America's first solo female anchor has faced many challenges since 2006, but she's about to own her future more than ever before
In 2006, When Katie Couric was named anchor of the CBS Evening News at a salary of $15 million a year, I wrote a piece under the headline "In Your Dreams," suggesting that she consider investing some of her own earnings in the show. The idea, admittedly somewhat whimsical, was that Couric could choose "original reporting on issues she thinks are relevant to her viewers, from China to china. It would be her money, so Couric could control it, bringing her distinctive experience and style to news in the way that Oprah has come to influence books, lifestyle choices and values."
The only reaction I saw to the idea came from a blogger on CJR.org (this was before I was associated with the Columbia Journalism Review as vice-chair). In a scathing commentary, he called the notion that Couric consider being an investor in her program "silly," "stupid," and "irrational." Rather than respond, I gave CJR.org the last word.
Couric's tenure as the first solo woman anchor got off to a very bumpy start. Within a year, she seemed to be on her way out. There was a New York magazine cover story in which CBS President Les Moonves, who had recruited Couric to switch from NBC, was asked whether he felt any "responsibility for how the show has failed." "Nope, I really don't," Moonves replied. The criticism and petty backbiting was clearly hard on Couric, who told Howard Kurtz in a Newsweek interview recently that she "kept having a dark fantasy that one of the New York City buses with her face splashed along the side would run her over, completing her demise."
"I'm not the kind of person who allows myself to be permanently scarred by anything," Couric told Kurtz
But then the worst seemed to be over. Her coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign won accolades, especially her famous interview in which she rattled Sarah Palin with a series of simple questions about Supreme Court decisions and what newspapers and magazines she read. The nightly program's early efforts to tinker with the conventional model of evening newscasts were dropped, and the show settled into a rhythm very much like its competitors on ABC (where Diane Sawyer eased into the anchor chair after the election with much less hoopla, and none of the vengeful coverage) and NBC (where Brian Williams's natural anchorman style held on to Tom Brokaw's long-time dominance in the ratings contest). The evening newscasts still draw 23.2 million viewers, but that is down 21 percent from the figures a decade ago.
Although her nightly ratings never budged from third place, and some weeks saw precipitous drops, Couric and her program won increasing respect for her straightforward presentation and energy. Her periodic contributions to 60 Minutes added to her standing as the Sunday program secured its place as the best of network television news and returned to the top tier of audience rankings. Her interview with U.S. Air Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, hero of the Hudson River landing, was a major hit. In reflecting now on the vitriolic attacks of her early years at CBS, Couric, whose husband died of colon cancer at 42 in 1998, is philosophical: "I'm not the kind of person who allows myself to be permanently scarred by anything," she told Kurtz, "unless it's the death of my husband, which I think about on an almost daily basis still. But life goes on, and you have to put it in a place where you can tolerate it."