Tweaking the News
Settling In at CBS, Katie Couric Learns to Adjust

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."

"We want to make it a little catchier," she told her staff. " Are you feeling as stuffed as your turkey?" She pondered for a moment. " ' Tis the season to be indulging?" Couric conjured up the series and reported the opening segment, on the genetic causes of being fat.

"The news of the day is still our staple, but that doesn't mean we can't do a really smart series on obesity," says Couric, who is perpetually on a diet herself. "Or a piece on foster kids being given addictive drugs . . . 'Hard' and 'soft' are completely antiquated terms. Some of the stories on the front page of The Washington Post and New York Times aren't traditional hard-news stories, and I've never heard anyone ask them to justify that."

In Couric's early weeks as anchor, her team loaded the broadcast with new segments -- from a nightly "Free Speech" forum for outside commentators to the highlighting of interesting photos and Web items -- while bypassing or truncating a handful of important stories. In recent weeks, though, "Free Speech" has been cut to barely once a week and other small features deep-sixed.

CBS's White House correspondent Jim Axelrod says Couric and the staff are still "tinkering with the right flow of hard news and soft news and commentary. I don't think it's any surprise that at the outset, people said, 'Wait a minute, I want more news here.' "

"I think 'Free Speech' was a great idea and well worth trying, but in the end it just took too much time away from news," Schieffer says. "All news programs are a work in progress. We're still in something of a shakedown cruise, but I think we're moving in the right direction."

National correspondent Byron Pitts says that "people are angry, in a good way, to make this the best show it can be . . . A tremendous amount of work went into the planning for Katie's arrival, and once she got here we realized we still had work to do. The problems aren't going to be fixed overnight."

CBS executives said all along that they planned to experiment with the format. "Maybe it takes some getting used to at 6:30 on a weeknight, but I think it's what people expect of her," Hartman says.

The experimentation generally comes after the first commercial break. Couric has led her broadcast with Iraq 18 times, terror-related subjects a dozen times, American politics a dozen times and other foreign-policy issues five times. But there are still differences among the newscasts. On Nov. 20, when her rivals were leading with developments in Iraq, CBS's first two stories dealt with an Alabama school bus accident that killed three teenagers and broader questions of student safety -- a local tragedy that warranted a few sentences on NBC and ABC.

"I think sometimes people have Iraq fatigue," Couric says. "If there's not something really significant going on, it starts to feel like 'Groundhog Day.' We felt millions of kids get on a school bus every day and this would just be interesting. It made us wonder why seat belts weren't required by buses."

Couric, who interviewed O.J. Simpson in 2000 and 2004, also broke with the pack in declining to cover Simpson's book deal and Fox television special for a hypothetical discussion about the two murders he maintains he did not commit.

"I felt it was so sleazy," says Couric, who aired a "Free Speech" commentary on domestic violence instead. "We felt it would turn into more of an infomercial for Fox and Judith Regan," the book's publisher. "It seemed so distasteful." Couric covered the story days later when Regan's boss, Rupert Murdoch, bowed to public outrage and killed the deal.

That stance -- Couric introduced the commentary by telling viewers the Simpson saga wasn't worth their time -- was reminiscent of CBS's Dan Rather refusing, in the summer of 2001, to join the media frenzy over missing congressional intern Chandra Levy.

One emerging hallmark of the newscast is that Couric, who honed her interviewing skills during 15 years at "Today," has been spending more time chatting up newsmakers and analysts, along with her own correspondents. On Iraq, for instance, Couric has spoken with the likes of Rep. Jack Murtha, Sen. Carl Levin, retired Maj. Gen. John Batiste and New York Times columnist Tom Friedman. During the campaign, she periodically hosted former Clinton White House spokesman Mike McCurry and former Bush White House spokeswoman Nicolle Wallace, segments that seemed little different from what is routinely on cable news.

Couric's longest interview, which drew the most flak within CBS, was a discussion with Michael J. Fox. She spoke to the actor after Rush Limbaugh accused him of exaggerating his Parkinson's symptoms during commercials for Democratic candidates who support stem cell research. Some CBS staffers were upset that she devoted nine minutes, or nearly half the newscast, to the subject. Couric made sure to disclose that she has contributed to Fox's foundation, and that her father suffers from Parkinson's.

"People can grouse about it," Couric says of the interview, "but it was distinguishing television."

She is aggravated by some of the pundit potshots about the broadcast's news quotient. "I just think we got an unfair rap, and unfortunately it was perpetrated by people who didn't take the time to watch the show," Couric says.

All the newscasts play up health care, but the subject has been particularly prominent on CBS, often featuring a physician, Jon LaPook, whom Couric helped recruit as medical correspondent. She reports some of these segments as well, including pieces about back pain and hormone replacement therapy. These and other stories and interviews have reduced the airtime of some frustrated correspondents, making Couric the unquestioned star of the show.

"Time is our enemy in this particular format," she says. "It's really a constant struggle to figure out what goes and what stays."

There is also, undeniably, the X factor: Couric's role as the first female anchor to fly solo on a network newscast, and her informal, "Hi, everyone" tone. That has its fans and its detractors.

Erik Sorenson, a former "Evening News" producer, says Couric is "a bit of a lightning rod" but that CBS executives "should be applauded for trying a lot of things." The question, he says, is "are they going to succumb [to criticism], and in three months we're going to look up and they're doing the same newscast as Dan Rather was three years ago?"

In the closely watched ratings race, Couric quickly faded after winning her first two weeks. For the week of Nov. 20, "NBC Nightly News" drew 9.46 million viewers, ABC's "World News" 8.48 million and Couric's broadcast 7.96 million. That represented a modest rebound from Couric's low mark of 7.74 million two weeks earlier.

But while the staff is conflicted over the uneven start, McManus's message remains upbeat. He says the program, excluding those atypical first two weeks, is up 11 percent over last year in the 25-to-54 group prized by advertisers.

"It's bringing in enough to pay for Katie's salary," he says. "I couldn't be happier with the job she is doing, knowing she is under more scrutiny than probably any other person in television history."

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