Katie Couric tries to break down the echo chamber of "affirmation instead of information"

The veteran journalist goes deep into stories that matter across the country on her new show "America Inside Out"

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 12, 2018 11:00AM (EDT)

Katie Couric (AP/Willy Sanjuan)
Katie Couric (AP/Willy Sanjuan)

Emmy- and Peabody-winning journalist Katie Couric has spent much of her career in the world of network news and breaking stories. But for her National Geographic series "America Inside Out with Katie Couric," she wanted to go deeper than the two or three minutes a story usually gets on the nightly news.

Tackling flashpoint topics like racism, political correctness, technology and workplace inequality, Couric traveled across the country to talk to Americans outside the media bubble about the issues affecting them most.

Salon spoke to her recently about the series, and the #MeToo movement and telling the truth in the era of so-called "fake news."

This series is so exciting and troubling and ambitious. Let's start with this. You picked kind of the most controversial, most flashpoint, most divisive, most on our mind topics in America right now and said, “Let's go out and talk about this.” How did you [choose] all of those topics — because we've got racism, sexism, religion, the issue of how we confront our own racist history, all of these things, and technology and our addiction to technology?

And political correctness.

And political correctness and white anxiety. Those are big ones.

They are big, thorny kind of complicated topics, and I just felt like the news cycle is so fast and furious, as you know. We're being assaulted by little bits of information on such a regular basis that an opportunity to take a big-picture look at some of these huge, transformative, seismic shifts that we're witnessing going on, not only in this country but really around the world -- nobody's thinking about some of these things and I don't think we're given time to digest and really contemplate some of these big complicated issues.

As we've become increasingly siloed, we've developed our own echo chambers and we're getting, as a friend of mine said, affirmation instead of information. So, I thought it was just a great opportunity to take a step back and look at some of these topics in a much more holistic, a much more in-depth way, and that they deserve more than a cursory look.

For example, when the white supremacist rally took place in Charlottesville last August, obviously it made a lot of news for maybe two or three days. But, I don't think anyone really rolled up their sleeves and took a very intense look at the debate over Confederate iconography statues, memorials and school namings and counties and cities as well and evaluated what that meant about how we recount our history.

So many people have very strong opinions these days. I noticed they're often without portfolio. They're not necessarily informed opinions or based on a really complete understanding of any given topic. So I thought let me put it out there. Let me give people more information, more perspective, more context. Then possibly they could form a more informed opinion and then have a civil conversation about it with people with whom they might disagree or agree.

Salon Talks with Katie Couric

Watch our full conversation:

Let's talk about Charlottesville, because you were already there, which speaks to instinct, good luck, bad luck. However you want to talk about it, you were already there when everything happened. And in a cycle that is so fast, and everyone is reporting on this as a breaking news story, you had this opportunity as a storyteller and a newsperson to tell a longer-view story.


How did you approach that when things were changing so fast? That weekend was explosive, and you had to say, “We're not covering this as tonight's news.” This is next year’s story. This is a 2018 story we're going to tell. How do we do that? How did you approach that as you're looking at and talking to people when you were down there?

I think that we were taking the long view. We were connecting the dots. We were explaining how these statues have started to stand for something altogether different. That they were erected during a period of time in history that was considered kind of a message to African-Americans — whether it was the height of Jim Crow or following Brown vs. Board of Education, which desegregated public schools. So, I think we were looking at all these small events and saying, “We're going to put the puzzle pieces together and show how this fits.”

Now I did something [with] a faster turnaround for that rally in Charlottesville for National Geographic, because we thought it was important to tell the story in a timelier way as well. But we saw it as a piece of this larger picture about evaluating history and how we tell it and what we commemorate and what we've neglected. That was really the arc of that hour. So that became a really important flashpoint in the telling of that bigger-picture story.

One of the things that I've heard you talk about with regard to this series — whether it's talking about our Confederate monuments or any of the topics here — is that word you just used, "siloing." People in the media have become so distrusted in so many ways over the past couple of years for a variety of reasons. I saw you doing an interview where you said people feel like it's the same people in the same bubbles talking about the same issues and feeling like no one's talking to the people who are on the ground facing these issues.

One of the things that I really thought was refreshing about this series is that you saw people being interviewed and being heard who you don't see represented on many networks now, as reporting has declined. Yes, you do in a natural disaster or if something happens. But to just kind of understand how they're feeling about the country, about the future or about their situations, you don't really hear many of those conversations. Because they may not be breaking news, or you know it may be a bigger, more macrocosmic issue.

So to see people in Erie, Pennsylvania, in a bar talking about their situation about getting laid off, to use that as a prism to talk about automation and retraining and the state that a lot of these folks are finding themselves in as the economy is changed dramatically from an industrial to a technological one, I just don't think those folks are represented. They don't see people like themselves, really, in the middle of the country or in the “flyover states.”

Whether it's a Muslim family who lost their children to terrible murder three years ago in Raleigh, North Carolina, or a farmer out in Fremont, Nebraska, who feels very threatened by incoming immigrants, who he believes are taking jobs away — although he conceded that a lot of people don't want those jobs anymore or at least other people in Fremont didn't — or Storm Lake, Iowa, that is already a majority minority community and how they're handling the influx of immigrants.

I don't really see many stories like that on the news these days. It's mostly in studios with experts and pundits.

Everyone, I think, is expressing their opinion and analysis more than what news I think once was, which was, “This is what's going on.” In the evening newscasts it's hard to have anything that's of any substance because they have to do all the stories of the day. I used to do that in half an hour and that's really challenging. So I felt like there was a place missing in the landscape for these kinds of in-depth conversations. But everything is so fragmented now, as you know, doing this, that you just try to do high-quality content that is purposeful and enlightening, you hope. And you hope that people will watch it and think about things a little bit more deeply.

Do you think that there is a way back to public trust for the institution of journalism right now? Do you think there is something we can do as journalists to change the conversation?

I think it's really hard right now, given the administration, because it's so polarizing. And I think that clearly the networks — most of them, at least the cable networks — have all picked sides in the conversation. I think it's a unique time in our history because of the behavior of the president, and because of the allegations of inappropriate dealings on a myriad of levels. I think it's really, really hard right now to be that “honest broker” because it's so complicated. I don't know what the way back is.

I think sometimes that there should be more time spent covering other stories that are really important. I think there should be a broader look at policies in general. Whether it's about the Iranian nuclear agreement and helping people really understand what that did and what the objection was without it being so inside baseball. Talking about whether or not there were too many regulations during the Obama administration and how it might have affected the economy of small businesses.

I just feel like there could be many more nuanced conversations about these big, broad issues. But because there's so much going on in Washington and it's become like a reality show, it's hard to pull back. And obviously, you know, it's helping the ratings of a lot of cable networks. It's hard to pull back and say, “We're going to take a break from this,” because I think the appetite for this among some members of the population is insatiable.

So it's a real conundrum. Honestly, I don't know quite how you do regain the trust of people. I think people trust the news sources they're watching and the news they're getting from a particular publication. But the question is, “Have we become so siloed and are there two points of view?” And the people who consume this don't trust the other publication. The people who trust another publication or another news outlet feel the same way about the opposition. So it feels like there are two very distinct groups of consumers. How do you bridge that gap while covering really important events and developments? It's challenging.

Also, speaking of trustworthiness, the latest episode deals with all these issues about gender and equality and what's going on in the workplace. Which is also all of the things that have happened over the past year.

Isn’t that weird? What's really bizarre is that I came up with all these topics last summer. It predated the #MeToo #TimesUp movement, obviously predated the firings of a number of people. But, it was incredibly prescient, I think. I was just really interested in why these numbers were so stubborn. Why women could not get to that next level. Why there were so few female directors, for example, in Hollywood. Why there were so few women in the corner offices at major corporations.

A whole host of numbers show we haven't made the inroads in tech and in other fields. I was focused on Hollywood and Silicon Valley, because that's where we were hearing most of the conversation emanating from. And in many ways they're so influential because they shape attitudes for the rest of the country in terms of creating content and images and news and information that I think this is really outsized. So yes, obviously, a lot happened since I embarked on that exploration. But it was really about implicit bias. What's holding us back and then of course everything that rocked it.

Including the biases that women carry into the workplace.


I read an interview with you in Variety where you were talking about some of that, and talking about your own experiences just in the past several months, hearing these stories from women that you didn't know before. Hearing other women from all fields coming to you and saying things that they had never said before over years and years. And that wall of silence seems to have to be cascading down.

It's been a real education for me over these recent months to, first of all, understand not only that certain things happened but also the power structure and what that meant for women as they were pursuing their careers. I started doing "The Today Show" in 1991 when I was 32 years old, or maybe 34 years old. At a very pretty early age, I had amassed a big position and a fair amount of power and authority. I was sort of oblivious to some of the challenges that a lot of these women were facing. Of course, I had my own experiences that were really relatively mild compared to some of the other things that people were undergoing. It's just been very interesting for me and educational to understand the power dynamics in the workplace and how they affect professional relationships.

And the cultures around those power dynamics. And how, I hope, that they are changing.

I think they are. I think partially they're changing out of fear by individuals who I think are now checking their behavior. There may be a backlash, the pendulum may be swinging in a little too far. But I think it's caught everyone's attention.

I think companies are really evaluating the culture that exists within their walls, and taking a good hard look at the avenues there are for people who have grievances and want to express them and the overall environment in terms of decorum, in terms of the rules of engagement for employees, and I hope they're taking a really serious look. I think that they need to. There are obviously some systemic changes that need to happen in terms of the structure of organizations.

But I think an overall correction, a reevaluation of the atmosphere at some of these workplaces is rightfully being reexamined. And I think that's positive and I do think things are going to change. I think diversity training and sexual harassment training, they're not going to be met with an eyeroll. They're going to be taken very seriously, and I think the leadership of these organizations have to express very clearly that these things are priorities.

All of the issues that you cover throughout this series could not be more difficult, often painful. But in every single aspect of it I do feel that there is this hope that comes out and it shines through in this series. Because it is about changing the conversation, changing the communication, looking at issues from different sides. So, how do we move forward with what we have?

We are almost out of time, but I have to ask you one more important question. You made a really special friend while filming this: your friend the sexbot.

Yes, what was his name? Henry.

I want to know if you still go out for lunch together?

No, that was a woman. That was Harmony.

Your good friend Harmony.

How freaky was that? This was a sex robot factory in California.

She was into you, Katie.

They're being equipped with artificial intelligence, so after you have a number of conversations they're basically programmed to have all your information and to carry on a conversation with you. I talked to a man who had bought four of them; they are $20,000 apiece, I think, when they're equipped with artificial intelligence. It's just so freaky but I think there's a lot of behavior that goes on that probably is so bizarre and freaky that we don't even want to contemplate that.

So, you and Harmony don’t still have lunch?

No, Harmony and I, it was a short-lived affair. It was completely platonic and yeah, it was just crazy. I think one of the reasons I wanted to explore that is because technology is increasingly becoming integrated not only into our lives but into ourselves. I talk to those people who are chipped in Wisconsin and I think this marriage of humanity and technology is going to accelerate in the upcoming years. It's something I think that we need to make sure that we are mindful of the ethical considerations of, this merging of man and machine. And we just want to make sure that this is the road we want to travel down. I think we saw it with Facebook. The technology often exceeds the ethics of the technological advancements and it's important for us to take a step back and think about the morality and the ethics of some of the things that we're creating.

Absolutely, and whether these things are bringing us to something better or whether again they're putting us in further into our own silos of isolation.

Well, isn't it interesting we've never been more connected and yet loneliness is the number-one thing affecting people? So you have to sometimes think, at what price are we moving forward and how can we compensate for some of the negative implications of what we're creating?

And the illusions of connection versus real connection. Obviously that's what you've been doing in this series — going out and actually having real conversations with real human beings.

Yeah, it’s been great.


By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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