The Lessons of Katie Couric
Katie Couric’s long day’s journey into evening
In the fall of 1979, I headed off to college with mixed feelings and new stuff: a Brother typewriter, a hot pot, and a portable black-and-white television. On the typewriter I wrote a “psychological evaluation” of the main character of Manchild in the Promised Land, with the hot pot I made cream-of-chicken Cup-O-Soup, and on the television I watched the Today show.
Going away to college was overwhelming and depressing, principally because I was a homebody who had never before experienced institutional living and who despised it on contact. I had requested to live on a co-ed floor, and consequently the lounge was always trashed, the music was always loud, and the RA, who was supposed to provide some sort of governance, was a notorious pothead who could barely be pried away from his bong to lead a midnight fire drill, let alone to fill out a maintenance request form when one of the bon vivants vomited in the hallway or jammed the elevators. The force that kept me from turning tail and enrolling in community college was the Today show—or more precisely, Dorothy Meaney, my roommate.
“Great!” she said when I unpacked the TV set. “I just love Jane Pauley.” And soon, so did I. I loved Jane and Tom Brokaw, and I developed a particular fondness for quiet John Palmer, who read the news. With time, it became possible to love Willard Scott, and eventually—out of loyalty to Dorothy—I came to terms with Gene Shalit, although even at 17 I understood that his was not a cultivated taste. Before long, I had rented us a mini-fridge, and we began skipping the dining-hall breakfasts so that we could have cold cereal and Taster’s Choice in our room and enjoy the Today show uninterrupted. Homesick, each morning I would wake up with an anxious feeling, and each morning—with the first, triumphant bars of the old theme song—the anxiety would begin to fade.
The Today show didn’t remind me of my own home, but it was about “home,” and that was almost as good—in some respects, even better. Morning after morning, in the studio that seemed to me like a cheery New York apartment, with its living-room furniture and kitchen, and following a format (news, weather, segment, segment, repeat) as inflexible and calming as a morning in elementary school, Jane and Tom learned how to cook things, how to budget for a family of four, how to choose a vacuum cleaner. They sipped mugs of coffee, they complained in a good-natured way about the early hour, and ever so rarely they—Jane more than Tom—let slip something about their personal lives. They evinced a fondness for each other that was too unalloyed to be marital, too sexless to be romantic, and too intimate to be purely professional. Steadfast, uncomplicated in their allegiances, they were foursquare on the side of the American experience as it revealed itself in corn-husking competitions and Fourth of July parades and Thanksgiving preparations. They were educated without being intellectual, possessed a narrow range of well-modulated emotions, and day by day transmitted—through the mystery of telecommunications—a secret message intended just for me: defy your parents and major in education instead of English. They understood and were not ashamed of the part of me that embarrassed my parents: my squareness.
In return, I watched them faithfully—although watch, I realize, is the wrong verb where this phenomenally successful program is concerned; anyone who fails to grasp this fact will never understand why the Today show will survive the death of nightly news, the death of the newspaper, and even the collapse of television as a major player in the media world. The Today show, like life itself, unfolds while you’re doing other things. If my adult life were to be presented as one long series of mornings, you would see me growing older in a series of vignettes: puttering around the dorm room with Dorothy, tugging on panty hose for my first real job, making breakfast for an overnight guest, gazing out the windows of a hundred hotel rooms, bouncing a cranky baby on my hip, sitting on the edge of the bed and reading over the eulogy I would deliver at my mother’s funeral, handing lunch boxes to waiting children, fielding telephone calls about overdue page proofs and missing permission slips—and always, always, off to the side, there would be a television, and on it, keeping me company, distracting me from myself, making me feel that my somewhat disorganized private life was taking place within the reassuring structure of something larger and better, would be the Today show.
Being “yourself” on television is hard for all sorts of reasons, and the Today show makes the task particularly difficult, because it is a program about the home, produced for the homebound, but anchored, perforce, by a group of driven Manhattan professionals who have elected to spend very few of their waking hours at home. Furthermore, they bring to the job some level of journalistic experience—or at least of newsroom savvy—that they must lock away in a secret place when they are interviewing, straight-faced, some “expert” on back-to-school shopping or family scrapbooking. Among the men who have held the job over the past two decades, no one has been better than Matt Lauer, who confines his considerable wit—which is fast and often barbed—to his hosting banter, never applying it to noncelebrities, whom he treats generously and with the same sense of slowly dawning wonder that marked Bill Moyers’s conversations with Joseph Campbell. (“So, I guess what you’re saying, Emily—and correct me if I’m wrong—is that sometimes it’s better for kids to have a little bit of chocolate milk at lunchtime, if the alternative is … no milk at all?”) And among the women, no one has been, or probably ever will be, as precisely suited as Katie Couric.
She arrived just as the Today show family had briefly and disastrously revealed its true self: not a family at all, but a group of careerists who pretended to be fond of one another the way that Robin Williams pretended to be Mork. Bryant Gumbel, who was then co-hosting with Jane, had written a memo—leaked to the press—deriding Willard Scott’s buffoonery and Gene Shalit’s mediocrity. Then he, and the show’s management, became smitten with a toothsome glamazon named Deborah Norville, who began chewing through Today show cast members like salted peanuts. First, John Palmer was sent packing, and then she took a fancy to the seat next to Bryant’s: the next thing you knew,Jane Pauley, with her sensible turtlenecks, plaid jumpers, and slept-on hairdos, was out on the street. A significant portion of the once-loyal audience, including yours truly, jumped ship. (My Good Morning America interlude with Joan Lunden—not so bad, really.) Live by the sword, die by the sword. Deborah was pushed out more rudely than Jane had been, and we began to trickle back, to take a look at the person they’d hired to make things right: Katherine (“I still can’t decide whether I’m Katherine or Katie!” she said 10 seconds into her first broadcast) Couric.
What an odd little creature Katie was, considering the high expectations placed upon her: plain, chirpy, and not only pregnant but sporting a Dorothy Hamill wedge, the tonsorial equivalent of a vow of chastity. She was capable and upbeat, but apparently no more than that, and Bryant underestimated her. He tossed her the lightweight stories on parenting and homemaking, evidently unaware that he was allowing her to forge a link with the show’s core demographic. And Katie was playing a terrific hand: she was much smarter—and much tougher—than she looked. She consistently over-delivered on interviews with newsmakers and, immersed as she was in the intensity of new motherhood and the demands of a skyrocketing career, she saw firsthand the stirrings of what would be the biggest lifestyle story of her generation: work-life balance.
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.
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.
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