Katie Couric's Leap Year

For Katie Couric, it’s been a rough six months in the anchor chair as the first female anchor of the CBS Evening News. But she still gets her kicks from taking enormous risks in public.

By Amy Wilentz

Working the Crowd

This morning, Katie Couric is up early and in her serious, professional clothes, speaking on the first day of National Women’s History Month to an audience of about 600 people at Macy’s in Manhattan. They have gathered to celebrate a youth development program that pairs underprivileged girls with accomplished women.

Couric has the trappings of a celebrity: Two advance people arrive at Macy’s long before she does, and for the most part, the media are there to cover her. But when she arrives, she acts utterly unself-conscious and stays in the background until it is her turn to speak. Her hair is pulled back, and she looks like any official, clutching an orange file folder and a pair of reading glasses. She’s on a dais with Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the back end of the cosmetics department on Macy’s first floor, between Estee Lauder and Lancome. The mayor gives a charming, self-deprecatory speech, and then Couric goes to the microphone. She takes a deep breath, smiles at her audience of mostly women and says, "Ah…I love the smell of estrogen in the morning!"

Everyone laughs, and that is how Katie Couric operates: Her natural element is humor.

But she is also a significant role model these days, a high-profile example of how to be a successful, still-dating, risk-taking, hardworking woman at 50. She spends a lot of time burnishing that public persona and sharing her experience with hopeful young women, each one a potential Katie Couric. And these young women have learned that even Couric, who had carved out a special, rarefied niche for herself at the Today show, recently faced a time when she felt she needed to try something new and difficult.

"I’m not one to shy away from a challenge," she says. "I mean, I was at the Today show for 15 years and at NBC for 19. That’s a long time." When the chance came to anchor a nightly network news show, she jumped at it. "I don’t mind sitting with suits," she says.

Katie’s Second Act

The CBS Evening News anchor job is definitely a second act, a next big move, and like any such leap, it carries with it risks and trials. As the country’s first solo female anchor of national evening news, Couric has had — no question — a rough first six months. Although her presence and the publicity surrounding her move initially attracted a huge audience to the CBS news show, traditionally third in the ratings, it soon plunged back to its pre-Katie levels, where it has remained. And nothing Couric has done so far — her interviews with the prime minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki, and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, her infusions of humor, her warm asides — has raised ratings.

Anchoring the news represents a profound change for Couric and for the public. Historically, audiences have wanted — or at least have been given — a paternal figure to deliver their news, a benevolent patriarch who both leads and reassures. In part, to be a man with a stern, authoritative voice is Katie Couric’s assignment at CBS. She’s the new Dan Rather, the latest Peter Jennings, a Tom Brokaw for our times, and she is walking an odd kind of transgender tightrope. It’s surprising that she doesn’t have a baritone voice or whiskers by now. Sometimes, America’s so-called sweetheart even wears a business suit, often Armani, often Max Mara (albeit usually a feminine one with tucks and darts or pretty, sexy leather cuffs and plackets).

Reinventing the News

Couric’s gender isn’t her only challenge. The current wisdom is that nightly news, beset by competition from real-time news coverage on the Internet, needs a new twist. The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart represents the new news (although he draws 1.3 million viewers compared with Couric’s more than 7 million), and in part he succeeds by commenting on the silliness of many of the formulas and tropes that have made the old nightly network news the old news. In fact, before Couric’s hiring was announced last summer, CBS president Leslie Moonves told reporters that the Evening News was interested in adding Stewart to its lineup as a commentator. We want a revolution — and not an evolution — at CBS, Moonves said. (In the end, Stewart did not move; Couric did.)

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