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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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Iraq has faded dramatically on all the network newscasts, although it made a brief comeback late last month after the 4,000th American died in the war and renewed fighting broke out in Basra. According to the Washington-based journalism project, the network newscasts devoted 26 percent of their airtime to the war in the first three months of 2007; that has plunged to 5 percent so far this year.

"It's a conundrum," says Couric, who reported from Iraq last year. "Just because people have tired of this war doesn't mean we should stop covering it. You wrestle with it on a nightly basis. Of course, people are obsessed with the [presidential] campaign right now. That's something we have to be on guard against, neglecting Iraq. It's obviously hugely important for this country, even if people have slightly lost interest."

On the political front, Couric believes the imbalance in the way the Democratic candidates are portrayed stems in part from some reporters "who are predisposed not to like the Clintons." But she says the coverage has evened out recently, thanks to a pair of comedy skits that portrayed journalists as being in the tank for Barack Obama. " 'Saturday Night Live' did have a big impact on the media," she says.

Couric has chafed at being unable to moderate a presidential debate this season, even as Williams (who has MSNBC as an outlet) has done five and Gibson will moderate his third such event next week. Network executives see such a debate as a way to boost Couric's credibility in the political arena.

With CBS Chairman Les Moonves taking the lead, the network has offered a 90-minute North Carolina debate on April 27, after "60 Minutes." Sen. Clinton has accepted the invitation, but so far Sen. Obama has not. Couric's only scheduled debate was canceled in December after CBS staffers threatened to join the Hollywood writers' strike.

Couric's success is measured by viewers, not voters, and on that score the highest-paid anchor is a clear also-ran. She is averaging 6.7 million viewers a night for the season that began in September, well behind Williams (9 million) and Gibson (8.8 million). Couric prefers to take the long view, noting that NBC's Tom Brokaw languished in second place for more than a decade before securing the top spot.

"I've never really judged my worth by ratings. It was nice to be number one on the 'Today' show, but to me it was more important to do a good show. Our broadcast, I think, is of really good quality. Hopefully more people will come to it. I feel really good about the job I'm doing every single night."

Her celebrity is a double-edged sword, putting the 51-year-old Couric on more magazine covers than the other anchors but also generating more gossipy items about whom she is dating. That, for the moment, seems to have died down. "I think people have pretty much lost interest in my love life," she says.

Perhaps Couric's best performance of the year never appeared on the air. It is easy to forget the infectious sense of humor that made her the queen of morning television, and it was on display on the night of the New Hampshire primary -- outtakes of which were leaked to comedian and commentator Harry Shearer and made their way to YouTube.

As Couric was being made up outdoors, she tweaked one of her predecessors, Dan Rather, by pretending to be undecided whether to wear her overcoat open or closed, a decision he was once seen wrestling with on a similar bootleg tape. She joshed with her crew in sometimes salty language about Rather deserving "a little payback" and, playing off his public blast that CBS had tarted up his former newscast, declared: "This tart is ready to go!"

Was Couric embarrassed that her private mocking became a viral video?

"I thought it was funny," she says. "It's really hard to show that side of my personality on the evening news, and that's a frustration for me."

Going Too Far

Air America, the liberal radio network, has suspended host Randi Rhodes indefinitely for what it called "abusive, ad hominem language" about public figures. That corporate language doesn't quite capture what Rhodes said in a video that surfaced last week.

The expletive-filled rant took place before a San Francisco audience at a March 22 event for an Air America affiliate station, and the appearance by Rhodes, a Barack Obama supporter, was promoted on Obama's Web site. Rhodes has drawn past criticism for joking about the assassination of President Bush.

During her routine, Rhodes called Geraldine Ferraro "David Duke in drag," said that Dick Cheney moved to Wyoming "so he would never have to see a black guy or a Jew" and called Hillary Clinton, among other things, "a big [expletive] whore." Some of the other ugly comments are unprintable, but the inevitable video has been posted on YouTube.

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