Tweaking the News

Couric interviews Michael J. Fox about his appearance in political ads for stem cell research.
Couric interviews Michael J. Fox about his appearance in political ads for stem cell research. (Associated Press)
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 4, 2006

Katie Couric showed up without an appointment.

It was Thursday morning in Amman, Jordan, and the CBS anchor, who hadn't gotten to bed until 4 a.m., was woken up with word that she might have a shot at talking to the Iraqi prime minister if she headed to the military airbase."I thought, 'What the heck, what else do I have to do but sleep?' " she says.

Nouri al-Maliki, who had just finished a scheduled sitdown with ABC's Charlie Gibson, did not recognize Couric and did not seem receptive. But the Iraqi foreign minister interceded on her behalf, much to the dismay of the ABC producers who thought they had an exclusive.

Couric, who also wound up interviewing Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, had hesitated to fly to Jordan for President Bush's meeting with Maliki. "We just weren't sure if it'd be worth our while in terms of securing interviews," she says from Amman. "Then we decided the only way we'd know is if we came and tried."

The critics -- and Couric has more than her share -- may not have noticed, but the nightly newscast that she launched three months ago is in transition. Some of the changes she made have been dropped or curtailed to squeeze in more old-fashioned, what-happened-today stories. And Couric is finally starting to make news for covering the news.

"In the first couple of weeks, we might have focused more on features than hard news, and we're adjusting that," says CBS News President Sean McManus. "We've also learned that to break the mold too much might be an interesting creative process, but it wouldn't serve the viewer tuning in at 6:30 to find out what's happening."

Rome Hartman, executive producer of the "CBS Evening News," says a myth has taken root in the press. "The story line that got peddled -- and believe me, it got peddled -- that we were off the news, or softer than the other guys, is basically bogus," he says.

Still, the pace and feel of Couric's program can differ markedly from those of Gibson and NBC's Brian Williams, who, like Couric, anchored from Amman on Wednesday and Thursday. As the former "Today" star has tried to transfer her morning magic to the more traditional confines of the nightly news, some of her moves have been controversial, even within CBS.

"It's a very tricky thing to toy with the format, because we want to try new things and not look as if we're throwing things against the wall to see what sticks," Couric says during a lengthy conversation in New York. "That's why I took this job, to take some chances and do new things . . . We're still sort of finding our way, and that's okay."

With the "Evening News" ensconced in third place, some pundits have been quick to pronounce the $15-million-a-year anchor a flop. But the mood at CBS improved when Couric garnered good reviews for her fast-paced election night coverage. "She was under incredible pressure, but she really came through," says Bob Schieffer, her predecessor as anchor.

Couric's visit to Jordan was her first foreign foray as anchor after a mostly stay-at-home tenure that has included quick trips to Los Angeles and Washington. But she had been to Jordan before to interview King Abdullah and Queen Rania for "Today," became friendly with the queen, and was able to work her contacts to help secure several interviews.

While Iraq dominated the news last week, Couric made time for a very different subject. Last Monday, after returning from Thanksgiving break, she was tinkering with promotions for a five-part series called "Overweight in America."

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