By Edward KleinCrown
As Katie evolved into a less likable personality, she remained as compelling as ever. If anything, her on-camera skills improved. You couldn’t take your eyes off her. She would tear into hard-news interviews, and then wheel around and discuss microwave cuisine in a credibly excited way. Her newfound combination of personal, professional, sexual, and Nielsen power would have led anyone in her position to wonder: Shouldn’t I take some big next step? Act III: Catastrophe.
You’re not really a huge power broker of the female variety until some bitchy man writes a nasty biography of you, a literary pap smear meant at once to diagnose and humiliate. Edward Klein, the sort of writer who prefers a book-jacket photo to show him nuzzling a tough-looking canine, would seem the man for the job. Like his earlier book about Hillary Clinton, and like Christopher Byron’s book on Martha Stewart and Jerry Oppenheimer’s book on Barbara Walters, Klein’s Katie: The Real Story proceeds from the notion that of all the forces responsible for his subject’s protean success, the least significant is actual talent. According to this logic, the star’s fortunes depend entirely on how “nice” her female fans believe her to be; the idea that these famous women might have some expertise or ability of greater value to viewers than the mere force of their apparent pleasantness seems never to occur to these writers.
Klein’s book on Couric is not terrible nor even entirely mean-spirited, but its garbage heap of rumors—borne to us by unnamed sources who claim firsthand knowledge of everything from her sexual inclinations to her behavior while her husband was dying—lend the enterprise a stink. On the record, Klein has interviewed every pea-green supernumerary he could get his hands on for a damning quote. (“She was a lowly frigging VJ,” grumbles some former news gal you’ve never heard of, about the way Katie vaulted past her years ago.) His attitude toward sexual congress outside of marriage is more severe than the Vatican’s, and that Katie did not arrive at her wedding bed a virgin—and indeed may have slept with co-workers—has him in a swivet. We learn that people at the Today show took bets on how long it would take Katie to use her husband’s death to her professional advantage—a revelation that, if true, reveals nothing about Katie and quite a bit about her co-workers, and that should shock only those readers who believe the Manhattan media world to be composed of sensitive human beings bound to one another by common cause and fellow feeling.
For the first two-thirds of the volume, the reader mentally defends Katie—and hopes neither of her daughters ever comes across this vile book, which maligns their dead father and belittles their mother’s work on behalf of other sufferers of the disease that killed him. But then I was pulled up short by the final section, in which Klein delivers an accurate and devastating assessment of Katie’s trials in the anchor’s chair at CBS.
Katie’s fond memories of watching Walter Cronkite every night with her father surely drew her to the job. Despite her liberal politics, Katie has a reactionary approach to television, as manifested in her worshipful interviews of first ladies (Nancy Reagan in particular) and boosterish embrace of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which she used to host for NBC. And at CBS, she has embraced the Cronkite myth, inviting him to record the show’s introduction that plays at the beginning of each broadcast.
Of course, the show has been a turkey since the night a year and a half ago when that sound bite first played. Sexism was the obvious, first choice for culprit, and in a way, that’s probably what it was. The president of CBS News, Sean McManus, said that the network had perhaps underestimated that response: “There is a percentage of people out there that probably prefers not to get their news from a woman.” As everyone acknowledges, the old folks and aging Boomers who tune in at 6:30 for a half hour of headlines and human-interest stories aren’t looking for the news, but a performance of the news. (Bob Schieffer was more successful than Katie, not in spite of looking like one of the old guys down at the VA, but because of it.) Choosing an anchor isn’t a journalistic decision; it’s a casting choice. And this one was abysmal. Flop sweat and panic surrounded the broadcast almost immediately. In a move typical of television, the first things the bosses tried to change about Katie were the very things that had led them to hire her: the bubbly personality, the killer clothes, the playfulness. Now she had to sit quietly at her desk like a girl being punished. She acquired a passel of one-color blazers that looked like rejects from last year’s Thrifty Rent-a-Car collection. By now, she has all but disappeared. When Les Moonves, the head of the network, adamantly denies any talk of replacing Katie—“This is a long-term commitment”—what he means is that he thinks of little else. Furthermore—and this is how the big boys play the game—no matter how poor Katie’s ratings become, CBS has still deprived NBC of her talent, which it had used richly and well, on everything from Olympic coverage to Dateline NBC. Perhaps Katie could swallow her pride and move to the CBS morning show? Think again: that program is hosted by a forgettable little beauty named Julie Chen, who happens to be married to … Les Moonves.
Moonves brought you not only CSI but Survivor. In other words, he creates franchises, not stars. And he hired Katie based on the assumption that she had a huge and adoring fan base that would follow her anywhere. But by definition, the kind of person who has time on her hands in the morning—who has nothing but time, time that must be filled, endured, killed—is the kind of person who is in a race against the clock by early evening. At nine o’clock in the morning, Katie was the personification of the Today show in its perfected form: not just a television program, but a cheery marker of time, a blessed imposition of structure and order on the disquieting entropy of life at home with children. But at 6:30 in the evening, she’s a drag. She’s just one more person who wants something from you. You stand in the kitchen and your 9-year-old tells you he needs an egg carton for a school project, and your 6-year-old is upending the cat’s bowl, and your husband timidly asks when dinner might be ready, and from somewhere by the blender, Katie is nagging you to be interested—really, really interested—in Anbar province. You’d think only a man would enter a scene as tense and overwrought as the dinner rush and decide that his best contribution to the woman at the heart of it would be to offer a relaxed assessment of the Iraqi civil war.
That Katie has bombed at CBS is a testament, not to the existence of a glass ceiling, but to the fact that real revolutions are so thoroughgoing that they don’t just provide a new answer, they change the very questions being asked. Katie’s mandate to lure women and young people to the nightly news was in itself ridiculous and doomed to fail—and a goal beneath her talent and ambitions. No woman needs to storm the Bastille of nightly news, because the form has become irrelevant: Oprah has immeasurably more cultural, commercial, and political clout than Charles Gibson and Brian Williams, and no young person is ever going to make appointment TV out of a sober-minded 6:30 wrap-up of stories he or she already read online in the afternoon. Because Katie remembered the old world, the one in which the most-respected news was broadcast at the end of the day, she thought that she was taking a more powerful job. But the Today show—broadcast for four hours a day, a forum for interviews with many of the top newsmakers of the day, as well as for the kind of lifestyle-trend stories it pioneered and that have come to play such a big part in the nightly news—is a far more culturally significant program. One reason that this huge star didn’t have a tell-all biography written about her until now is that while she was at Today, no publisher wanted to antagonize her; a booking on the show was every new author’s dream. The release of Klein’s splashy book, then, is evidence not of Katie’s elevation, but of its opposite. She made the kind of mistake that women a generation younger than hers probably wouldn’t have. She spent her time gunning for a position that had been drained of its status and importance long before she got there. And what she has learned, the hard way, is that her climb to the top has been not a triumph but the act of someone who slept through a revolution.
Like Katie, I have moved on from the Today show. My boys are in school now; I write full-time. I still turn it on for a few minutes each morning, when I’m making coffee or avoiding work. It’s as pleasant as it ever was, but it will never have the urgency it held for me when Katie was there, because I will never again be the mother of small children—abruptly cast adrift from the routines of adult life, cloistered, lonely. I met Katie Couric once, and although she was very nice to me, I was disappointed. We sat on chairs under studio lights and talked, and I hope she didn’t guess what I really wanted to tell her: once, you were my closest friend.