The Couric Report, Week 1
She's on Top of the News, but for How Long?

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."

Among the stories that didn't make the cut at CBS but appeared on "NBC Nightly News" or ABC's "World News": Democrats pushing for a no-confidence vote against Donald Rumsfeld, the certification of a Mexican presidential winner, and the furor over the ABC docudrama "The Path to 9/11" (which Gibson's program, to its credit, was quick to cover). British Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision to step down within a year got two sentences and a sound bite on the "CBS Evening News" and full stories on the rival newscasts. On Friday, Couric's broadcast carried nothing on a Senate report finding that intelligence officials were disputing alleged links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda while the Bush administration was pushing that argument -- news that got big play on NBC, ABC and in the next day's papers.

CBS's much-ballyhooed "Free Speech" segment was a mixed bag. "Super Size Me" filmmaker Morgan Spurlock's rant about a polarized media culture drew catcalls from the critics. Rush Limbaugh's skewering of those who fail to support Bush's war against terrorism was not the sort of thing you usually see on the nightly news. But aren't opinions available on the cable channels around the clock?

Whatever the gibes by television writers and rival network executives, Couric boosted the third-place "Evening News" to the No. 1 spot for her first three nights, drawing a remarkable 13.5 million viewers for her debut. But no one, including the folks at CBS, expects that to last once the curiosity factor fades.

Couric's new role rekindles an old debate: Why do people watch one newscast over another? Williams has remained No. 1 since taking over for Tom Brokaw 21 months ago not only because viewers feel comfortable with him, but also with his NBC team. Whether Couric's charm and celebrity can steal part of her rivals' audience depends on how people take to her chattier approach to the news, as well as on the journalistic hustle of her supporting cast.

The much-scrutinized first show "is being looked at as the culmination of a process. It's not," Hartman says. "It's the beginning of a broadcast. Her goal is to try some new things, some different things, acknowledge that not everything is going to work and try to make it better day after day."

Post-Bush Pundit

Michael Gerson, a key member of President Bush's inner circle until 10 weeks ago, has a new job: Washington Post op-ed columnist.

Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt has signed up the longtime White House speechwriter and policy adviser, who will start in January while remaining a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Hiatt, who says he first raised the possibility of a future job with Gerson years ago, describes him as having "a really interesting mind" and being "a different kind of conservative from the other conservatives on our page. . . . He's been part of this White House, but I expect he will be an independent voice."

The hiring of Gerson, who is widely credited with crafting some of Bush's most eloquent addresses, will undoubtedly draw fire from liberals unhappy with The Post's editorial page for supporting the war in Iraq.

Gerson, a former senior editor at U.S. News & World Report, says he is "looking forward to doing things in my own voice." He says his spin through the revolving door is hardly unprecedented, citing William Safire's jump from the Nixon White House to the New York Times op-ed page and George Stephanopoulos's move from the Clinton White House to ABC News.

Although he greatly respects the president, says Gerson, who will also contribute to The Post Co.'s Newsweek, "I'm going to call them the way I see them. I don't believe in criticism for the sake of criticism."

On the Payroll

The Miami Herald has fired two reporters and a freelancer who work for its Spanish-language edition, El Nuevo Herald, for accepting money from the federal government.

The journalists were compensated for appearances on Radio Marti and TV Marti, the broadcasting services beamed into Cuba. One of them, Pablo Alfonso, who covers Cuba, has been paid almost $175,000 over the past five years to host Marti programs. Fellow staff writer Wilfredo Cancio Isla, who covers the Cuban exile community and politics, was paid almost $15,000 in the past five years. The freelancer, Olga Connor, who writes about Cuban culture, received about $71,000, according to the Herald.

Jesus Diaz Jr., publisher of both Herald papers, was quoted as saying the journalists had violated a "sacred trust." A Freedom of Information Act request by the Herald found that at least 10 South Florida journalists accepted payments from Radio and TV Marti.

Juan Manuel Cao, a reporter for Miami's WJAN who received $11,400 this year from TV Marti, drew attention in July when he confronted Fidel Castro about his refusal to let a dissident leave the island. The Cuban leader asked Cao whether anyone was paying him to ask that question.

"There is nothing suspect in this,'' Cao told the Herald. "I would do it for free. But the regulations don't allow it. I charge symbolically, below market prices.''

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