The XX Factor

In Defense of Katie Couric

It took five years for CBS to finally get rid of Katie Couric. (Whether you believe she was pushed out or walked, CBS seems to have adopted a “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” stance.) Now she’s taking the heat, as if it’s all her fault things didn’t work out, at a time when network evening newscasts have been on a death march for the past two decades, shedding around  1 million viewers a year. Furthermore, when she assumed the perch back in 2006, CBS News was already knee-deep in third place. But for $15 million a year-an ungodly sum at the notoriously frugal CBS News offices-Katie would have to trounce her rivals to make good for network brass. It’s unclear how they expect her successor to accomplish what Katie couldn’t-gossip items are frontrunning CBS vet Scott Pelley as her replacement . With all due respect, he’s hardly a barnburner.

But here’s the thing: Katie Couric was an outstanding news anchor. Her fiercest critics have called her a BriteSmile morning show faker, out of her depth covering hard news. To her credit, she parlayed that patronizing criticism, the we’re just girls here soft sell, into one of the most revealing, shattering political interviews since Nixon sat for Frost. Her infamous Sarah Palin interviews won a DuPont Award, broadcast journalism’s version of the Pulitzer. Just imagine how Couric would have looked had Palin tersely retorted, “Did you ask Joe Biden what he reads?” Risks like that, especially in broadcast news with its teleprompters and scripted questions, are hard to come by these days.

She may not have stood out behind the desk with her otherwise stock newscasts, but Couric did a yeoman’s job of trying to push her institutionally ossified employer into the digital age. Her web series, @KatieCouric, was a venue for less hard-hitting interviews (Justin Bieber, mommy bloggers), but newsworthy all the same, especially to the younger audience CBS so desperately needs. (The average viewer of an evening newscast: 57.) Couric recently confessed to the New York Times magazine that she was “overly ambitious.” “In retrospect I would have given people what they were used to, a traditional newscast,” she said.

Except that, really, who wants that? It’s certainly not why CBS hired her in the first place. Short of changing the broadcast to a later hour, or going partisan ala the cable nets, there’s no saving the institution. Katie Couric was as close to the future as CBS News is ever going to get.