New York City is a mess. The subway is shut down. The tunnels are under water. Half of Manhattan is without electricity. But 72 hours after Superstorm Sandy ripped across the Eastern Seaboard, Katie Couric is at work. Her daytime talk show, Katie, is in its debut season, and the initial reviews have been mixed. (The big upswing will come later.) Newsday described the launch as “sharp” and “cheery” but also “cheesy.” Couric’s guests that day were Jessica Simpson and Sheryl Crow. The newswoman hardly interrupted Simpson’s veritable Weight Watchers infomercial, nor did she challenge Crow’s scientifically dubious claim that her brain tumor was caused by her old cell phone.
But it didn’t take long for Couric to return to form—as this afternoon’s show demonstrates.
Couric’s guest today is Michael Morton. He served nearly 25 years in prison after being convicted of bludgeoning his wife to death but was recently released because DNA connected another man to the crime. On the evidence, the man deserves our pity, but his oddly unemotional manner makes it hard to empathize. Given the challenge, Couric is all intrepid reporter. She dives in, employing her well-known journalistic chops.
Couric’s biography has long been on the record. The youngest of four children, she was born and raised in suburban Virginia, where she was a high school cheerleader. At the University of Virginia, she earned a degree in English. After graduating in 1979, she took entry-level jobs in local-market TV newsrooms and quickly became an on-air reporter. In Miami she covered hurricanes, in Washington the stormy tenure of Mayor Marion Barry. The late Tim Russert, then NBC’s Washington bureau chief, hired her as the network’s deputy Pentagon reporter, while in her private hours Larry King asked her out (she chose friendship instead) and a lawyer named Jay Monahan won her heart; they wed in 1989.
Hers was a miraculously bump-free zoom to success. Bob Peterson, creative director at Katie, remembers the year he went to see the capital’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival, only to discover that the skinny girl who worked down the hall from him at WRC-TV was the festival’s parade marshal. Fans were screaming her name. “Wow,” Peterson said to Couric, “you’re a star.”
“Katie just kind of looked at me and was like, ‘Can you give me a ride back to the station?’ So we hopped into my car and rode back.”
It was that I’m-just-your-buddy Katie manner that landed Couric the gig that turned her into a superstar. Among morning news shows, NBC’s Today had traditionally scored the highest ratings. But in 1990 Deborah Norville succeeded Jane Pauley as cohost, and the numbers started slipping. A few months later, when Norville went on maternity leave, executives replaced her with Couric, then the show’s national political correspondent. The ratings didn’t just rebound; they achieved liftoff.
After tapingthe Michael Morton episode, Couric disappears for five minutes to wiggle out of her on-camera ensemble of charcoal pencil skirt, ruffled silk blouse and black kid pumps. Re-emerging in moss-green leggings, a belted cardigan and well-worn ballet flats, she pulls her hair into a pink scrunchie, and we headout for whatever meal you eat at 3 pm. Her new boyfriend, John Molner, an investment banker who resembles Mark Harmon, walks over with us. His office is closed because of the storm, and the two are trying to steal a little time together. Molner might want to kiss her good-bye, but that would be near impossible. Even though the post-storm streets are 95 percent deserted, the people we do see are all chatting up Couric. They approach her as if she’s an old friend, not a celebrity. She apparently feels the same way. It takes us 20 minutes to walk one block.
Couric readily admits she is not one of those famous people who hate being famous—or pretend to. Early on, she even thought fame safeguarded her: “Until I was 40, I had smooth sailing and no real challenges in my life, no setbacks. I felt that my charmed life and being on television protected me from bad things happening. It was so ridiculous and irrational.”