Television

The News With Katie

Does the CBS Evening News really require gravitas?

Katie Couric. Click image to expand.
Katie Couric

Have we seen the last of Katie Couric’s legs? Even my mother has said that she’ll miss them. Since giving the public notice yesterday morning that she would be ankling her gig as the empress of NBC’s Today in favor of a perch at the CBS Evening News and a regular spot on 60 Minutes, Couric has telegraphed that this new phase of her career is all about trousers. In recent years, fairly or not, Couric’s skirts have received only slightly less attention than her interview skills and on-air manner. Now, she seems to have declared the Era of the Pantsuit.

She has worn them before, of course. But you would maybe have to be a media naif not to see a message in the juxtaposition of Wednesday’s outfit (a white number over a peach top, a get-up suitable for a Palm Beach luncheon) and today’s (dark, severe, and sharp-shouldered with vaguely military aspect). The din surrounding Couric’s job switch is loud enough to suggest that we’re all media critics now. There can be no gravitas in the conspicuous display of gams, and gravitas—God, what an awful word—is both a news anchor’s stock in trade and the quality that many of Couric’s detractors say she manifestly lacks.

Couric’s ascent to Cronkite’s desk signals the consummation of a happy marriage between network news and showbiz. (Or, less dramatically, this old couple is just renewing its vows with a big flashy party.) I am disinclined to regard this as a sign of the apocalypse. MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, whose Countdown is a marvelous mélange of thoughtful analysis, tabloid nonsense, and true wit, would perhaps agree. I suspect that the people responsible for administrating Anderson Cooper’s hairdo and Brian Williams’ tan definitely would. If you do not, well, that’s why we have Jim Lehrer. In this media universe, Couric’s journalistic credentials constitute a license for CBS to sell her personality—the “likability” that has helped make Today the most lucrative show, perhaps, in the history of television—at 6:30 p.m. Eastern Time.

What makes Couric so well-liked has to do with some rare combination of a warm smile, a steely backbone, an inability to condescend to her audience, and a sure instinct for self-deprecation. She opened this morning’s show by talking to Sen. Bill Frist. This was more like a firm chat than a probing interview, but no other network newsperson would have done any better, and Couric proved herself a master of the Mike Wallace trick of simulating skeptical intellection by peering over the rims of her glasses. Most of the rest of her three-hour tour of duty today involved girly stuff presented genially and with dignity—a bit with the teenage figure skater Kimmie Meissner, some fashion tips, and so forth. She even managed not to lose any class when emitting the following segue: “From pop culture [and] religion to another dynamic duo: Joan Rivers and finding love on the Internet.” That’s a pro, and the notion that Couric is short on authority because she’s adept at presenting Glamour’s “Do’s and Don’ts” is a trifle outmoded, even more chauvinistic than scrutinizing her hemline.

Today, NBC announced that Meredith Vieira would be Couric’s replacement. While it is not yet known what her thoughts are on the semantic significance of pants, she is on record saying, sensibly, that it is superfluous to wear underwear with pantyhose. That’s a tidbit I picked up from Jon Stewart, who was floated, not long ago, as a possible player on the CBS Evening News.