NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- Patricia Marx knows why Katie Couric has flopped as the anchor of the "CBS Evening News."
As a former writer for "Saturday Night Live," she's able to cut through absurdity a little better than most of us. Marx, who writes for the New Yorker, the New York Times and Time, doesn't buy the critics' analysis. They argue that Couric's feature-oriented style and poorly paced broadcasts are the reasons why her show's ratings trail those of NBC's Brian Williams and ABC's Charles Gibson..
"Katie has 'the Hillary problem,'" according to Marx. "Powerful women can't win in the press even if they the press. She can't be too much of a lightweight -- or a heavyweight. She wants to look good, but if she does she's a glamour girl who has no credibility."
CBS executives have been making the same case since Couric debuted as anchor last September to a relentless stream of criticism.
When a news woman looks attractive, "it suggests she's an airhead. When a guy looks good, he's Peter Jennings," Marx pointed out. She agrees that powerful men can have image problems in the media, too. When Jimmy Carter recently ripped President Bush, he was knocked -- and not strictly because of what he said.
Carter raised legitimate issues with the Bush administration's mismanagement of Iraq. But because an ex-president such as made the points, his remarks might have smacked of sour grapes.
Anyway, Marx couldn't figure out what the fuss was about. "What is so risky about saying Bush is the worst president? It's practically Bush's middle name! Besides, it would have been more risky for Carter to say that Bush was the second-worst president of all time."
One of the criticisms of magazines today is that they take themselves too seriously, and don't offer much in the way of humor or sarcasm.
"Sometimes it seems that the hardest thing for me or any other editor to find is the genuinely, lastingly funny thing, and Patty is the genuine article," New Yorker editor David Remnick told me in an e-mail. "She has the gift and she's a real writer."
"Patty is so smart and funny in a way that makes you feel smart and funny when you are with her, or even when just reading her," added Yahoo film critic Nell Minow, a longtime friend and fan of Marx.
She's amused to no end by the focus on celebrity gossip by even the nation's most revered news agencies. "They think people have to be entertained all the time -- even about unentertaining things!"
Marx, who grew up in Abington, Pa., just outside Philadelphia, has been entertaining readers since her days at the Harvard Lampoon. She is also the author of the witty novel, "Him Her Him Again The End of Him" (Scribner), about a woman's obsession over her first boyfriend.
The media also fall down on the job when they try to wring melodrama out of public figures.
Not long ago, for instance, "60 Minutes" featured an interview with John and Elizabeth Edwards, the former senator and his wife. Edwards' campaign hadn't gained much traction with reporters until Elizabeth revealed that her breast cancer had returned.
Marx quickly sussed out that it was a case of the media and a presidential candidate simultaneously exploiting one another. Edwards got national exposure for his campaign. Elizabeth could tell her story and talk about cancer patients. Meanwhile, CBS had the promise of big ratings by snaring the "get" interview of the day.
The melodrama was the intrinsic selling point for CBS, Marx suspects. "People love stupid news stories because they can understand them. With John and Elizabeth Edwards, they saw it as a 'Movie of the Week.'"
MEDIA WEB QUESTION OF THE DAY: Who is the wittiest media figure?
FRIDASTORY OF THE WEEK: "What the Mainstream Media Can Learn from Jon Stewart" by Rachel Smolkin (American Journalism Review, April/May). It isn't only about being sarcastic and clever, Smolkin contends. Much of Stewart's appeal (and Stephen Colbert's, for that matter) is to challenge the establishment all the time and reveal the hypocrisy and stupidity of people in power.
THE READERS REPLY to my piece about the public catfight between former president Jimmy Carter and the Bush administration: "I usually enjoy your articles. This one missed the boat. Carter has been bashing Bush and every other president since his failed four years. He was always self-righteous, but now he's increasingly bitter and pathetic. The White House finally responded, and you equate the two?" Bob Wolfson
"Most learned people know that Jimmy Carter is an honorable and very bright man -- no matter what they thought of his popularity as a president -- or his political savvy. Aside [from] the moral bankruptcy of this current president and his administration, your criticism of Jimmy Carter and comparing the interchange between him and the White House to some insignificant celebrity catfight is idiotic." Loren Arethas
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By Jon Friedman