For Couric, an Uphill March

Despite trailing in ratings, Couric says,
Despite trailing in ratings, Couric says, "I feel really good about the job I'm doing every single night." (Peter Kramer - AP)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 7, 2008

She is trailing in a highly competitive contest against her male rivals, is occasionally covered in a condescending way and faces predictions that she'll be forced out of the race.

Katie Couric understands what Hillary Clinton is going through.

"I identify with her to a certain extent because we share a gender," the CBS anchor says. "I'm sensitive to coverage that can be very subtly stacked against her, maybe a headline that has a little more snarkiness about her. . . . I understand that kind of coverage because I've experienced it myself."

After a rough 19 months since making the leap from "Today" superstardom to Walter Cronkite's old chair, Couric has been keeping a relatively low profile lately. But she has continued to work for the cause of improved treatment of cancer, the disease that claimed her husband, Jay Monahan, a decade ago and her sister Emily, a Virginia state senator who died in 2001.

On Saturday she will be in Charlottesville to help the University of Virginia break ground for a $74 million Emily Couric Clinical Cancer Center, funded by both the state and private donations.

"I really want to have a lasting monument to my sister's contribution to the state and her desire to see cancer patients treated in a comprehensive, holistic way," Couric says.

The "CBS Evening News" is far more traditional now than when Couric made her much-hyped debut in the fall of 2006, serving up new features and interviews with the likes of Michael J. Fox that ran as long as nine minutes. In fact, the Project for Excellence in Journalism says that last year Couric spent much less time on interviews with outside guests (178 minutes) than did NBC's Brian Williams (371 minutes) and ABC's Charlie Gibson (308 minutes).

Couric appears more comfortable on the evening news set these days, but the sense of excitement and experimentation that she brought to the 60-year-old genre has long since faded. That eases the pressure on her but makes it harder for her to distinguish herself.

"When we reprogrammed the show and tried to give it a faster pace and make it newsier -- though I thought it was newsy before -- there was an effort to scale back on those interviews, because unfortunately they take time," she says.

Some of her interviews, says Couric, have been replaced by her field reports from primary states during the campaign. Last week she did a piece on misstatements by presidential candidates and another on the vice presidential selection process -- stories that at other networks might have been done by correspondents.

In one series of segments, Couric asked the candidates about personal subjects, from losing their temper to -- most notably -- whether they believed infidelity should be an issue in the race.

"I thought it was a perfectly legitimate question," Couric says, while admitting a slight hesitation in posing it. "We asked it in a way that didn't say, 'Have you ever cheated on your spouse?' . . . We were getting to core character issues, getting a little bit of a window on their psyches and what makes them tick."

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