Katie in the Evening

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 11, 2006 8:08 AM

Now that everyone in America has analyzed Katie Couric's look and legs and wardrobe and delivery and all-around suitability for sitting in Walter Cronkite's chair, this question remains:

Is the journalism on the "CBS Evening News" strong enough -- and compelling enough -- to get people to switch from Brian Williams and Charlie Gibson?

Couric's gamble -- and it is one big roll of the dice -- is that so many people already know the headlines by 6:30 p.m. that she can dispense with some of the day's fare and devote the time to longer features, interviews, commentary and chat. On her first four nights, that approach produced some solid storytelling and funny moments but also bypassed or truncated some important daily events. And therein lies the trade-off.

The show's executive producer, Rome Hartman, says Couric's debut might have conveyed the wrong impression because "Tuesday was a slow news day. There were not a lot of stories competing to get into that broadcast that we ignored.

"We know most of our viewers come to the evening news already having a sense of the events of the day. . . . We've never been the broadcast of record, and we're less the broadcast of record than ever." Their mission, Hartman says, is to provide "a little more depth" at the expense of routine news. "On a day we can say this and this happened but we have this incredible story from Afghanistan, damn right."

The first day's lead, in fact, was Lara Logan's dispatch from Afghanistan, which, although lacking a hard-news peg, included eye-catching footage of Taliban fighters displaying their weapons and later praying. Much of the program was devoted to features, such as the first look at Vanity Fair's cover shot of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes with new baby Suri.

CBS News President Sean McManus calls criticism of the news mix "completely unfounded," saying that some of the detractors "must not have watched the evening news in a long time, because the mix of hard news is basically the same as we've been doing with Bob Schieffer and basically the same as every network does."

"There's zero desire or effort to minimize hard news," he says. "The fact that we spent all of 20 seconds on the Cruise baby is not an indication of our dedication to hard news."

On that first broadcast, what was condensed into two sentences apiece -- but got longer treatment on the other networks -- was William Ford stepping down as chief executive of the automaker that bears his family name and a study showing that 7 out of 10 workers at Ground Zero had developed lung problems.

The rest of the week was newsier. On Wednesday, Couric interviewed President Bush, pressing him about the treatment of detainees and the war in Iraq. On Thursday, correspondent David Martin scored the first interview with former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage expressing regret for his role in outing CIA operative Valerie Plame. On Friday, Couric was seen confronting former Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman about her reassurances of air quality at Ground Zero -- an excerpt from Couric's first "60 Minutes" piece last night.

There were other interesting news features, such as Martin's behind-the-scenes peek at the National Counterterrorism Center and Byron Pitts's look at how support for the Iraq war has declined around Camp Lejeune, N.C. There was Couric's quickie look at what's hot on the Web (her newscast is the first to be simulcast online). There was also standard television fare, such as a profile of an irrepressible blind teenager.

As the week wore on, Couric began doing brief chats with CBS correspondents such as Schieffer. And Couric, who often talked about her family on "Today," was not afraid to get personal. During an interview about a new vaccine for cervical cancer, she mentioned her teenage daughters, and when her medical expert said there was a 50 percent chance that a 17-year-old girl has had intercourse, Couric said: "Well, you've just ruined my day."

Among the stories that didn't make the cut at CBS but appeared on "NBC Nightly News" or ABC's "World News": Democrats pushing for a no-confidence vote against Donald Rumsfeld, the certification of a Mexican presidential winner, and the furor over the ABC docudrama "The Path to 9/11" (which Gibson's program, to its credit, was quick to cover). British Prime Minister Tony Blair's decision to step down within a year got two sentences and a sound bite on the "CBS Evening News" and full stories on the rival newscasts. On Friday, Couric's broadcast carried nothing on a Senate report finding that intelligence officials were disputing alleged links between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda while the Bush administration was pushing that argument -- news that got big play on NBC, ABC and in the next day's papers.

CBS's much-ballyhooed "Free Speech" segment was a mixed bag. "Super Size Me" filmmaker Morgan Spurlock's rant about a polarized media culture drew catcalls from the critics. Rush Limbaugh's skewering of those who fail to support Bush's war against terrorism was not the sort of thing you usually see on the nightly news. But aren't opinions available on the cable channels around the clock?

Whatever the gibes by television writers and rival network executives, Couric boosted the third-place "Evening News" to the No. 1 spot for her first three nights, drawing a remarkable 13.5 million viewers for her debut. But no one, including the folks at CBS, expects that to last once the curiosity factor fades.

Couric's new role rekindles an old debate: Why do people watch one newscast over another? Williams has remained No. 1 since taking over for Tom Brokaw 21 months ago not only because viewers feel comfortable with him, but also with his NBC team. Whether Couric's charm and celebrity can steal part of her rivals' audience depends on how people take to her chattier approach to the news, as well as on the journalistic hustle of her supporting cast.

The much-scrutinized first show "is being looked at as the culmination of a process. It's not," Hartman says. "It's the beginning of a broadcast. Her goal is to try some new things, some different things, acknowledge that not everything is going to work and try to make it better day after day."

Post-Bush Pundit

Michael Gerson, a key member of President Bush's inner circle until 10 weeks ago, has a new job: Washington Post op-ed columnist.

Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt has signed up the longtime White House speechwriter and policy adviser, who will start in January while remaining a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Hiatt, who says he first raised the possibility of a future job with Gerson years ago, describes him as having "a really interesting mind" and being "a different kind of conservative from the other conservatives on our page. . . . He's been part of this White House, but I expect he will be an independent voice."

The hiring of Gerson, who is widely credited with crafting some of Bush's most eloquent addresses, will undoubtedly draw fire from liberals unhappy with The Post's editorial page for supporting the war in Iraq.

Gerson, a former senior editor at U.S. News & World Report, says he is "looking forward to doing things in my own voice." He says his spin through the revolving door is hardly unprecedented, citing William Safire's jump from the Nixon White House to the New York Times op-ed page and George Stephanopoulos's move from the Clinton White House to ABC News.

Although he greatly respects the president, says Gerson, who will also contribute to The Post Co.'s Newsweek, "I'm going to call them the way I see them. I don't believe in criticism for the sake of criticism."

On the Payroll

The Miami Herald has fired two reporters and a freelancer who work for its Spanish-language edition, El Nuevo Herald, for accepting money from the federal government.

The journalists were compensated for appearances on Radio Marti and TV Marti, the broadcasting services beamed into Cuba. One of them, Pablo Alfonso, who covers Cuba, has been paid almost $175,000 over the past five years to host Marti programs. Fellow staff writer Wilfredo Cancio Isla, who covers the Cuban exile community and politics, was paid almost $15,000 in the past five years. The freelancer, Olga Connor, who writes about Cuban culture, received about $71,000, according to the Herald.

Jesus Diaz Jr., publisher of both Herald papers, was quoted as saying the journalists had violated a "sacred trust." A Freedom of Information Act request by the Herald found that at least 10 South Florida journalists accepted payments from Radio and TV Marti.

Juan Manuel Cao, a reporter for Miami's WJAN who received $11,400 this year from TV Marti, drew attention in July when he confronted Fidel Castro about his refusal to let a dissident leave the island. The Cuban leader asked Cao whether anyone was paying him to ask that question.

"There is nothing suspect in this,'' Cao told the Herald. "I would do it for free. But the regulations don't allow it. I charge symbolically, below market prices.''

"The Path to 9/11"

Well, "The Path to 9/11" aired last night (with an additional disclaimer by Washington's WJLA) and LAT columnist Tim Rutten says ABC has one big black eye:

"Surveying the smoking ruin that is ABC's reputation after the 'The Path to 9/11' debacle, it's hard to know whether you're looking at the consequence of unadulterated folly or of a calculated strategy that turned out to be too clever by half. At the end of the day, it probably doesn't make much difference because, either way, the lacerating controversy surrounding the network's docu-dramatic re-creation of events leading to Sept. 11 is an entirely self-inflicted wound. For most of the week, ABC rather haughtily attempted to characterize itself as the victim of philistines, or self-righteously as a champion of free speech or, more pathetically, as just plain misunderstood by people who just don't understand how television is done.

"It is none of those things. It's an opportunistic and self-interested organization that somehow thought it could approach the most wrenching American tragedy since Pearl Harbor with the values that prevail among network television executives -- the sort of ad hoc ethics that would make a streetwalker blush -- and that nobody would mind."

National Review's John Miller says the two-part film is more than a cinematic skewering of the Clinton administration:

"It's worth mentioning that in Monday's installment, when the miniseries turns to the early days of the Bush administration, then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice (played very effectively by 24 veteran Penny Johnson Jerald) comes off as an ignoramus, especially in a scene when she downsizes the responsibilities of counterterror official Richard Clarke (an unsung if earnest hero, by the film's lights, and played by Stephen Root of Office Space). To call this a pro-Bush miniseries, as its critics surely will do, is a bit too simple."

Conservative John Podhoretz says in his New York Post column that Sandy Berger and Madeleine Albright have every right to be ticked at the fictional portrayal of them. BUT:

"The one person who has no grounds for complaint is Bill Clinton himself.

"'The Path to 9/11' gives the impression that, as president, Clinton never took bin Laden's declaration of war against the United States and the West seriously enough. And that is simply the unvarnished, undeniable truth.

"Still, even here 'The Path to 9/11' gets it wrong. The real truth about the failures of the U.S. government under both Clinton and Bush is not, as 'The Path to 9/11' would have it, that the diabolical nature of the al Qaeda threat was obvious and unmistakable and that it was ignored by fools, charlatans and other downright unpleasant people who refused to listen to the Few Who Knew the Truth (meaning the late FBI official John O'Neill and that legend in his own mind, former counterterrorism official Richard Clarke).

"The simple fact of the matter is that, with a million other things going on all at once - all of which seemed more pressing at the time, the threat went uncomprehended."

This LAT piece has news from Baghdad that I think has been underplayed:

"In this besieged capital, it was a rare good-news story: Killings had plummeted by as much as 50% since U.S. and Iraqi forces hit the streets last month in a show of strength after the sectarian bloodbath of July. 'We're actually seeing progress out there,' Army Maj. Gen. William B. Caldwell IV, the chief military spokesman here, said when making the announcement. Not so fast. Last week, Iraqi officials released new figures showing the city morgue had received more than 1,500 victims of violent death in August -- a significant drop of about 17% from the record of more than 1,800 killings in July, but hardly a great leap forward. How the U.S. military arrived at the 50% figure remains a mystery."

They couldn't be cooking the books, could they?

Was there sufficient planning for the aftermath of the Iraq invasion? Orin Kerr notes that "the Daily Press, a local paper in Hampton Roads, Virginia, has a fascinating and very troubling interview with Brigadier General Mark Scheid, commander of the Army Transportation Corps who was one of the early planners for the war in Iraq. Scheid is retiring from military service in a few weeks, and he spoke to the local paper in Virginia about Donald Rumsfeld's instructions for drafting plans for the invasion of Iraq.

" 'The secretary of defense continued to push on us . . . that everything we write in our plan has to be the idea that we are going to go in, we're going to take out the regime, and then we're going to leave,' Scheid said. 'We won't stay.' Scheid said the planners continued to try 'to write what was called Phase 4,' or the piece of the plan that included post-invasion operations like occupation.

"Even if the troops didn't stay, 'at least we have to plan for it,' Scheid said. 'I remember the secretary of defense saying that he would fire the next person that said that,' Scheid said. 'We would not do planning for Phase 4 operations, which would require all those additional troops that people talk about today. He said we will not do that because the American public will not back us if they think we are going over there for a long war.' "

Speaking of blasts from the past, check out (in The American Thinker , via Instapundit) this recently translated 2000 memo from the Iraqi intelligence service:

"We were informed from one of our sources (the degree of trust in him is good) who works in the American Associated Press Agency that the agency broadcasted to through computer to its branches worldwide the following . . . "

Saddam had a mole in the AP?

A video blogger named lonelygirl15 has gotten her 15 seconds on fame on YouTube, and now it turns out to be something of a stunt:

"The latest confession to stun the entertainment world is an unusual one: 'We are filmmakers.' The team behind the lonelygirl15 YouTube mystery has come forward, claiming that lonelygirl15 is part of their 'show' and thanking their fans effusively for tuning in to 'the birth of a new art form.' They are not, they insisted, 'a big corporation.'

"After amateur sleuths uncovered apparent links between the Creative Artists Agency and the official lonelygirl15 MySpace page, a statement claiming to be from 'The Creators' was posted on the lonelygirl15 website late Thursday. It read in part: 'Our intention from the outset has been to tell a story -- A story that could only be told using the medium of video blogs and the distribution power of the Internet.' "

Where anyone can pretend to be something she isn't.

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