The Unsinkable Katie Couric

Her life has been defined by enviable opportunities heart-wrenching tragedies. As Couric tackles her daytime talk show, Katie, she opens up about regrets, resilience and romance after 50

by Amanda Robb
katie couric image
Photograph: Peggy Sirota

Others call that resilience. Couric’s admirers say she earned it the old--fashioned way: by wringing good out of bad. In March 2000, around the time Couric cofounded the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance (NCCRA), she underwent a colonoscopy on Today. Afterward, the U.S. colonoscopy rate increased 20 percent—something researchers dubbedthe Couric Effect. In 2005 she repeated that effort for breast cancer by having a mammogram on the show. Three years later, she joined other celebrities to start Stand Up to Cancer. All told, Couric has helped raise more than $300 million for cancer research, awareness and care.

In 2006, Couric made her next big career move, replacing Dan Rather as CBS Evening News anchor in a situation that partly echoed the one that had brought her to Today. This time a panic over declining ratings was accompanied by a reporting scandal that led to the ousting of a beloved, institutional figure. CBS president and CEO Leslie Moonves thought Couric could reverse the damage. Reportedly, Moonves believed that the way to attract viewers to the news was to make it more like entertainment. At his behest, CBS built a new $2.9 million set for her.

But problems occurred before she even made her debut. A portrait of her accompanying a promotional magazine story about the revamped show was Photoshopped by CBS’s photo department to make her look 20 pounds thinner. No one had told Couric that would happen, and when she first saw the picture, she thought, Wow, I look good! But the public caught on to the digital manipulation right away. That month an expert on body image lectured at the school Couric’s 11-year-old daughter attended. The specialist, who didn’t know the child was a student there, projected the altered photo of Couric on a huge screen in order to generate discussion.

Once the show aired, curiosity to see the morning star as the first solo female evening-news network anchor caused a brief bump in the ratings, and more 18- to 49-year-old women tuned in. But the vast majority of evening-news viewers are men over 50, and Couric’s informality irritated them. Some of her new colleagues were peeved, too. Her reported $15 million salary was a huge chunk of the news division’s budget at a time when veteran reporters such as Lesley Stahl were asked to take massive (up to $500,000) pay cuts. For the first time in her career, Couric’s Everest of a Q score (likability rating) declined, and 29 percent of respondents to a 2007 Gallup poll said they did not like her—making her more disliked than either of the other network anchors. On occasion, her professional demeanor faltered. When one of her news editors said sputum, a word that apparently grates on Couric, she hit him on the arm—and continued hitting him in what seemed a sort of rage. The incident made a juicy tabloid story.

Experiencing failure—really, for the first time since not getting into her first-choice college (Smith)—“was an affront to my whole sort of mien,” Couric says. Her younger daughter tried to comfort her.

“Mom, you know what Samantha on Sex and the City says?” Carrie asked. “ ‘If I listened to what every bitch in New York City says about me, I’d never leave the house.’ ”

Couric remembers laughing and telling Carrie, “There is so much wrong with that.”

In 2006 the CBS job wasn’t the only new thing in Couric’s life. Two years after breaking up with TV producer and Boston Red Sox chairman Tom Werner, she began dating Brooks Perlin, an entrepreneur who, tabloids quickly pointed out, is 17 years younger than Couric. Instantly labeled a cougar, the newswoman derided the epithet as “obnoxious” and “stupid.” Few expected either Couric’s tenure at CBS or her relationship with Perlin to last long. Both outlived speculation, but they succumbed almost simultaneously. There were high points during her Evening News tenure, especially her 2008 interview with Sarah Palin. But no serious renewal talks accompanied the end of her five-year contract, and her final sign-off was, according to the New York Times, “almost relieved.” A few months later, Perlin moved out.

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