Issue Date: September 22, 2006
Wishing 'so long' to Katie Couric
By RAYMOND A. SCHROTH
From the moment CBS News announced that its new anchorperson -- its public face, the one who would guarantee that what was known as the Tiffany Network would be true to its tradition -- was NBC Today shows Katie Couric, it launched a public relations campaign that demonstrated that it was not confident in its decision.
We were bombarded by a gushing farewell from NBC, a People magazine profile of her ups, downs and hair colors, a listening tour so the heartland could tell her what news they liked, articles on the redesigned set and music and the new emphasis on teamwork lest the head woman alone lacked the gravitas to pull it off. CBS recorded Walter Cronkites endorsement to be piped in the first night, a sort of gravitas injection. The CBS publicity magazine Watch doctored her picture to take off 20 pounds and to make the new anchor look less dumpy. Then came the Aug. 31 Thursday night farewell to Bob Shieffer, 68, in which, after reports on Bush, Iraq and a new cancer cure, Mr. Shieffer, who wept, thanked CBS for this year in the sun, in spite of his age. Ms. Couric thanked him for saving us from the dark days of Dan Rathers removal.
Meanwhile CBS scheduled a Dan Rather farewell for Friday, Sept. 1, a pre-Labor Day holiday hole when it hoped no one was watching -- then didnt show it. I respect Mr. Rather for his attempt to embody the Edward Murrow-Walter Cronkite tradition, but he should have quit while he was ahead a few years ago. In the 60 Minutes mistake of not authenticating a letter on President Bushs National Guard record, he became a victim of his own carelessness and of conservative sharks who smelled blood in the water.
I tried to imagine a farewell news broadcast years ago where a tearful Walter Cronkite would have brought on Dan Rather and assured the audience that they could trust themselves to Walters successor. That would have been unthinkable because CBS and the public already believed in them both. Not so today.
PBS played its part in preparing us for the Tuesday, Sept. 5, descent of Ms. Couric from the clouds by broadcasting documentaries on Mr. Murrow and Mr. Cronkite. Reviewing the American Masters Cronkite program in The New York Times, Alessandra Stanley proclaimed that, thank heaven, the godlike Cronkite days are gone, the news is much better now. Could it be that Ms. Stanley was too young and distracted to watch the CBS Evening News of the 1970s and is basing her judgment on clips in a documentary?
When the news of Ms. Courics appointment struck, the editorial cartoonists depicted Walter Cronkite with a tear in his eye and Mr. Murrow moaning, Good night, and good grief. Last years film, Good Night and Good Luck, on Mr. Murrows clash with Sen. Joe McCarthy, briefly resurrected the ghost of the CBS once known as the Tiffany Network for its commitment to the high-minded ideal that TV should educate. Ms. Courics hyped debut sent that weary ghost back to its grave to stay.
On the one hand, there was nothing startling or new about the format, which featured the usual 17 minutes of news and the roughly eight minutes of pills, pads and paste for your feet, teeth, sleep and prostate. The lead was an exclusive Lara Logan visit to a Taliban camp a mere 10 miles from a U.S. base, followed by President Bushs latest speech tying Osama bin Laden to Hitler and Lenin. Next Eye on Your Money reported on a big oil find in the Gulf of Mexico that will not, however, lower our gas prices.
The exclusive first picture of Tom Cruises baby was a blatant plug for Vanity Fair magazine, on sale the next day. The one innovation, a minute-long free speech segment was an incoherent rant by the director of Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock, who told us that civil discourse should be in the middle, and not be like wrestlers who slam their opponents on the mat. In case we didnt get the metaphor, CBS showed a clip of a beefy wrestler slamming an opponent to the mat. Then coming attractions were announced: Thursday, Rush Limbaugh! That Mr. Limbaugh, who already rants on the radio for several hours a day, merits a minute on CBS News demonstrates how far it has fallen.
Wednesdays exclusive Couric interview with President Bush produced no news, but it gave the president another audience to tell that he is protecting us from terrorists with no torture secret prisons.
Ms. Courics selection was preceded by the question of what kind of person should an anchorperson be. CBS spokesmen derided the old voice of God model. In his media history The Powers that Be, David Halberstam applied the word gravitas to Walter Cronkite -- not to mean heavy, but substantial, serious and wise. The anchor plays a serious public role, according to Mr. Halberstam. He or she communicates not just news but trust. When an anchor tells us that the president has been shot, that weve landed on the moon, or that our young men are dying by the thousands in a fruitless war, it helps to know the speaker is honest, intelligent and seasoned by experience covering the world. There are several women who meet those criteria, including ABCs Martha Raddatz and PBSs Margaret Warner, who was just kicked out of Iran for asking too many questions.
The perky Ms. Couric ended her debut broadcast saying she had not decided how to say Good night. Then she played clips of Murrow, Cronkite, Huntley-Brinkley and Rathers sign offs, and then demeaned the whole idea by tacking on a comic sign-off from the movie farce, Anchorman. She invited viewers to send in their suggestions. Mine is Goodbye.
Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is professor of humanities at St. Peters College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Catholic Reporter, September 22, 2006
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