When Katie Couric accepted the Alfred I. duPont award last week for her series of interviews with former vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin during the 2008 presidential campaign, she said, “The much derided MSM — main stream media — clearly still has a role in these increasingly partisan times.”
I spoke with Couric, “CBS Evening News” anchor and managing editor, by phone on Monday to hear more about that role, what she learned from her interviews with Palin and her thoughts on political journalism and the future of network news. An edited transcript of our talk appears below.
Mallary Tenore: Congratulations on the duPont award for your Sarah Palin interviews. What did you learn from interviewing Sarah Palin that other journalists should know?
Katie Couric: I don’t know if I learned anything in the short term interviewing Sarah Palin. I think the interview validated everything that I’ve learned in the past 30 years being in television and doing so many different kinds of interviews.
I think the things that were validated for me included the importance of massive preparation. When you’re interviewing someone, particularly who hasn’t done a lot of interviews, I think it’s really critical that you have a clear understanding of his or her record. And that was very important in this case.
I also relearned the importance of follow-up questions, which I think were critical in this setting but are really critical in any interview. And I’m often frustrated when I watch interviews and I feel as if (a) the person didn’t listen to the answer or (b) didn’t pick up on something or (c) moved on even though they were given a non-answer answer.
I think that that’s something that is really an important practice that journalists need to be mindful of today, because oftentimes you’re dealing with a lot of things. You’ve got time constraints, and you may need to get to a lot of different areas but sometimes it’s worth really diving in when someone is trying to avoid answering a question.
I would say preparation and follow-up were key components of that interview, and I also think tone. When I started in television and really started doing interviews in earnest, I remember Jeff Zucker and I used to talk a lot about tone. And I think it’s really important because it has a major impact on how an interview is received.
If you’re too confrontational, and there are times when you need to be confrontational, sometimes the attention is then focused on you rather than the interview subject. Ideally, in 100 percent of the situations it really is about the person you’re interviewing, or should be.
Sometimes journalists make the mistake of having a certain tone or conducting the interview in a certain way that it draws attention away from the subject and on to the interviewer herself or himself.
My tone was really important because I think it was respectful but politely persistent. And that’s really what you want to do when you’re interviewing someone, unless it’s someone like David Duke whose views are so abhorrent to the vast majority of American people.
And I change my tone if I’m interviewing somebody who obviously is an accident victim. I do more political figures in my current job but I always try to have the right tone from the get-go of the interview. And I think that is a really important quality when you’re doing this kind of work.
Along the lines of interviewing political figures, how would you say political journalism has changed in the years you’ve been anchoring?
Couric: It’s changed dramatically with the ubiquity of the Internet. And I think some of that has been great, and some of that hasn’t been as helpful to the political process.
We often hear about the need to give stories context and talk about the issues and you can find plenty of that on the Internet. But the Internet can be an insatiable monster and needs to have news fed to it constantly. So as a result, some of the less important aspects of the political campaign that are interesting nonetheless, may be focused on on the Web. …
The 24/7 news cycle has changed dramatically and some politicians, including our president, have bemoaned that fact, that they need something to keep it going. And I think there are also long, thoughtful analysis pieces on the Internet as well but I think it’s kind of sped up the news cycle in a way. I don’t know if that’s for better or for worse but it’s just a fact.
The one thing you have to be careful of is the accuracy. People want to report things first; what used to be the lead time for television pre-cable — we’re talking about the dark ages — or even in print and, of course, weekly magazines — there was much more time to be more philosophical or analytical and to really check things and go to great pains to make it have journalistic depth, which is sometimes tough to do in an Internet environment.
People seem to want to get their news from online —
Couric: There are many examples of terrific in-depth journalism going on online, it’s just sped up the cycle. Remember when George Allen said “macaca”?
Political figures have to be guarded 24/7 because the technology has changed, there’s somebody there with a cell phone or a BlackBerry or someone recording their every move. It’s made them have to be more mindful of that. George Allen learned the hard way that technology is all around everyone all the time and so that’s changed the way campaigns are conducted and run.
In terms of audience needs, since you started with “CBS Evening News,” you have been attentive to new audience needs, with blogging and your YouTube channel and webcasts. What do you think the new audience wants in political journalism that’s different from what the traditional audience might have wanted?
Couric: Increasingly people want coverage that has a POV. They want to go to a Web site like Huffington Post or they may want to go to “The Corner,” the National Review blog. I think people do want to hear from like-minded individuals who may share their point of view.
On the other hand, I think that it’s really important that there’s a place for really objective journalism that’s not necessarily advocacy journalism. Because I think the way you learn, the way I learn about all different sides is by going to different Web sites that have different viewpoints. And if you only go to those who you agree with, then your own views are reflected back at you, and you don’t have a chance to even understand the other point of view and engage in an intelligent dialogue that’s civil.
In some ways, people become more firmly entrenched when they just watch media that reflects their points of view. But I do think people want that. I hope they balance it out with other things and they see what other people may be saying about an issue because otherwise it makes civil discourse an oxymoron.
One thing we tried to do during the campaign was we did “Primary Questions” and “Presidential Questions” because we wanted to do something unique that might reveal the character of the individuals who are running for office. And so we asked them all the same questions. Some were policy oriented, but a lot of them were just trying to extract something on a human level from these candidates. I think people want coverage that’s unique, but that’s increasingly difficult to find because there’s so much of it covering the same thing.
Switching gears a little bit, what do you think the next generation of journalists knows that you wish you had known when you were starting out?
Couric: They understand the Internet has completely shifted the landscape in terms of how news is produced and consumed. The pace in which it’s happened has made a lot of people’s heads spin who were in traditional, mainstream media. So they see the landscape as it is and they can take advantage of the myriad of opportunities afforded by the Internet. Of course the big question is: How will professional journalists be compensated in this brave new world?
That is still being figured out, with attempts by people like Rupert Murdoch and Barry Diller and now The New York Times, to a certain extent, charging for content. But they have a different environment they’re entering than I did when I was just starting out.
Having said that, I always tell young journalists that there are certain skills that go with being a young reporter that basically can be used in a variety of ways, wherever you’re working, whatever Web site or network you may be working at.
And that means you have to learn how to be a thorough reporter, you have to be well-read and have a good understanding of various issues so you have the background to cover a story about the deficit or a story on health care reform.
And you have to understand the basic tenets of being a good writer. You have to be able to be a good editor or have a good editor. And if you don’t have a good editor you have to be able to edit yourself and be sure that you’re able to communicate things in a succinct, understandable way.
You have to be able to make people feel comfortable so you get a good interview, whether you’re doing it for “Little Green Footballs” or you’re doing it for “60 Minutes.” Some of these same things are true no matter where you’re working.
So I always say focus on the skill set too, and don’t be so obsessed with where your work is going to appear. Go to a place where you can really learn the ropes; that really hasn’t changed from the days of the front page to today. These are skills that hopefully we encourage and respect in good journalists.
In thinking about the future of journalism, can you describe the network newscast of the future, the one that comes after you’ve retired?
That’s a great question. Will there be a 6:30 newscast well into the future? I’m not really sure because of the way people are getting news. … People want the news when they want the news.
The advantage of doing an evening newscast is we have the entire day to put stories in context. The quality of our newscasts and the quality of our producers and reporters are unparalleled in terms of what you can get on a daily basis. But I don’t know if people are going to want to wait until 6:30 or 7 o’clock at night, or in some cases 5:30 in different time zones, to find the news of the day.
I hope so, because it’s good to have a team of people who are looking at the news of the day, evaluating it, trying to figure out what stories should have priority, and then spending all day figuring out, how can we best tell this story? But that’s a luxury I’m not sure we’re always going to be able to have. But one that I think serves a very important role.
And with all the talk about the diminishing mainstream media and evening newscast it still has a sizable audience. Even we do, in 3rd place, get a lot of people watching our newscast. And that’s what I think about every night when we’re putting it together.
I want someone to have a clear understanding, as clear as we can [provide] in 22 minutes — let’s face it, we have to make some difficult Hobson’s choice every day. But they have watched a newscast, they know what’s going on in the world, it’s been done in an accurate, succinct, understandable way and the quality is there.
Having said that, the way things are changing so dramatically, maybe we would do an hourly update newscast so people can log in and know up to the minute and up to the hour what’s going on and recycle some of the pieces from earlier in the day.
I don’t know what it’s going to look like, things are changing. But for now I’m really proud of the broadcast we put on every single night.