Fager responds, “Everybody has to fight for every story that goes on the air. None of them just walk on the air. That’s why we maintain the quality we do.”
It’s not surprising that Couric is getting some push-back from the entrenched talent. The “old guard” has been besieged by younger models of late: Anderson Cooper of CNN is a recent addition to the 60 Minutes stable, as is Lara Logan, the 36-year-old South African correspondent whom Dan Rather urged CBS to hire. And CBS was in talks with ABC’s George Stephanopoulos to eventually replace Bob Schieffer as host of Face the Nation, part of an effort to get a younger face in Washington to complement Couric’s during the 2008 election cycle.
But Couric is the biggest fish, and the easiest target. In April, an infamous Philadelphia Inquirer column by TV writer Gail Shister quoted anonymous CBS staffers predicting her imminent departure from the Evening News because CBS News management had deemed Couric an insurmountable failure. “It’s a disaster,” said one person identified as a veteran correspondent. “Everybody knows it’s not working. CBS may not cut her loose, but I guarantee you, somebody’s thinking about it.”
Subsequently, Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer and 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl were fingered in the press as the sources for the story. Although both publicly denied talking to Shister, McManus privately chided Schieffer about loyalty to the network.
Couric says she was taken aback by the lack of “character” of those CBS News co-workers who she believes have driven the negative stories about her. “It’s damaging, and it’s really tacky,” she says heatedly. “And I would be so embarrassed to be one of these petty, behind-the-scenes operators who get some kind of charge out of trashing someone. I’m not perfect; I’m sure I’ve said unkind things about people in my career and life, but people getting their jollies from seeing it in print is so creepy and weird to me. And if you’re so unhappy, get another job!”
After that outburst of anger, Couric quickly composes herself. There’s always a bright side: The Shister story, she says, helped her win a few allies at CBS because others thought it was so unfair. “It was such an affront to all of us—a traitor-among-our-ranks feeling,” says Couric. “There are just certain things that colleagues are not supposed to do.”
When I bring up the name Bob Schieffer, Couric first affects naïveté, then smiles a knowing smile and says nothing.
At a May benefit for colon cancer at the bowling lanes at Chelsea Piers, Couric arrives right after delivering the evening news, still in her dark pantsuit, but now with a red T-shirt underneath that reads STRIKE OUT COLON CANCER. Since her husband, Jay Monahan, died of cancer in 1998, Couric has made fund-raising for the disease a major part of her public profile, prompting her most famous TV moment, the on-air colonoscopy in 2000. Standing before a bank of photographers on the red carpet, she mugs with a bowling ball alongside a few B-list celebrities (Steve Schirripa from The Sopranos and RuPaul), flashing a smile that is amazing for how unforced it seems. She bids farewell to Whoopi Goldberg, who apparently has lost weight since Couric last saw her. “Call me, woman!” says Couric, making a phone gesture with her thumb and pinkie. “Now that you’re all skinny and shit!”
It’s the “girlfriend” Katie, the former Tri-Delt sorority sister at the University of Virginia, the one whose cell-phone ring was recently identified as the Pussycat Dolls’ “Don’t Cha (Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me),” the one who bonded with American women over cooking and fashion and parenting segments on Today. The one who doesn’t fit the mold of an evening news anchor.
Before Couric went on the air at CBS, there was much speculation about whether America was ready for a female anchor. Would she be able to attract new audiences to a dying medium? Or would she turn off longtime viewers of the Evening News who were used to something more stolid and comfortable (and masculine)? As it turns out, the answer to both questions is yes. Couric has attracted new audiences, specifically women; in the New York City market, she doubled the number of female viewers between the ages of 18 and 49 in June sweeps compared with last year. The trouble is that the average evening news viewer is still a 60-year-old holdover from a previous era. And he seems to prefer Old Man Gibson with the glasses on the end of his nose doing line readings of the day’s headlines.
As one CBS News correspondent put it, “Moonves said people don’t want to listen to the ‘voice of God’ anymore. And it’s exactly what they want.”