How Katie Couric Became my Least Favorite Journalist
Why would anybody not want to watch Katie Couric during her two seasons as a talk show host? It's Katie Couric of the Today Show. It's Katie Couric of the CBS Evening News. It's Katie Couric - the next Oprah!
Couric did what women in broadcasting have been trying to do since the early 1960s when Barbara Walters was given the huge break in television for that day with a chance to be one of the “Today Girls” (official name) on what became the iconic morning show. Though eventually serving as a co-host, she wasn't given that official billing until 1974, and was restricted from asking questions of the show's "serious" guests until the male co-host had finished asking his. Walters persevered year after year, eventually got her shot at the “serious guests” becoming the reporter who arranged the first joint interview with Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel and President Anwar Sadat of Egypt.
Because of the trailblazing of women like Walters, Couric got the chance to sit alone at the evening news anchor desk instead of just being the cute sidekick. Then after only a little more than five years, she’s walking away to be – wait for it – a talk show host.
Now, Barbara Walters was the first woman to sit at an evening news anchor desk – period. But she was there with a co-anchor who undermined her at every turn, on air and off. She now hosts a talk show. But it’s twenty-four years later, and she is in semi-retirement. She didn’t walk away from her hard-won, historic position of her own volition. She was driven away by the old boys’ network, prejudice, and ignorance. She didn’t say, “Gee Whiz! What I’d really like is to be the next Oprah!”
Couric knows, she knows, exactly what the women who came before her struggled with, and worked for, and sacrificed, in order to pave the way for her to be the one woman the networks anointed with this opportunity. It is the most coveted jewel in journalism’s crown. Network evening news. It doesn’t get any bigger than that. She made it climbing on the shoulders of Walters, Savitch, Pauley, Sawyer, Stahl, and Chung, just to name the ones we are most familiar with, at least if you are more than forty years of age. These are women who made their way onto our television screens by being more than blond or having great legs, which seems to be the standard for so many female broadcasters today. How many others had to settle for local news in small or medium markets and never had an article written about them in TV Guide? How many never made it to the networks at all, even to take their shot? And Couric just walks away? It’s a slap in their collective faces.
And it’s not like the anchor position was just handed to her. She did put in the years and did the grunt work. Couric started out after college as a desk assistant at ABC working under Sam Donaldson. That couldn’t have been an easy gig. When CNN was in its infancy she became a segment producer and sometime on-air reporter. She moved up to full time reporting for an NBC affiliate in Washington, then covered the Pentagon for the Washington bureau of NBC network news. The first Gulf War gave her the chance to do stories for “Today” eventually leading to her replacing the damned-from-the-start co-anchor Deborah Norville who had been seen as pushing the beloved Jane Pauley out. Couric interviewed all the big names, got the “gets” of magazine journalism in the 1990s, and lent herself out to some of the evening magazine shows. If she had never done another thing after “Today” she would still have retired a television news hall of famer by any standard. She knew how much the odds were stacked against her making it to the chair Tom Brokow or Peter Jennings occupied every night.
But her day finally came. Along came CBS, and several million dollars later Couric became the first woman to anchor the evening news alone – the first. And along with that top post she was given the opportunity to contribute to the CBS flagship news magazine “60 Minutes” and host prime time news specials. Her news broadcast enjoyed the highest ratings for the show since 1998, and Couric herself twice won the Edward R. Murrow Award for best newscast.
And a mere five years later, she aspired to become a daytime talk show host? Did Walter Cronkite aspire to be the next Phil Donahue? Can you imagine Tom Brokow giving up the evening news to do daytime chatter?
"It's been quite a journey for me and the idea of coming back to ABC where my whole career began is really quite something and it's very exciting," said Couric. "I had to work my way up into the newsroom."
Yes, you did. So did other women. And what will they be saddled with now that you’ve left? “Better not hire a woman. What she probably really wants is a talk show not the anchor desk.”
At least ABC assigned Diane Sawyer to their evening news desk before all this drama unfolded. By all indicators, she is staying the course. And she will probably continue to. Sawyer is from the generation just prior to Couric.
Sawyer is from the era when women in television news divisions, both behind and in front of the camera, organized groups in the 1970s to pressure executives to give women in these areas more power and representation. There were well-publicized sex discrimination and sexual harassment suits at every turn, and change has come slowly. CNN, a cable channel needing to fill 24 hours with programing every day, has put more women on the air, and the profitability of increasing the number of "newsmagazines" on the air prompted the broadcast networks to include more female anchors in the early 1990s. Still females are only used as "experts" on news shows about fifteen percent of the time, an issue of representation as important as their presence as news anchors.
“When women are seen as authority figures in our culture, their representation in all media forms will change for the better,” said Mary Desjardins of the Museum of Broadcast Communication.
When was the last time someone named a talk show host as an authority figure?
The Center for Media and Public Affairs analyzes who reports what on the national newscasts, and seventy-five percent of the stories were still reported by men as recently as the mid-2000s (most recent figures).
"Changing the pattern, and persuading people that it is wise to do so, will take more effort than we've seen to date." In her book, "Invisible Stars: A Social History of Women in Broadcasting," Donna Halper also says:
"As I write this, the president of the N.A.B. [National Association of Broadcasters], the presidents of all the major networks, and the owners of the five biggest broadcast groups, in other words, all the important decision-makers in broadcasting, are still men, just as they were in the 1930s. The conventions of broadcasting are still overwhelmingly male, and the decisions that are made that affect women are still made by a very small group of men who have that influence and power."
Marci Burdick, the first woman to chair the Radio-Television News Director Association, says she's "heartened by the fact that there's marked progress" in the numbers of women directing newsrooms.
“Television is, after all, the medium from which most people obtain their news and their ideas about the world. When the workforce numbers in TV news plateau with just one out of four national stories reported by women, with just one of four news directors a woman, and with talent heading for the exits because of burnout over work-life conflicts, we're clearly far from the ideal--farther away than we thought we'd be by now.”
Yes, we should be farther along than we are. And Katie, you have not helped.
I can already hear the voices of reason that will insist what Couric is doing is exactly what the Women’s Movement was all about. She is choosing for herself. And, yes, she is free to do that. But she is not just anybody. Couric is where she is only because of the endurance and sacrifices of women in her field going back fifty years. Couric’s generation reaped the benefits of those women reaped none of the benefits but who put their careers on the line for the women who would come after them. She is indebted. It is not just about her personal preferences. It was her responsibility to make the most of what was so hard won for women in broadcasting and what was placed in her hands for safekeeping.
No, I did not be watch “Katie.” Not even once. I didn’t have the heart or the stomach for it, and apparently I wasn't the only one. The show has been cancelled after only two seasons. I wonder what Katie will be given the opportunity to do next.