost entirely of the words “I know that…”, “right…”, “I was just going to say that….” absolutely….” and more egotistical pourings out of similar ‘I want you all to know that I already know everything that everyone else is saying…’ can demand the money and air time that Katie Couric does from NBC ????
    I think her move to CBS is the best thing in the long run that ever happened to NBC and not such a ‘sad’?? loss that hype is being heaped on !!

  • KatieFan

    According to both Katie and Meredith Vieira, change is important. Why not give change a chance. Katie had served “15 great years” in Today and that made her a strong TV personality. She also does news reading every first 30 minutes of the Morning program with co-host Matt so that made her an experienced one too. Let see what female news anchor can offer before we jump to a conclusion that Ms. Couric is a big mistake.

  • pam

    I have enjoyed Bob Schieffer’s tenure at CBS and will miss him. He brought us the news, mostly bad of late, in a gentle, graceful and dignified style. Why CBS would replace a Mercedes (Bob Schieffer) with a McDonald’s Happy Meal Toy Car (Katie Couric) is beyond me!! I will boycott CBS News from now

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