All Eyes on Couric’s CBS News: The Gravitas and The Goofy
As viewers around the country sampled the premiere of the "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric," so did a few of my Poynter colleagues. From our homes and from the Institute, we watched, took notes and collected our thoughts.
Some of us are veteran broadcast journalists, others have print and online backgrounds. All of us, in our own way, are news junkies.
Here are our takes:
ROY PETER CLARK, vice president & senior scholar: Since so much of Katie Couric's work on the "Today" show seemed so self-referential -- her interview questions often contained references to her own experiences or her own thinking -- it was interesting to see her working in a "purer" news environment.
It worked for me.
It began with a significant investigative story on the rebirth of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The interview with Tom Friedman on 9/11 returned her to her comfort zone, and offered a different physical vantage point from the anchor desk. I thought her standing up gave a short person greater physical stature -- and a little more of whatever that gravitas thing was. Kind of gravitas without the grave.
The story count seemed nice and high without shrinking bits to the trivial. I thought that the Steve Hartman feature story out of Nicaragua took advantage of his great storytelling ability without the past gimmick of throwing a dart at a map (unless he slipped and hit Central America).
Finally, it was interesting to see efforts to introduce new media interactivity into the mix, everything from the "free speech" segment to the slightly cheesy invitation to viewers to offer signoff ideas. (How about "Going, going, I am GONE")
I'm a long-time NBC watcher, but saw enough tonight to try CBS again tomorrow night.
SCOTT LIBIN, leadership & management faculty: I don't know what CBS is paying Katie Couric, but the network sure did keep her busy her first day on the air as anchor. I didn't get through all of the available online content before the old-fashioned broadcast came on at its mainstream-media appointed hour. In fact, I interrupted my Web browsing to watch her newscast on TV. That probably proves I'm a dinosaur myself.
Worse yet, I liked the "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric" -– much more than I liked the forced spontaneity and contrived casualness of the video I saw at cbs.com.
In her "First Look" piece, an online preview of the evening newscast, Couric and "trusty camerawoman" Nicole took us on a tour of "the Fish Bowl," where the "Evening News'" top producers and managers prepare the broadcast.
"Why it's called the Fish Bowl, I have absolutely no idea," Couric said. I don't know which is the less flattering interpretation of that remark -- that she really can't figure it out, or that it didn't occur to her to ask before using the term herself. Couric went on, with a mischievous grin, to describe the bunch of bosses as "the brain trust of the 'CBS Evening News,'" and advised us viewers, "I think you should be afraid, very afraid if that's the case. Just kidding!"
Maybe so, but the bulk of "First Look" seemed to be an attempt by Couric to be more patronizing to the men she works with than men have traditionally been to women in the newsroom.
She introduced us to Senior Broadcast Producer Bill Owens as "a great guy. He wears a little too much product in his hair, but he’s an extremely nice person." He must be, as touchy-feely as his new anchor was -- in the literal sense. Couric had her hands on Owens for most of the conversation, up to and including the moment when she clapped a palm over his mouth as he answered one of her questions, playfully scolding him, "Don't give too much away."
All was forgiven, though, a moment later when Couric wrapped up the exchange with an avuncular "All right, thanks, Bill. You did very well."
Next up, Executive Producer Rome Hartman was groped a little less -- rank has its privilege -- although, after a serious conversation about the newscast's lead story, he did get a pat on the arm and a perky "Get back to work now!"
Senior Producer Katie Boyle, Couric's third interview of "First Look," got off with no physical contact, and relatively little condescension.
"I'm very happy to be with you tonight," Couric said in opening the on-air newscast, and for the next several minutes she presided competently over a solid collection of enterprise reporting that, appropriately, upstaged the anchor herself -- at least for a while.
A promo for the first published photo of Suri Cruise accompanied an otherwise very serious open to the newscast: war in Afghanistan, oil in the Gulf of Mexico, celebrity worship.
Lara Logan's exclusive report from Ghazni was the result of six months' negotiation, she said. It featured a very effective juxtaposition of 2004 file tape and current footage, dramatically demonstrating the Taliban resurgence that was the story's main point.
Going into the newscast's first commercial break, the stock market report on the desk-front monitor was cool -- and a good use of viewers' time.
Couric got to showcase her "Today" show interviewing skills in a segment with Tom Friedman, whom she describes online as one of the smartest people she's ever met.
Morgan Spurlock made a plea for reason and civility in the newscast's inaugural "Free Speech" segment.
And then, "Snapshots... An exclusive first look at Vanity Fair's new cover girl," Suri Cruise. The comparison with Douglas Edwards' display 60 years ago of infant "Bonny Prince Charles" photos seemed a bit far-fetched, but was at least an admirable effort to justify an otherwise totally frivolous newscast element.
And call me a sucker for fun footage from the past, but I liked the final bit about Couric's sign-off, which she explained to viewers she hasn't settled on yet. So, while she ponders the question -- and, of course, awaits our online suggestions -- Couric offered "a look at how some well-known anchors have signed off over the years," including, in a nicely self-effacing touch, Ted Baxter and Ron Burgundy.
None of those classic anchors of the past, factual or fictional, ever perched as pertly as Couric did on the front of the desk for the newscast’s closing shot. Probably none of them ever felt the debut pressure put on Couric, either.
I'll watch again. I might even go back for a second look at "First Look" -- and hope Katie gives the guys a little space.
LARRY LARSEN, multimedia editor: I don't know about regular TV, but on HDTV the video is about a second ahead of the sound. It was tough watching... the whole time. At the end, Steve Hartman was cut off for a weather screen, it garbled and went black until "Wheel of Fortune" started.
I liked the Free Speech segment, but I didn't see any public comments for it on the Free Speech section of the Web site -- I prefer free speech to be all-inclusive. It doesn't look like they post those either, which is too bad. I'd watch those online.
Update: The Free Speech segment with Morgan Spurlock is now up with video and public comments. The video appears to be only in Real Media format, which wouldn't play for me in IE7 or Firefox. I'd really like to see it in the video podcast section.
KEITH WOODS, dean of the faculty: I don't get to watch the "CBS Evening News" -- or much of anyone else's evening news, for that matter. Commuting, you see. No TiVo. But I've watched a lot of network news through the years and it's been impossible to dodge the hype of Katie Couric's Tuesday night debut, so it was more than passing curiosity that brought me to the TV.
I left disappointed.
It's hard and, more importantly, unfair to take a single newscast and judge a newscaster or network, so I won't. But I know what I like. Lara Logan's in-depth opening package on the re-emerging Taliban in Afghanistan, for example, befits the heft of the program's legacy. And I like anything by Steve Hartman. The stories were good bookends to the newscast.
Couric performed ably as an anchor. I've never been a fan of her interviewing technique, but I thought she asked OK questions of New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. Still, I couldn't help wondering why the vaunted launch of this new era of informing the nation would feature Friedman -- or any journalist for that matter -- in the first place. Couldn't the first interview of the New Era reach beyond the ordinary, incestuous, chronically common practice of journalists interviewing journalists?
And a "free speech" segment sold as a way of giving voice to the public probably shouldn't begin with a canned essay by a celebrity. The politics and opinions of filmmaker Morgan Spurlock couldn't have surprised a single viewer. The irony of the old-is-new "free speech" idea, given modern legs by a tie-in to the Internet, is that Spurlock's call for civil discourse will almost certainly incite something quite different in the decidedly un-civil world of online chat. In an unrelated matter, Rush Limbaugh will be doing a "free speech" for CBS later this week.
But if you were among those who feared that the introduction of Couric's "Today" show kitschiness into the network atmosphere would choke Edward R. Murrow's ghost, well, Couric gave you this: A CBS "exclusive" look at Vanity Fair's exclusive cover photo of Tom Cruise's daughter. To end the show, but not the fear, we got Couric's silly, pandering request for signoff suggestions from the public, preceded by a anchor-effacing video lumping Murrow/Cronkite/Rather with Ron Burgundy and Ted Baxter.
What happened to Porky Pig?
But I rant. Here is one last thought, rather unrelated to Couric's debut, but since I was watching... The phrase "the war on terror" is an invention of the White House, not a dispassionate description of what's happening in Afghanistan or Iraq or Tampa International Airport. Employing the President's jargon may give a newscast flavored by liberal commentary the look or smell of balance, but in the end it's ceding language and meaning to politicians.
Th- Th- Th- That's all, folks.
JILL GEISLER, leadership & management group leader: If CBS really wants the "Evening News with Katie Couric" to succeed and for her newscast to differentiate itself, then it needs to take a risk and give her a full hour. The viewers deserve it and so does the anchor. For the program to set itself apart, it needs more of the best of tonight's newscast:
- More authoritative international field reporting. The lead story on a resurgent Taliban was important and unsettling. Lara Logan's story will launch a thousand blog replies from partisans everywhere, no doubt. But it is this kind of on-the-ground, take-me-there fact gathering that sets a real news operation apart from talk-driven infotainment. But how much good reporting like this can fit into a half hour (minus commercials)? With an hourlong format, Katie could attempt the reporter-debrief Q&As so well-executed by Bob Schieffer -- missing from tonight's newscast.
- More time for interviews. Sure, there's more of the Tom Friedman interview online. That's a great use of the Web. But why not more depth in the newscast when the interviewee clearly has mastery of not only the subject, but the art of intelligent dialogue on the tube?
- More dollars and sense reporting that isn't afraid to share the big economic picture -- such as Anthony Mason's story on oil.
- More Steve Hartman. Clever, comfortable, curious -- he's a remarkable storyteller whose work tell us about the people we sometimes miss, as well as the people we'd like to be.
In that ideal hourlong broadcast, CBS might do a few things better than it did tonight:
- Figure out what makes something really worth the "freeSpeech" slot. It's nice to provide a soapbox -- but the world's awash in op-eds. Demand, for example, that the speaker do some original reporting about whatever topic he or she is expounding on. (This would have gotten Andy Rooney fired from "60 Minutes" long ago, and spared the world a lot of pointless rumination.) Morgan Spurlock added no light and not even much heat to the program.
- Don't commingle CBS graphics with a presidential sound bite. During Jim Axelrod's story on President Bush's speech to yet another military audience, in a clip of the president talking about Hitler and Stalin, CBS added file video of the two on a sort of split screen beside the president. Let the speaker provide his own illustrations -- don't enhance.
- Use "Snapshots" to bring us something better than pictures of Tom Cruise's baby. Still photography is a magnificent form of journalism and art. Showcase great photos -- from professional journalists and amateur photographers. (And yes, verify that they aren't -- ahem -- Photoshopped.)
It's hard -- if not impossible -- to radically change television news. You can make it faster, slower, smarter, dumber, video-rich or -poor, opinionated or straightforward. You can shift the focus to "selfish news" that assumes the audience is focused solely on "what's in it for me," or you can treat viewers as world citizens. You can try to scare, amuse or titillate people into watching. Or you can be an authoritative source of important information. If CBS News wants to differentiate itself with Katie Couric in charge, then the network must invest what it takes to do it right.
Give her an hour. It's really about time.