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Issue Date:  September 22, 2006

Wishing 'so long' to Katie Couric


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” show’s 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 Cronkite’s 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 Rather’s 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 didn’t 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 Bush’s 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 Walter’s 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. Couric’s appointment struck, the editorial cartoonists depicted Walter Cronkite with a tear in his eye and Mr. Murrow moaning, “Good night, and good grief.” Last year’s film, “Good Night and Good Luck,” on Mr. Murrow’s 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. Couric’s 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 Bush’s 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 Cruise’s 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 didn’t 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.

Wednesday’s “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. Couric’s 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 we’ve 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 ABC’s Martha Raddatz and PBS’s 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 Rather’s 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. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, September 22, 2006

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