A few images of great television news reports are seared in my mind.
– 1963-Walter Cronkite taking off his glasses and announcing to the world that President Kennedy was dead.
– 1991-Bernard Shaw of CNN looking out the window of his hotel room, describing the bombs falling on Baghdad as the Gulf War began.
– 2001-Peter Jennings of ABC News, explaining what was happening during that awful day, September 11.
– 2005-Brian Williams of NBC News, knee deep in water, explaining in the darkness of pre-dawn New Orleans, that the levee had broken and an unstoppable flood had begun.
And then there’s my image of Katie Couric.
She was assigned to cover the Winter Olympics this year in Turin, Italy. Some bird-brained Today producer (no pun intended here) decided that it would be great television if Katie Couric stood in Turin’s main square, pretending to be a statue and let the pigeons swarm all over her.
Katie Couric, stretched out her hands and stood like a statue and the pigeons landed on her arms and on her head, just like the producer wanted.
There was only one problem. They must have forgotten what pigeons do to statues. So guess what the pigeons did to Katie, the newly appointed anchor of the CBS Evening News and contributor to 60 Minutes. It was not a great moment in television history.
Now, the people who run CBS have decided that Katie Couric should be the heir to the tradition that Edward R. Murrow started back in the dark days before World War II. There have been only four people who have been the voice and face of CBS News since then: Douglas Edwards, Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and the surprisingly successful Bob Schieffer.
Can Katie carry that torch?
The simple answer is no. But the real answer will probably show that it won’t be the same torch. The CBS Evening News, as we have known it for more than four decades, will change. Instead of forcing Katie Couric into a mold that was created for Walter Cronkite when the Evening News expanded to 30 minutes in 1963, the program will change. A new CBS Evening News format will be created for Katie Couric, a format that will maximize her strengths and minimize her weaknesses. Her strength of course, is her ability as a broadcaster. She is bright and articulate and, as we have heard over and over, she is “perky.” Her weakness is her lack of real hard news experience.
Some people are saying that criticism of the CBS decision to hire Katie Couric is sexist. There’s probably some truth to that, but I don’t think it’s the main factor. If CBS had been able to lure the highly experienced Diane Sawyer from ABC News, we wouldn’t be hearing much criticism.
It is apparent that the entertainment people have finally captured CBS News, something they have been trying to do for decades. For them, the ratings are the only thing that matters and they expect Katie Couric to boost the ratings. You can’t explain journalism to an accountant.
When CBS News was at its best a few decades ago, a top-notch CBS News Correspondent had to be a great reporter, a great writer and a great broadcaster. Now, there is only one criterion, broadcasting ability. Those who are not good at performing on-camera need not apply.
Make no mistake, Katie Couric is a great performer.
When Katie Couric takes over the CBS Evening News in September, I would look for a sharp spike in the ratings. Curious viewers will tune in just to see how she does.
I recall the time in the early ’70’s when Barbara Walters first co-anchored the ABC World News Tonight with Harry Reasoner. The ratings jumped way up the first night. The following night, David Brinkley, the witty anchor at NBC News, opened the Huntley-Brinkley Report smiling like a Cheshire cat.
“Welcome back,” he said.
Just like in the ’70’s, after that initial boost, the ratings will settle back and a new natural viewing pattern will emerge among the network newscasts. That new pattern will continue until the next major crisis hits. That will be the real test of whether CBS made the right decision or not.
Will the nation turn to CBS and Katie Couric to lead us through the next 9/11? Or the next war? Or the next Hurricane Katrina? Or will they tune to someone else?
“Perky” doesn’t work when people are dying.
Sam Roberts is a professor in broadcasting and broadcast journalism. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.