The Couric Report, Week 1

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 11, 2006

Now that everyone in America has analyzed Katie Couric's look and legs and wardrobe and delivery and all-around suitability for sitting in Walter Cronkite's chair, this question remains:

Is the journalism on the "CBS Evening News" strong enough -- and compelling enough -- to get people to switch from Brian Williams and Charlie Gibson?

Couric's gamble -- and it is one big roll of the dice -- is that so many people already know the headlines by 6:30 p.m. that she can dispense with some of the day's fare and devote the time to longer features, interviews, commentary and chat. On her first four nights, that approach produced some solid storytelling and funny moments but also bypassed or truncated some important daily events. And therein lies the trade-off.

The show's executive producer, Rome Hartman, says Couric's debut might have conveyed the wrong impression because "Tuesday was a slow news day. There were not a lot of stories competing to get into that broadcast that we ignored.

"We know most of our viewers come to the evening news already having a sense of the events of the day. . . . We've never been the broadcast of record, and we're less the broadcast of record than ever." Their mission, Hartman says, is to provide "a little more depth" at the expense of routine news. "On a day we can say this and this happened but we have this incredible story from Afghanistan, damn right."

The first day's lead, in fact, was Lara Logan's dispatch from Afghanistan, which, although lacking a hard-news peg, included eye-catching footage of Taliban fighters displaying their weapons and later praying. Much of the program was devoted to features, such as the first look at Vanity Fair's cover shot of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes with new baby Suri.

CBS News President Sean McManus calls criticism of the news mix "completely unfounded," saying that some of the detractors "must not have watched the evening news in a long time, because the mix of hard news is basically the same as we've been doing with Bob Schieffer and basically the same as every network does."

"There's zero desire or effort to minimize hard news," he says. "The fact that we spent all of 20 seconds on the Cruise baby is not an indication of our dedication to hard news."

On that first broadcast, what was condensed into two sentences apiece -- but got longer treatment on the other networks -- was William Ford stepping down as chief executive of the automaker that bears his family name and a study showing that 7 out of 10 workers at Ground Zero had developed lung problems.

The rest of the week was newsier. On Wednesday, Couric interviewed President Bush, pressing him about the treatment of detainees and the war in Iraq. On Thursday, correspondent David Martin scored the first interview with former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage expressing regret for his role in outing CIA operative Valerie Plame. On Friday, Couric was seen confronting former Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman about her reassurances of air quality at Ground Zero -- an excerpt from Couric's first "60 Minutes" piece last night.

There were other interesting news features, such as Martin's behind-the-scenes peek at the National Counterterrorism Center and Byron Pitts's look at how support for the Iraq war has declined around Camp Lejeune, N.C. There was Couric's quickie look at what's hot on the Web (her newscast is the first to be simulcast online). There was also standard television fare, such as a profile of an irrepressible blind teenager.

As the week wore on, Couric began doing brief chats with CBS correspondents such as Schieffer. And Couric, who often talked about her family on "Today," was not afraid to get personal. During an interview about a new vaccine for cervical cancer, she mentioned her teenage daughters, and when her medical expert said there was a 50 percent chance that a 17-year-old girl has had intercourse, Couric said: "Well, you've just ruined my day."

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