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Katie Couric’s Big Mistake

What was Katie Couric thinking when she left the Today Show to anchor the CBS Evening News? Laura McKenna contends that Couric made a fatal career miscalculation. To the college students McKenna teaches, the once-vaunted Prestigious Evening Network Anchor belongs in a museum.

by
Laura McKenna

Bio

January 27, 2008 - 1:35 am

Every morning, my husband rushes around the house locating his Blackberry and his turkey sandwich before running out of the house for the 6:50 bus to Manhattan.

To avoid bodily harm, I wisely decide to stay out of his way. Instead, I pour
myself a cup of coffee and watch 15 minutes of the morning news shows.

Usually, I’ll flip back and forth between CBS and NBC. The shows are essentially
interchangeable. All of them feature perky people who will just as happily tell you about an up-coming storm, the latest in shoe fashion, and results of the
Michigan primary, without changing their chirpy intonation.

“In today’s news, a former Marine killed and torched a pregnant woman who had accused him of raping her. Speaking of killers, you are looking at a killer commute into the city today.”

At 7:05, I’ll reluctantly turn off the news and start toasting the waffles and packing lunches and fishing damp jeans out of the dryer to get the kids ready for school.

That 15 minutes of morning news is the only TV news that I will watch during the day. Of course, as a blogger and a political science professor, I’ll be consuming news all day long, but I’ll be mainlining my headlines via the Times website and Bloglines.

But the evening news? By the time the 6:30 network newscast rolls around to recap what I already know, I’ll be cooking, tutoring, chauffeuring. I’ll be yelling at kids to quit their computer programs and making them fold up their Taekwondo pajamas.

What won’t I be doing?

I will not be sitting in front of the 6:30 network news.

More importantly, neither will any of the college students in my classes.

They are the news consumers of the future and the evening news has no place in their lives. I teach Politics and Media with reading assignments from the most widely used textbook in the field, but the students don’t know what to make of it. To them, it reads like ancient history. The author writes as if the world still looked up to news anchors. She refers familiarly and respectfully to Brian Williams and Katie Couric in a tone that assumes her readers – the students – also worship them.

Wrong. The students worship Jon Stewart. They have never watched the 6:30 news, not even once. They have never watched the local 5:00 news shows either. I have to actually assign students to watch the local news in order to get the students to watch those shows, so they will know what their textbooks are talking about. I might as well have asked them to go to a museum.

My anecdotal evidence is supported by research. In a recent study, Thomas Patterson from Harvard found that young people – surprise! – don’t tune into Katie or any other traditional news anchors. They don’t have the same daily news habit that their parents had.

Patterson writes:

For young Americans, most of them do not make any appointment with the daily news, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t have some exposure to it. They are so media connected that it’s really difficult for them or
anyone else in this society to not have some news exposure, but they
essentially don’t put part of their day aside to partake of the news.

Caitlin Flanagan, an author who is often the bane of much of the female blogosphere, has finally written an article for the Atlantic that most bloggers will agree with. She writes about the stupidity and miscalculation of Katie Couric’s move from the top-rated Today Show to the dinosaur of the evening news.

That Katie has bombed at CBS is a testament, not to the existence of a glass ceiling, but to the fact that real revolutions are so thoroughgoing that they don’t just provide a new answer, they change the very
questions being asked. Katie’s mandate to lure women and young people to the nightly news was in itself ridiculous and doomed to fail-and a goal beneath her talent and ambitions. No woman needs to storm the Bastille of nightly news, because the form has become irrelevant: Oprah has immeasurably more cultural, commercial, and political clout than Charles Gibson and Brian Williams, and no young person is ever going to make appointment TV out of a sober-minded 6:30 wrap-up of stories he or she already read online in the afternoon. Because Katie remembered the old world, the one in which the most-respected news was broadcast at the end of the day, she thought that she was taking a more powerful
job. But the Today show-broadcast for four hours a day, a forum
for interviews with many of the top newsmakers of the day, as well as for the kind of lifestyle-trend stories it pioneered and that have come to play such a big part in the nightly news-is a far more culturally significant program. One reason that this huge star didn’t have a tell-all biography written about her until now is that while she was at Today, no publisher wanted to antagonize her; a booking on the show was every new author’s dream. The release of Klein’s splashy book,
then, is evidence not of Katie’s elevation, but of its opposite. She made the kind of mistake that women a generation younger than hers probably wouldn’t have. She spent her time gunning for a position that had been drained of its status and importance long before she got there. And what she has learned, the hard way, is that her climb to the top has been not a triumph but the act of someone who slept through a revolution.

Flanagan makes the important point that Couric was significantly more powerful as a personality on the Today show than she is on the Nightly News. The recent tell-all book about her life would never have been published if she was still Queen of the Morning. The bottom line is that she voluntarily took a career demotion by going to the evening news.

You want a powerful female personality? Behold at the mighty power of Oprah, Queen of the Afternoon! She can put books on the best seller list. She gives political campaigns a boost by showing up and doing the girl talk. She can get me to reorganize my closet. Awesome.

Couric’s ballyhooed likability has also been questioned lately. There have always been rumors that Couric doesn’t play well with others, and Matt Lauer still has the fresh honeymoon glow from Meredith Vieira. I didn’t bond with her like Flanagan did, but I never hated her. She seemed always seemed more approachable than Matt Lauer, who I imagine washing his hands after shaking hands with people. (I once sat one table over from Lauer, Bryant Gumbel, and their wives at a restaurant. Chilly city. They never spoke to each other through the meal.)

As Couric’s self-appointed career coach, I advise her to stop the botox, get off the sinking ship of the evening news, and go to work on her blog.

While I feel bad for Couric for making such a dumb move, I don’t mourn the end of network news. It was always staged and superficial. This news consumer loves that news production and commentary is so decentralized and open. The last viewers of the network news are one shuffleboard game away from extinction.

Laura McKenna is a political science professor who lives in New Jersey. She blogs at 11D.

Laura McKenna is a political science professor who lives in New Jersey. She blogs at 11D.
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