Couric says that one of the reasons she took the job was because she thought it had value “in a larger societal way.” And it’s hard not to notice that Couric’s personal publicist, Matthew Hiltzik, once handled Senator Hillary Clinton, another polarizing female figure breaking into the men’s club. (Hiltzik orchestrated Couric’s much-touted “listening tour” to dramatize the seriousness of her new endeavor, modeled on the kind he arranged for Clinton in 2000 during her first Senate run.) But Couric is circumspect about comparisons to Clinton. “I mean obviously there are some parallels, but I think discomfort or comfort or perception—you could compare Mitt Romney and Charlie Gibson,” she says, wriggling free of the question.
She’s also wary of playing the gender card now that things aren’t working out as planned. “I’m not naïve. I’m sure there is a percentage of the population that for whatever reason may not feel completely comfortable with a woman in a heretofore male-dominated role,” she says. “I think there’s a whole confluence of factors that contribute to some people not gravitating toward the program.”
But her closest friends—a group of women from her UVA and post-college days that includes fund-raiser Kathleen Lobb, Vanity Fair publicist Beth Kseniak, and Larry King Live executive producer Wendy Walker—believe sexism is a big part of the problem and a major source of frustration for Couric. Media criticism—like Times TV critic Alessandra Stanley’s piece about Couric’s coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings—never fails to describe her clothes and appearance, while those details are rarely observed about Gibson or Williams. “Personally, that really bothered me for her,” says Lobb of the Stanley column. “Because it’s not about evaluating the quality of her work.”
Couric’s response has been to tone down her wardrobe. “I try to give them as little to talk about as possible, without becoming Pat on Saturday Night Live,” she says.
Couric is having trouble figuring out who her audience is on the Evening News. “My parents,” she says drily. “I know they’re watching.”
But even conservative pantsuits can’t quell the interest in Couric beyond her performance on the news. The tabloid press has been particularly harsh in its analysis of her romantic relationships. Larry King’s marriage to a woman a quarter of a century his junior barely registers as surprising, but when Couric started dating a preppy 33-year-old entrepreneur and amateur triathlete named Brooks Perlin, the Post gleefully dubbed her a “cougar” for “devouring” a younger man. “It’s all so stupid,” says Couric, agitated. “The people who come up with this garbage and the people who market in pettiness … Do people enjoy this? Is this how they get their kicks?”
Of course, it’s not just the tabloid press that’s on the attack. Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather (with whom Couric says she has always had a “perfectly pleasant, nice relationship”) recently told MSNBC radio host Joe Scarborough that Moonves was “dumbing down” and “tarting up” the broadcast with Couric. Moonves retaliated by calling Rather’s comment sexist: “For certain people in America, they’re not used to getting their news from a woman,” Moonves says. “It’s going to take time for people to adjust. There’s an automatic assumption on the part of certain people that they would rather get news from a man.”
Rather says his “tarting up” comment was taken out of context. “There’s a long list of women whom the public accepts in all kind of roles,” observes Rather, mentioning Christiane Amanpour as one of the most respected reporters on television. Moonves, he says, “thinks the audience is redneck and the press is a bunch of assassins. I have so much confidence in the audience. The audience is not going to buy that. They look at what’s on the air, and that’s where they make their decisions.”
And that, perhaps, gets to the heart of the matter. The reaction to Couric as anchor has less to do with the fact that she is a woman than it has to do with the type of woman she is—or at least the type she has played on TV. Despite a long list of accomplished interviews with world leaders and politicians, from Tony Blair to President Bush to Kofi Annan, Couric has a hard time shaking the perception that she’s light and girlish, as opposed to serious and mature.
She blames it on the later incarnation of the Today show. “I think the show got increasingly soft during my tenure, during the end of it,” she says, referring to the version of the program run by former executive producer Tom Touchet, with whom she often clashed. “And that’s one of the reasons I wasn’t fulfilled journalistically in the job. Perhaps the most recent memory of me in the eyes of some people is of the softer, fun aspects of the Today show, which I totally enjoyed and I think I did well in, but it wasn’t the whole enchilada for me.”