The Unauthorized Katie Couric: Smiling Ambition

By Louis Bayard,
a novelist and critic
Tuesday, August 28, 2007


The Real Story

By Edward Klein

Crown. 278 pp. $25.95

Katie Couric is bad.

She's conniving and self-absorbed and ungrateful. And shallow. And into younger men. And older men. She makes too much money, and she yelled at her husband. And she's had work done. And she's liberal. And she was mean to Ann Curry. . . .

Well, by now, you get the general flavor of Edward Klein's unauthorized biography, which seeks to portray its subject as a little bullet fired into the heart of the fourth estate. You may wonder why making that point was worth a book. You may also wonder if the same book would have been written about a male broadcaster. Finally, you may wonder why you should expect anything very serious from the author of "The Kennedy Curse," which describes the late Carolyn Bessette Kennedy as "sprawled on the floor in front of a sofa, disheveled and hollow-eyed, snorting cocaine with a gaggle of gay fashionistas."

It takes a tough man to write a phrase like "gaggle of gay fashionistas," and, in fact, Klein has made a second career of leaving knuckle prints on famous women. Hillary Clinton got what was coming to her in "The Truth About Hillary"; Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis apparently needed three Klein volumes to be brought down to earth (four, if you count "The Kennedy Curse"). And now it's Couric's turn to be publicly caned for the crime of projecting a persona at variance with her true self -- or perhaps for "her unabashed bias in favor of liberal causes," or maybe just for being "the most popular female broadcaster of her generation."

She began her career inauspiciously enough as a desk assistant in the Washington bureau of ABC News. Gigs soon followed at CNN, WTVJ in Miami and Washington's own WRC-TV, after which she was tapped by Tim Russert to be backup Pentagon correspondent for NBC. If her ascension to the catbird seat of "Today" show co-host seems exceptionally rapid in hindsight, we must recall that she had the good fortune to follow Deborah Norville, a cool, full-lipped beauty who had been roundly slammed for nudging Jane Pauley off the show. Couric, by contrast, was small and self-deprecating, with a grin that swallowed half her face. NBC's internal research found she appealed to both men and women, and she fit squarely in the new morning TV template: someone "who punched through the screen like a movie star, seemed as trustworthy as a best friend, and who was as compassionate as a family member."

Klein is justly awed by Couric's broadcasting skills (or, to use his own grudging formulation, "her ability to portray the emotions of empathy and compassion on camera"), but at every stage in her career, he stands ready with the pointing finger. The A-word crops up a lot: "unfathomable ambition . . . one of the most ambitious women I've ever met . . . an extremely ambitious woman . . . there was no way for her to reconcile her ambition with her personality." One might question how Klein became editor of the New York Times Magazine without ambition, but the docket keeps unspooling: "The publicity about her $65-million Today Show contract (which should never have been made public), her leg-baring short skirts (which should have been vetoed by her producer), her celebrity friends (which should have been downplayed), her divalike behavior (which should have been reined in), her made-for-tabloid romances (which should have been kept under wraps) -- all this undermined her Girl Next Door image and damaged her Q scores."

Bad Katie! Although, on second thought, it's tough taking moral instruction from a man who can write the following paragraph: "In January 2006 -- just as Meredith [Vieira's] negotiations with NBC and Katie's negotiations with CBS were shifting into high gear -- a roadside bomb exploded thousands of miles away in Iraq, upsetting the plans of all three television networks. The bomb gravely injured Bob Woodruff, one half of the new ABC anchor team. The next day, Elizabeth Vargas, the other half, dropped a bomb of her own: she told ABC News president David Westin that she was pregnant."

By then, Couric had already had her babies, but her luck had run its course. In leaving NBC for CBS to become the first solo woman network anchor, she had the bad fortune to follow not the combustible Dan Rather but the well-liked and (relatively) humble Bob Schieffer. Ratings took a nosedive; Couric's press stank like roadkill. In one particularly embarrassing episode, not reported in this book, a ghostwritten "Katie's Notebook" essay was revealed to have been plagiarized from a Wall Street Journal column.

No one could be happier about the whole CBS misadventure than Klein, who devotes a good quarter of his book to it. "At heart," he concludes, in a tone somewhere between sorrow and anger, "Katie was not an anchor." But who is this mystical "anchor" he speaks of? And can we make it go away? Does a mature society really need someone popping up four or five minutes a night to pat our hands and express the hope that we had a good day?

As it is, the very premises that undergird broadcast news are being undercut every day by the blogosphere, which revels in the greatest number of voices and which will almost certainly leave future generations wondering how we could have placed our trust in a single smiling entity (connected via earpiece to omniscient producers). We are becoming our own news anchors, and maybe it's time. Maybe it's time, too, for Edward Klein to find an ambitious woman he likes.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company