In Your Dreams

Will Katie Couric be able to transform CBS news?

| Thu Apr. 13, 2006 2:00 AM EDT

Article created by The Century Foundation.

In 1952, Walter Cronkite was assigned by his new employer, CBS News, to be the "main man" for the network at the Republican convention. In his memoir Tell Me a Story, Don Hewitt—the legendary creator of 60 Minutes and nearly 60-year employee of CBS—writes, “What no one foresaw was that from that summer on, everybody who did what Cronkite did would be called an ‘anchorman.’” Who exactly coined the term is unclear (Hewitt thinks he did), but the origin has to do with the “anchor leg” of a four-man relay race, the person handed the baton and expected to run the fastest. In any case, as Hewitt reports, the term had nothing to do with securing boats.

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Whatever the source, being the anchor on television now means being the host, the presider, the focus around which a program revolves. And being the anchor on the evening news has carried with it an aura of authority, responsibility, and clout. That history is relevant these days, of course, because of the anointing of Katie Couric as the successor of Cronkite on this vaunted broadcast. In so many ways, Couric is a perfect symbol of what it means today to be a network anchor. As she nears 50, Katie still has the vivacious style that goes with her girlish name. But then in a country where presidents are called Bill and Jimmy, folksiness is clearly an asset.

She has spent 15 years as an immensely successful host for the Today show, which means that she has a pedigree equal to Tom Brokaw, who also came from the morning broadcast. She is considered a good interviewer. A few years ago, I saw her take on George Soros (whose books I publish and who is not naturally at ease on television) with deftness, somehow adapting his weighty subjects to her audience. It is safe, and also egregiously patronizing, to say that Couric will be an excellent presenter of news, a change-agent of consequence in the genre and as glamorous in her way as her predecessors were dashing. Katie Couric is neither the triumph nor the downfall of television news. She is a product of it and now its heir.

It is also probably time to stop measuring the breakthrough accomplishments of middle aged women by how they fit the shoes of their predecessors. Condoleeza Rice is heir, after all, to Seward, Marshall, Acheson, and Kissinger. Women are “anchors” of such august institutions as the Rockefeller and Ford foundations, Brown and Princeton , and a smattering of major corporations like eBay and Lucent. No, the issue here is neither gravitas nor gender. It is the role of news and the money that goes to support it.

In her earlier years, Couric was a reporter for an NBC affiliate in Miami, where she was, I’ve been told, a tenacious chronicler of what was then and still is one of the most fascinating regions in America, where amazing stories abound. Today that station (give or take a few overlapping roles) has more anchors than reporters, well-paid hosts, who are measured more by their dexterity with teleprompters and hand-offs than cops and pols. Not that the old days at CBS meant only hard news. In the mid-1970s, CBS Moscow correspondent Richard Roth used to joke that his producers favored pieces with kickers like, “Havana cigars they have plenty, but the Russians have never tasted Coca-Cola.” What is significant about that story is that the CBS News had a world-wide network of staff correspondents and producers. After a generation of cutbacks and with the evolution of technology and transportation, broadcasts are a masterwork of graphics with, I suspect, more conjurers than reporters.

So here is my idea for how Couric could, in an instant, transform her arrival at CBS News from an affirmation of womanhood and an occasion for guaranteed gossipy backlash and ratings scrutiny to a real reinvention of the nightly broadcast: She could announce that half of her annual salary (an estimated $15 million) will be spent on original reporting on issues she thinks are relevant to her viewers, from China to china. It would be her money, so Couric would control it, bringing her distinctive experience and style to news in the way that Oprah has come to influence books, lifestyle choices, and values.

This is less outlandish than you might think. Peter Jennings’s contracts with ABC allowed him to do long-form programming on issues he chose, like AIDS, the wars in the Balkans, and religion. He even was able to establish a first-rate documentary production company PJP, led by Tom Yellin and Kayce Freed Jennings, now Peter’s widow. (With Peter’s death, PJP is in the process of reinvention). This is Katie Couric’s moment of maximum leverage. Her bosses at CBS and Viacom are making a huge bet on her talent and popularity. I’m not suggesting that she actually give CBS back any part of her salary. It is very much the case in television (and most of business) that the bigger your paycheck, the more important you are perceived to be by your employer.

Instead, I’m saying Couric should invest her own money in her success, by controlling her program not only with a charismatic presence but also with cash. With half of $15 million, she’ll still be plenty rich. When I shared this idea with a wise colleague, he wrote back, “. . . in your dreams.” Well, as we enter the age of the first ever solo woman nightly news anchor, a widowed middle-aged mother of two who rose to the top on unquestioned talent and drive, it seems fair to dream.

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