The Lessons of Katie Couric

Katie Couric’s long day’s journey into evening

And then, during one of my particularly intense spates of viewership (I was heavily pregnant, with twins), a friend of mine called and asked, “Did you hear about Katie Couric?” No, what? “Her husband died—of cancer.” In that shocked instant—I’d seen her on the show the day before; she’d seemed perfectly cheerful—my attitude toward Katie changed: I no longer saw her as merely a television host, but as a new mother in the midst of a ghastly situation. I knew, of course, that she had two little girls, and so even the lightest lifestyle segments she did after returning from her bereavement had a heavy context. Stories on sippy cups and chicken nuggets and tummy aches took on a new dimension: quiet bravery and cheerfulness as performance. For me, deep in my postpartum funk, the Today show reached a new level of authenticity: being at home with small children (the subtext of every episode ever broadcast) turned out to blend a gentle, happy routine with a persistent melancholy that had to be forcibly conquered through intense, manufactured interest in playpen recalls and triumph-of-the-human-spirit stories.

The Today show creates a bond with its overwhelmingly female viewers because so many of them watch it, as I did, during one of the most psychologically complex and lonely—and most emotionally fulfilling—times of their lives: their tenure as mothers to small children. Indeed, one reason the show is so successful and profitable is that long ago its producers realized that American households follow a rhythm: early in the morning, there is a great bustling of activity as the working members of families propel themselves out of the cocoon and into the cold world of commerce and adult preoccupation, and then there is a quiet settling down, once the cars have backed out of the driveways and the neighborhoods have been drained of their breadwinners. This is a delicate moment for any mother who spends her days home with children: on the one hand, the number of household residents who feel they own a piece of her has just diminished; on the other hand, she’s been left behind with the babies and the pets.

It is into this emotional void that the Today show’s second hour comes to the rescue, trumpets blaring: out go the first hour’s reports on war and politics and economic trends, and in come pieces on family and shopping and decorating. “The men are gone,” the show seems to tell us. “Now we can talk about the things we love”: the exact way to sneak vegetables into the diet of a finicky toddler, the trick to putting aside a little money for a family treat, the essential components of a first-aid kit for the car—all the minutiae of running a household, presented without irony or scorn by hugely compensated media celebrities. It is the loneliness of at-home motherhood—the loneliness for other adults, for the adult way of life, for the work clothes and schedules and employment itself—that makes the hosts of the Today show crucial. When you turn on the program, there they are: your friends. You half-listen to them, the way you half-listen to your children playing on the floor in the next room, and together the two worlds make up the whole of your enterprise: theory and practice. The host discusses shoes that are supposed to help toddlers walk more steadily, and you turn to your own baby and wonder if you ought to buy him a pair. The Today show pours into the house through the kitchen-counter television or the bedroom television (because the main TV, the big one, is tuned to Arthur or Clifford the Big Red Dog, and you’re half-watching those shows as well), and it is different from other shows. When it is on, the television screen is no longer a barrier separating real life from TV land; the television screen is a window into another room of the house, the one where the grown-ups are.

The signal aspect of Katie’s on-air personality—her unthreatening chumminess, her giggling girlishness—was perfectly suited to this essential part of the role: Katie was all the friends you left behind at work. She was commiseration and office pranks and flirting. It’s true that as more time passed after her husband’s death, she began to change in surprising ways, beginning with her appearance. Slowly, slowly, slowly—and then all at once—the Fantastic Sams/Casual Corner look was gone, and in its place was a version of New York sophistication marked by short skirts and complicated shoes. It was as though she’d gone backward through the familiar process that had taken Diane Sawyer, her rival, from pageant queen to journalist.

Her new, post-grief self also took on dimensions that were off-putting. I thought it was wonderful when she fell in love with Tom Werner, a quiet and educated man several years her senior who was also a stratospherically successful television producer; he seemed like someone who would protect her, someone who wouldn’t feel threatened by her celebrity. When they arrived at the Four Seasons in Manhattan one afternoon for a tryst, someone tipped off the tabloids, and the picture of Katie, mortified but undeterred, stepping past the photographers and into the hotel lobby (and then emerging a while later, her lover holding an umbrella for her in the rain) seemed romantic and lovely. The images lent themselves to a narrative: she had gone to work at the Today show, spent a few hours in the ecstasy and luxury of hotel-room sex with a besotted millionaire, and then returned home to have dinner with her children. I imagined that they would marry, and the story of her broken family would end happily. But the relationship foundered, and her other boyfriends seemed horrible—a plastic surgeon, a very young scion of a loaded family, a trumpeter so green and gormless he looked stunned and nervous sitting next to her. She began to socialize with her personal trainer, a grizzled cupcake who rejoiced in the moniker “High Voltage,” and who seemed to love nothing more than squeezing herself into something sparkly and hitting the town with her famous client. And Katie’s social schedule, which apparently involved a punishing whirl of society benefits and flashy launch parties, seemed hollow when the alternative would have been spending those evenings at home with her girls.

Presented by

Caitlin Flanagan is the author of To Hell With All That (2006). She is at work on Girl Land, a book about the emotional life of pubescent girls. More

Caitlin FlanaganCaitlin Flanagan began her magazine-writing career, in 2001, with a series of extended book reviews about the conflicts at the very heart of modern life—specifically, modern domestic life as it is lived by professional-class women. Flanagan has quickly established herself as a highly entertaining social critic unafraid to take on self-indulgence and political correctness, and her reviews provide penetrating and witheringly funny observations about the sexes and their discontents.

Flanagan's Atlantic articles have been named as finalists for the National Magazine Award five times, and her essay "Confessions of a Prep School College Counselor," which ran in September 2001, was included in the 2002 compilation of Best American Magazine Writing. Her work has also been included in Best American Essays 2003 and Best American Magazine Writing 2003. She is the author of the book To Hell with All That—an exploration, based on her Atlantic articles, of the lives of modern women.

Born and raised in Berkeley, California, Flanagan earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Art History from the University of Virginia. She now lives in California, where she spends her time writing and raising twins.

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