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Alas, Poor Couric

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Her anchor debut.  

Less than a year ago, Couric and Moonves seemed like the answers to each other’s prayers: She wanted a more serious news profile—just like her arch-rival Diane Sawyer, who last year was vying for the evening-news job at ABC (she lost out to Charlie Gibson). Moonves wanted to attract new audiences to the evening news by making it more like entertainment, envisioning a broadcast that was somewhere in between The Naked News, a British TV show in which beautiful women undress as they read the headlines, and “two boring people behind a desk.”

Ultimately, the two agreed that the show should be “more personable, more accessible, a little less formal, a little more approachable,” says Couric. “That certainly is one of the things they found attractive in hiring me, otherwise they could have had John Roberts do the Evening News.” (Roberts, a soap-opera-handsome anchor who was once a candidate to replace Dan Rather, left CBS for CNN in 2006.) During their many private conversations at his Manhattan apartment, Moonves told Couric that she would be given wide latitude to build a new program. He was willing to spend whatever it took to make it successful, including $2.9 million for a shiny new set.

Couric says that they never deluded themselves into thinking they had the “magic answer” to the problem of the nightly newscast. “We’re in the midst of such a major shift in how we consume information that even a brilliant guy like Les Moonves doesn’t necessarily have all the answers,” she says. But his enthusiasm for making changes convinced her to take the job. “I remember talking to [Sony BMG chairman and former NBC News president] Andy Lack, saying, ‘What I should do?’ He said, ‘You’re going to have to feel like, “I like this person, I can work with this person.” ’ And I clearly felt that way about Les.”

Couric must have known she was walking into a difficult situation. Moonves was never terribly popular with the news division; he had long been considered a Hollywood guy, and some people felt he unnecessarily burned former CBS News anchor Dan Rather after the infamous fake-document scandal involving George Bush’s National Guard service. For good or ill, Rather still represented the legacy of CBS News, the last larger-than-life newsman who could summon the hallowed ghost of Edward R. Murrow. He still had a number of loyalists on the staff, and they were deeply resentful of Moonves—and, by extension, wary of Couric.

Still, after years in the ratings dumps, CBS News needed a shot in the arm. Even if he didn’t know the first thing about news, Moonves did have a track record with TV audiences, having taken CBS’s prime-time programming to No. 1 by introducing warm, optimistic fare like Everybody Loves Raymond and cloneable franchises like CSI. Perhaps he would be right about Couric too.

The bar was set high. Couric was supposed to launch CBS News to first place, or at least second—anything but third. As Moonves’s bet started to seem like it might not pay off, ill will began to percolate through the newsroom.

The earliest complaints were about Katie’s entourage: a coterie of five staffers she brought with her from NBC, including her personal interview booker and producer of eleven years, Nicolla Hewitt, and a producer named Bob Peterson, whose job it was to ensure quality control on everything from hair and makeup to news pieces. Some CBS staffers bristled at the presumption of their new colleagues. When Couric flew her crew to Amman, Jordan, in November, her hairdresser, Mela Murphy, incensed that she didn’t get a first-class plane ticket with Couric, declared to a deputy assignment editor on the CBS News foreign desk that the producers were “lucky to have their jobs.” (Murphy was dressed down by CBS News senior vice-president Paul Friedman and eventually left the network.)

Then there was the case against Couric as a journalist. The idea of a celebrity anchor was particularly grating for some old-school newshounds on staff, the ones who thought an anchorship should be earned through a career of field reporting, like Rather and Peter Jennings did. Couric had once been an ace Pentagon reporter for NBC News, but that was in the late eighties; she made her bones as a morning-show host. “I think I underestimated the feeling that some might have that I was a morning-show personality and not a credible news person. Which I, quite frankly, think is patently unfair.”

She gave her detractors more ammunition in April with an embarrassing plagiarism scandal. An online producer copied a Wall Street Journal editorial for an online video essay known as Katie Couric’s Notebook, which gives the impression of being written by her. Couric correctly points out that Peggy Noonan used to write Rather’s commentary, but the incident seemed to cement the bias among the Ratherites that Couric symbolized the decline of news values.


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