Film & Television · News

Katie Couric: Our Nellie Bly

Katie Couric at the 2010 White House Correspondents Dinner.

Most of the coverage of last night’s White House Correspondents’ Association dinner has been about the roasting of Donald Trump by President Obama and featured guest Seth Myers of Saturday Night Live. But I was struck by Myers’ gentle ribbing of another member of our media royalty — CBS News’ Katie Couric, who announced last week that she’s leaving her job as anchor of the Evening News. Myers noted, justly or not, that  “after years of hard-hitting questions, you’ll be remembered for a softball that could double as a category on Family Feud.”

Myers was, of course, referencing Couric’s famous “What newspapers do you read?” question put to then-vice-presidential-candidate Sarah Palin, whose response the candidate later described as outraged dismissal but looked on national TV more like a deer in the headlights. Palin, who was also in the audience on Saturday night, has already shown in her own response to Couric’s imminent departure that she knows how to hold a grudge: “I think I read that in a newspaper. One of many newspapers that I read online,” she told Greta van Susteren, a reference to the famous exchange. And Palin’s commentary was dutifully reported in The Daily Beast and elsewhere, as a meaningful commentary on Couric’s departure and her 30-year career.

She deserves better, I thought — and I don’t think I’m the only one.

Couric’s sorority-girl good looks and her 25 years co-hosting NBC’s Today show have led too many people to dismiss her even before she agreed in 2006 to take over the long-troubled CBS Evening News as anchor and managing editor.  How could the girl who made cakes on morning TV, they asked, follow in the footsteps of Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather? Rarely did anyone bother to mention that when Couric first joined NBC News it was as deputy Pentagon correspondent, and her $15 million salary was in deference to her acclaimed interview skills as well as her presumed glamour-girl status.  As soon as her departure from NBC was announced, the postmortems began:  “A noble failure?” asked Jon Friedman at her own network’s Market Watch.

Few words or minutes were spent on the fact that Couric, seen at left reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan, entered the field in precisely the year that journalism was being up-ended by the Internet. Any close Couric-watcher has seen her parry with those challenges, from Twitter to  YouTube (above, watch her interview NASA astronauts for her YouTube channel), all the while shepherding her news department through a national financial crisis and two paradigm-shattering elections. Others, like the Atlantic’s Matthew Yglesias and Slate’s Jack Shafer, seized on Couric’s decision as evidence that the role of the network anchor is passe, superseded entirely by those newer outlets.

But none have really acknowledged the glass ceiling Couric melted with that disarming smile, becoming the first solo female anchor of a weekday evening news program on one of the three traditional U.S. broadcast networks. Yes, there was Barbara Walters in the 1980s, a co-anchor turn often remembered for inspiring a Saturday Night Live meme. And Diane Sawyer’s inevitable-seeming ascension to ABC News’ anchor slot in 2009 means Couric wasn’t alone very long. But for those three years a woman already renowned as an interviewer was the face of a flagship TV network that still, even in these supposedly degraded times, gets more viewers than any of the cable networks, and gave us many moments that will still encapsulate our memory of these events. And in some ways it’ll be appropriate enough if Myers is right and the prime example will be that 2008 Palin interview — an interview that Couric was first promised, Palin said later, because she thought it would be softer, that a Delta Delta Delta girl wouldn’t nail her on foreign affairs and Supreme Court decisions.

That ability to seem “unthreatening” is part of what Yglesias identifies as one of Couric’s core strengths: her “ability to do high and low, to rely on her credibility in serious interviews, and to lend it out in less important ones.” That “she’s just a girl” quality is something that has plagued female journalists ever since Elizabeth Jane Cochrane (right) wrote her first column for the Pittsburgh Dispatch in 1880. Under the name Nellie Bly, Cochran went on to write historic exposes for the New York World, including one that literally took her around the world — the “best reporter in America” getting underestimated, no doubt, at every turn.

It’s possible, as one of my WVFC colleagues has noted, that Sawyer would not have become ABC News anchor last year were it not for the stealth authority of her considerably younger colleague. Certainly Couric has inspired many of my journalism-school peers as they braved the pitiless world of broadcast TV. She may be no Nellie Bly, but she deserves our affirmation of the trail she’s blazed. Let’s salute her and and look forward to her next steps, at whatever time of day and  on whatever platform they arrive — TV, cyberspace, or something we’ve not even dreamed of yet.

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  • Chris Lombardi May 24, 2011 at 6:22 pm

    Thank you so much for the kind words, Laura. I truly appreciate it.

  • Laura Sillerman May 24, 2011 at 8:16 am

    It’s about time someone wrote a cogent observation of Couric’s power and position in broadcast history. Chris Lombardi gets it right in every aspect. Katy Couric melted that glass ceiling with warmth, but she carried a sword as she ascended and never feared to wield it at issues and newsmakers when the truth was at stake. This piece deserves a large audience. I hope others share it.