Outside Voices: CMPA's Felling To CBS -- Don't Go A Courtin' Katie

Each week we invite someone from outside PE to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week, we turned to Matthew Felling, Media Director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs – a nonprofit, nonpartisan research group in Washington, DC that studies the news and entertainment.
Felling can often be found commenting on the media in various television and print outlets and over the past week, he's been thinking an awful lot about morning television and network anchors. As always, the opinions expressed in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours, and we seek a wide variety of voices. Now, here's Matthew:

Preamble: The day after Public Eye reached out to me, gauging my interest and /or availability in authoring an "Outside Voices," I was scheduled for a hospital visit to address an arrhythmia problem. Since hospitals share a particular trait with their curious-smelling sibling, the DMV, that of long periods spent waiting around, this visit naturally led to a lot of time in front of a TV. And it is with extensive exposure to morning television inspiring me – along with a full viewing of the past month's "Today" show transcripts – that leads me to write the following open letter to CBS News.

Dear CBS News,

We're friends, right? Well, as your friend, I'm asking you to seriously reconsider this public flirtation you have with "Today" show host Katie Couric, courting her to potentially anchor the "CBS Evening News." I know that nothing has been announced, mind you. It's just been a steady stream of comments in MediaLand that you haven't lifted a finger to silence.

I write this as not just a media observer, but also a living, breathing, iPod-toting, XM-listening, "Daily Show" watching full-fledged 32-year old. In other words, the demographic you're dying to attract.

Snarkier and crueler assessments of Katie Couric are cranked out on a regular basis – and sure, it would be easy to come up with a hatchet blade like "The Gabbin' Gidget" or "She's Like Carson Daly's Cool Mom" – but this is Walter Cronkite's seat we're talking about, a destination too important for cheap shots. And with Couric's contract ending in May, you may be preparing for the big pitch right about now … if you're really serious about all this.

As your friend and loyal viewer ever since the days of "Mash" and "Simon & Simon", I feel obliged to perform an intervention regarding this Couric fascination of yours.

Please stop.

Think. Explore your other options.

Simply from a 'capital J' Journalistic standpoint, how can you designate as "anchor" someone who hasn't been a newsperson in over a decade? There. I said it. Has Katie Couric been a morning show host? By definition. But that's not the same thing. Has she been an interviewer? Absolutely. I'll even go so far as to point out she brings her "A-game" with the VIPs, to be sure. You must have watched that December 16th interview with Condoleeza Rice in thrall, as she deftly segued from the wiretapping story to Iraqi elections to torture.*

CBS, I don't want you to think this is merely about her bona fides as a journalist, really, nor a tedious semantic hair-splitting of "news anchor" versus "news reader" and the like. My largest concern about Katie Couric lies in her presentation.

You see, what's most worrisome about your consideration of her is that day-in and day-out, the news and content of the "Today" show always comes second. From what I viewed in my hospital bed and what I read in over 300 pages of transcripts, the "Today" show - more than the West Virginia Miners or diet tips or "Do Good Dancers Make Better Lovers" - is always about Katie Couric. And according to every journalism textbook, expert, commentator and blog I can recall, that breaks the Number One ideal of journalism.

Katie Couric rarely lets pass an opportunity to bring herself into the story:

  • In an interview with Tim Russert -- Justice Lewis Powell said, "Freedoms cannot properly be guaranteed if domestic security surveillances are conducted solely within the discretion of the Executive Branch." Isn't it nice that we have that quote handy, Tim?" (Dec. 19th)
  • Introducing Santa and some elves -- "I'm a poet and I didn't even know it!" (Dec. 19th);
  • Interviewing a '70s era housewife – She labels the woman's ex-husband a "creep," with the woman immediately responding "no, no, no." (Jan. 9th)
  • Interviewing a scientist about artificial sweeteners: "I actually asked for this segment, because, personally, it's all about me, I use Splenda a lot, and I used to use Equal." (December 12th)
  • Coming in from a commercial on January 5th I'm sorry, I'm trying to eat my yogurt and blueberries and I apologize for that."
  • Previewing a segment about "Trading Spaces": "I don't know why I'm so into sharing things this morning, right?" (December 14th)
  • Breaking the news that John Stewart had been tapped to host the Oscars (also January 5th) – "Like so many people in this country, I love Jon Stewart. He's a great guy and very funny. And according to the Los Angeles Times, Jon is, I guess, has been tapped to be the host of the Oscars."
  • With last Saturday (January 7th) being her 49th birthday, I believe the significance of that particular day was mentioned every day, a few times a day.
  • And CBS, while I've avoided references to things said during those "Happy Chat" segments involving the cast – since they really don't count as news-ish moments – it bears noting that these contained dozens of comments about her fashion sense from "Do you like my hat?" to "I look like I'm – I'm – Nanook."

    It's also worth noting that this partial list of Katie-centric comments exclude the many interviews Couric conducted with actors/performers, where the conversations often took a personal tone. (Rachel Ray, Martha Stewart, Nathan Lane, Luke Wilson, Jim Carrey, Tea Leoni, Bonnie Hunt, "Apprentice" rejects and editors from fashion and decorating magazines.)

    CBS, Americans already think of TV anchors/hosts/journalists as self-promoting, self-centered types who are concerned more with the corporate ladder than the step-by-step of solid journalism. And putting someone with Katie Couric's tendencies in the anchor chair would be not just a step backward, but a moonwalk. (There I go with my Gen-X speak …)

    In case I've been a tad strident, I want you to know I think Katie Couric's schtick works perfectly on the "Today" show. She's the right woman in the right studio at the right time slot. It's merely my contention that the tone and skills she has honed perfectly on the "Today" show would never work on the "CBS Evening News." You don't interrupt John Roberts broadcasting from the Czech Republic to point out how "Prague" sounds like "Prada." It really won't work to make a comment to Gloria Borger about her earrings. But she can do all of that with Matt Lauer, Al Roker, Ann Curry and the whole gang.

    Here's where I was going to make an analogy about a Couric move from "Today" to "CBS Evening News" being something like David Caruso moving from "NYPD Blue" to the big screen, but I saw online that someone beat me to it. But I'm glad the Caruso comparison is a cliché, because upon further reflection it actually falls short.

    Katie Couric is at the top of her profession, whereas Caruso was more of an emerging talent. No, Couric leaving the "Today" show set for your anchor seat would be like Michael Jordan hanging up the high tops and grabbing a bat for the Birmingham Barons. The two jobs require vastly different skills, mental muscles and approaches. Where Jordan's strikeouts were seen in America's smaller towns, a CBS swing-and-a-miss would be a national story.

    Or, if you insist on a media comparison, I'll be brutal. Think Letterman and The "Uma, Oprah" Oscar Experiment of 1995. But worse. Five days a week. That's potentially what we're talking about here.

    Jim Carrey accidentally nailed it on the head last month when Katie she asked him about his movie "Fun With Dick and Jane." He snapped "Hey, who cares? There's a transit strike in New York. Get to the serious stuff. We're a news program, for God's sakes."

    Ace Ventura, Media Critic, had raised two good points. "Hey, who cares?" The 'Today' audience, that's who – they've been conditioned to expect a pound full of sugar to help Ann Curry's all-in-one-breath news update go down. As for calling the "Today" show a "news program, that's where he had it wrong. The "Today" show isn't a news program. The "CBS Evening News" is.

    Go get a newsperson to anchor it.

    -- Matthew Felling

    * Though, to be fair, this odd exchange from an interview with Reagan biographer Richard Reeves made her seem a bit a tad reliant upon her prepared questions:

    COURIC: What strikes you most about Ronald Reagan? I mean, obviously, you did a tremendous amount of research.

    Mr. REEVES: Well, what--everything struck me about him and I felt that ev--most everything had been said about him was wrong, that he wasn't this doddering old fool, he was not being manipulated. He was one tough guy in charge who imagined an American past and convinced us of it, imagined a future, or a world future and made a lot of it happen. And--and for all practical purposes is still president today.

    COURIC: Don't you think...

    Mr. REEVES: He made us think differently about the presidency, about politics and about America, and he's running the country right now the way Roosevelt ran it for years after his death.

    COURIC: Do you think that he was misunderstood? (Emphasis mine)

    Though she followed up that question with some qualifiers, it struck this observer as a bad fit for a follow-up question, given Mr. Reeves had just made the statement "everything … said about him was wrong." Am I niggling? Perhaps. But then again, I'm a member of your desired demographic, your target age cohort, whatever. That's what we do.