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Humor Is the New Gravitas

What makes Katie Couric’s ascension to evening anchor significant is not that she’s a woman—it’s that she’s funny (and a woman).

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(Illustration: Darrow.)  

Last week, with a brand-new set freshly loaded into its studio, CBS News started doing daily run-throughs with Katie Couric in the anchor chair—a “shadow show,” as news division president Sean McManus described it to me, that will continue until they go live September 5. Finally. It was way back in 2004, more than half-an-Iraq-war ago, that Dan Rather admitted he was leaving the CBS Evening News, and Les Moonves, the CBS chairman, started sniffing around Couric.

But the extended interregnum (a function of Couric’s NBC contract, which expired only three months ago) was undoubtedly worth it for CBS. Making Couric the anchor and de facto face of CBS News is a very smart, potentially even visionary choice. Not because she’s the first woman to anchor a network newscast alone—although since the news “evening” is really late afternoon, a daypart dominated by female viewers, the CBS Evening News With Katie Couric will surely attract women who don’t currently watch any nightly news show. No, the real brilliance—in this age of The Daily Show— is that she’s the first network anchor to have a quick, smart, mischievous sense of humor as a major part of her public persona. She has all the serious-news experience the job requires, but it’s her lack of old-fashioned TV-news “gravitas”—that perpetual default to careful, po-faced grown-up solemnity that any moron can fake—which makes her special.

If it’s possible to rejuvenate TV news, Couric is among the last best hopes. “The format,” she said to me one morning last week, “has gotten pretty formulaic over the past 40 years.”

At the beginning of his post–Dan Rather R&D period, Moonves said, “Those days are over when you have that guy sitting behind the desk who everyone believes to the nth degree.” That’s not quite right. People still want to believe in news anchors. That nth degree of credibility, however, is achieved these days not by some quasi hottie’s stilted channeling of Chet Huntley or Walter Cronkite, but by a smart person who comes across as more or less normal on the air. Another of the early notions Moonves encouraged was making Jon Stewart an anchor—wrong person, right direction. Stewart’s jokes and ironic sensibility may not be transferable to a straight-ahead news program, but Moonves and McManus seem to have spent the past year studying the subtler lessons of The Daily Show.

First of all, it’s a truism—as well as true (or at least truthy)—that people are hungry for authenticity in their public figures. And a good sense of humor is the most reliable contemporary signifier of authenticity. Humor combined with menschiness and a degree of convincing moral engagement—why Stewart is a hero for our times, and The Daily Show starring Craig Kilborn never quite worked—is unbeatable.

For the past fifteen years, Couric has had a great venue to show off all those virtues—and this summer, dealing with the press, she’s worked the comedy like a pro. On her physical appearance as the CBS anchor: “I’m going to pretty much look the same way, unfortunately, that I have always looked. I have no plans to get a crew cut or shop at Brooks Brothers ... Hopefully, I’ll have good hygiene.” Will she adopt a signature sign-off like Cronkite’s And that’s the way it is or Rather’s Courage? “I contemplated ‘Peace out, homies.’ That just didn’t feel completely right.” And at the Aspen Ideas Festival, alluding to her colonoscopy on Today, she said she planned to get an on-air Pap smear her first night as anchor.

She won’t have many opportunities to crack wise on the Evening News, of course. But if you strip away the jokes from Stewart’s Daily Show perfor­mances, what remains is an intelligent, charming, clued-in, puckish, apparently unpretentious, occa­sionally self-­deprecating fortysomething whose responses to news stories seem recognizably, appealingly human. In other words: Katie Couric.

Then there’s the critique embodied by the Daily Show correspondent shtick: that a lot of real TV news consists of brazen superficiality delivered in a strenuous, stylized performance of authority and seriousness. As much as competition from cable news and the Internet, it’s the deep-seated disingenuousness that’s made people give up the network news habit. Couric and McManus and Rome Hartman, the show’s new executive producer, seem to get this. If they have the steadfastness to act on the understanding, to slough off the phoniest TV conventions and devote more air time to (relatively) in-depth ­explanations—as Couric puts it very hopefully, “a perspective The Economist might have a week later”—they could actually start to make a distinct, next-­generation network news show.

“I don’t think,” Couric told me, “that just because I’m moving to the Evening News I have to take on an entirely different persona and be Ted Baxterish.” At the CBS affiliates’ convention in June, she predicted the end of the “pretentious era” of anchordom. Her colleagues won’t quite go so far as to affirm the implicit idea that Dan Rather and the old-school CBS News hauteur were pretentious. “I think,” Hartman says, “that was just another way of her saying she is who she is [on TV]. She’s confident enough to be herself. That sense of genuineness is a tremendous strength. This informality.”


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