Joe Hagan's profile of Katie Couric in this week's New York magazine begins with a mug-shot cover image of the anchor above her own words, in crescendoing font: "I have days when I'm like, Oh my God, What did I do?" Hagan's headline is "Alas, Poor Couric," and his lead paragraph alone features the anchor "sitting stiff and still," and "dwarfed" as she reads the news. But it wouldn't be fair to take Hagan to task for laying the recrimination on a little thick. No. In this case, it's Couric -- long known as a world-class ball-buster with a heart of gold -- who has finally gone to mush.
As the ratings for her "CBS Evening News" broadcast continue to drop, it would appear that Couric has decided to take her successful morning-show persona -- all disarming directness and spunky humility -- not to the news desk, where she's buttoning up and getting serious, but to the public. Suddenly, the woman who used to refuse to talk to reporters about her astronomical salary and hard-bargaining skills, who unapologetically drove the high rate of turnover among "Today" show producers, and who radiated a steely self-confidence, cannot shut up about everything that's gone wrong since she left NBC for CBS!
Oh, girlfriend: Get a grip.
"The biggest mistake we made is we tried new things," Couric tells Hagan about the early decisions. "I think I underestimated the feeling that some might have that I was a morning show personality and not a credible news person," she confesses. And how about this doozy? "We were probably a little overzealous in wanting to use my experience and my contacts and my abilities to ostensibly make the program better." Lord, woman.
But most pathetically, when asked who she thinks is watching her nightly broadcasts, the new Katie jokes, "My parents. I know they're watching," before sighing and saying, "People who are interested in the world and want to stay connected -- But truth be told, I don't know if those people are in front of the television at 6:30 at night. I hope those that are will find our program compelling. But I don't quite have them in my mind's eye." She also admits that while there is certainly a "percentage of the population" uncomfortable with getting their news from a chick, she thinks that "there's a whole confluence of factors that contribute to some people not gravitating toward the program." Got that? Katie Couric wants you to know that there are tons of reasons she's tanking!
False bravado has its uses, and for Couric, this might be the moment to make use of it. Sure -- she made her name as a perky people's princess to Barbara Walters' bloodless queen. But when it came to business, Couric has never been a shrinking violet. She was the savviest negotiator in television news, and commanded the highest salary to show for it; Couric was pushy and rightfully proud of her own success.
So what's with the Debbie Downer act? Especially given that Couric's challenge in taking on the CBS job was always about projecting a confident control to her audience. It's just not a good idea for someone battling for the perception of authority to go around yammering about how "surprised" and "embarrassed" she is, about how she "underestimated" circumstances and recognizes her mistakes. She is not George Bush, whose responsibility it is to admit his errors because kids are dying for them. She is in the television business, a world built on smoke and mirrors, confident bluffing, and spin, spin, spin. Couric owes no one an apology tour.
Would Barbara Walters consent to a confessional about how things spun out of control on "The View"? Forget it: That woman could face the camera, while Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Rosie O'Donnell barbecued each other's livers behind her, and assure viewers that everyone was best friends, with the low pulse of a serial killer.
And would Diane Sawyer, whose "creamy insincerity" was immortalized by the New York Times, chew over her own shortcomings with a reporter after she lost ABC's evening news berth to testicularly advantaged Charlie Gibson? Hell, no. She would smile gorgeously and convince everyone that everything turned out precisely how she, Diane Sawyer, wanted it to.
Couric's self-effacing vulnerability may be the mark of a human being who is anxious to give voice to her own self-questioning before someone else says it behind her back. Is it more likable -- and more comfortable -- when a woman is disarmingly upfront and full of humility? You bet. But is it compatible with the kind of bluster that gives imposing machers their power? Not so much.
Couric should take a course with her CBS colleague Rick Kaplan, described by Hagan as "an imposing force" with an ugly temper who slams his fists on tables (a habit that has gotten little pickup in the press, though a throwaway anecdote about Couric playfully slapping a news writer has tabloids everywhere blaring "Katie slaps colleague!"). When questioned about Couric's performance, Kaplan cockily tells Hagan that the 2008 election will be the moment when Couric will "prove all the things she can do, and, boy, do I like our chances." Or maybe she can score some pointers from "barrel-chested" Les Moonves, who, when asked if he bears any responsibility for Couric's slack ratings, succinctly replies: "Nope. I really don't."
Yes, it sucks that you have to be a big barrel-chested asshole to win in business. Just like it's unfair that Couric's femininity has always dwarfed discussions of her very real journalistic achievements. Even in this latest piece, when Hagan spies Couric greeting Whoopi Goldberg with a girly-girly "call me!" gesture, it leads to the discussion of how she was a Tri Delt at the University of Virginia who made her name doing cooking segments on "Today." If a comparable male figure were spied doing stereotypically male things like playing poker and eating steak and slapping a buddy on the butt, it would presumably not lead to a discussion of his Sigma Nu brotherhood or a critical look at the fact that he used to report sports stories or that his real talent lay in "connecting with men." That's because masculinity remains the norm.
From the announcement of her leap to evening news, Couric has been asked -- fairly or not -- to "man up" her broadcast: to dress more conservatively, speak in a lower voice, stop smiling so much or wearing heavy eye makeup. So why now, when she's supposed to be covering up her girliness on air, has she decided to bare her tender midsection to the press?
What's it going to be, Katie? Slam a table; grow a pair; be the mean motherfucker we know you can be. Tell them all that everything is going just exactly as you planned, that you couldn't be more proud of your program or more confident about your decisions. It might be a crock, but if you start to believe it, then maybe the rest of us will too. And maybe that's the only way, at this point, that you can win.