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.