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.)

Being the person who bridges the schism between eras isn’t simple or easy, and working both sides of the gender, humor, and generational divides can be exhausting. Couric, as cheery as ever when seen from the middle distance, looks a little tired sometimes and slightly dispirited when you get up close. Not that she’s defeated. She is just not used to months-long public criticism of her work; this is the toughest professional situation she has ever experienced. And the awkward fit of her role doesn’t please her, even though she accepts that it’s unavoidable, for now.

"The people who used to watch me on the Today show are saying, ‘What happened to her? She’s not laughing and carrying on the way she used to.’"

Adjusting to the Anchor Role

What does she want to be? Sitting comfortably in her white-on-white office at CBS, Couric smiles and raises her arched eyebrows. For an interviewer, the situation is slightly awkward: You realize in about 10 seconds that you are interviewing America’s best interviewer. She makes you comfortable; gives you the feeling that she agrees with whatever you say; that she thinks you are, well, brilliant; that she is On Your Side.

Behind Couric are black-and-white photographs of women who achieved milestones: Amelia Earhart, Sally Ride, and Margaret Sanger. There’s also a nice shot of Audrey Hepburn gazing up in awe at the skyscrapers of New York, perhaps a version of Couric, who is, after all, an all-American girl from Arlington, Virginia, come to take over the big city.

"At Today, I seemed to be enjoying myself," Couric says, giving me a bright, encouraging yet humble smile. "I seemed to be fun loving. ‘We really liked her in the morning’ — that’s what the old viewers say." She leans back, poised and correct in her lovely Akris suit and high-heeled patent pumps. "But now — well, they seem to think it’s like I’ve had a lobotomy or a personality change. I am more of a conductor at the nightly news and less of a first-chair violinist, the way I was at the Today show. I’m enjoying it, but it’s an adjustment. When I am communicating, it’s important and fun, but those windows are small, and I’m an interactive person by nature. I like to talk and get a reaction."

Couric smiles. And guess what? I smile back.

The Big Picture

She shrugs. "The adjustment to not having someone to talk with on air about serious things and funny things is hard. The news broadcast is still a very controlled format. It’s really like transferring schools; I’m getting exposed to a whole new cast of characters, whole new systems."

She’s optimistic about the broadcast. "It takes patience. I will do my best every day." She points out that it took Tom Brokaw 14 years as NBC’s evening news anchor to rise to number one in the ratings.

"I’m still getting my sea legs," she says. "I certainly hope we’ll take a few more risks and do more unexpected things on the show, but I have to establish the broadcast as smart and trustworthy, and me as a relatively intelligent person who deserves to be at the helm of this kind of program." Couric, who celebrated her 50th birthday with several bashes last January, including a party at Tiffany, says that getting older has made her more reflective and less crazed: "It makes you want to squeeze every bit of life out of your days, but not become so obsessive and myopic about it that you miss the big picture. It’s important not to let one aspect of your life — in my case, work, obviously — take over to the exclusion of everything else."

For now, though, she wants to have fun working and move those ratings up. She still has no signature sign-off at CBS. "We change ‘em around," she says. "There’s one: ‘I’ll be back tomorrow night, and I hope you will too.’ I like that one. We decided that was more dignified than the more direct ‘Don’t stand me up!’"

A Day at the Office

After lunch (and an in-office yoga class with her personal instructor — not a daily occurrence, she lets me know), Couric takes a meeting with four CBS news staff members to brainstorm ideas for the Web site. She has changed into a pair of comfortable tailored white trousers and a low-cut orangey top, one of the around-the-office outfits she puts on between more formal events and newscasts. (There is a dressing room behind her office.) Her hair is down now, and she has her glasses on.

Couric and the assembled staff are talking about which stories they should post on cbsnews.com. Present are Melissa McNamara, a producer; Brian Goldsmith, an associate producer; Mike Sims, the news and operations director of cbsnews.com; and Greg Kandra, the editor of Couric’s blog, Couric & Co. Couric sits on her white leather swivel chair with her legs crossed Indian-style, simple white leather slip-ons on her feet. She holds bunches of paper on her lap. Sally Ride stands in the photo behind her, looking into the distance.

Everyone has a lot of ideas. ("There are always too many," Couric says later, "which is good.") She herself has a fistful: one on erotomania and the recently arrested astronaut; another on teens who multitask and whether it affects their ability to analyze school reading material; one on sleep deprivation and moral decision making ("Hopefully," Couric says, "this won’t become the next Twinkie defense"); another on aging and how appearing your real age is becoming taboo ("If you look your age, people think, What’s wrong with her?" says Couric, who has set her cell phone to ring with the tune of the Pussycat Dolls’ "Don’t Cha Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me"). These stories will not become simple written blog items, but one-minute commentaries in video and text that can be used by CBS radio and television affiliates across the country. "The stories are topical," Couric explains, "but they reflect my sensibilities. My role model for this is Anna Quindlen."

This is a weekly meeting, and today’s chat is relaxed, although everyone is watchful because a magazine reporter is present. It’s clear that on other days, when no one out of the ordinary is there, conversation has the potential to become more heated. Couric is in charge, and there are plenty of yes-Katies, good-idea-Katies, and that-sounds-good-Katies. The only one who questions Katie’s ideas today is Katie herself.

"Or is that too dry?" she asks the group after pushing for a piece on the Bush administration’s change of heart on global warming. They all agree it’s not too dry. "The worst sin for the Bush people," Brian Goldsmith says, "is changing their mind."

"Or admitting they made a mistake," Couric says. When the meeting is over, she rushes out to her younger daughter Carrie’s dance recital. She doesn’t usually leave the office so close to broadcast time (it’s 3:30, and the show begins in three hours), but she can’t skip Carrie’s event. And that’s smart of her, since, right now, 11-year-old Carrie is not her mother’s biggest fan.

"She doesn’t like the way I smack my lips," Couric says, shaking her head. "She’s always, like, ‘Look, Mom, you just did it again.’" Couric does a reasonably good impersonation of a pubescent girl’s irritation. "If she had her way, she’d be happy only if I stopped breathing." Yet off Couric goes to do the macarena and dance to reggae music with her daughter’s class. (Carrie’s response? According to Couric later: "Stop it, Mom. Don’t move your hips!")

Making the News

Back at the broadcast, Couric sits alone at her desk, but beyond the camera’s line of vision are tech crews, cameramen, makeup people, producers, and writers. Often during the moments of the broadcast when Couric is off camera, she is being dusted, patted, and powdered. A woman rushes in and fixes a stray lock of hair; another takes a clothes brush to Couric’s shoulders. Someone assaults her with a stroke of blusher. Through it all, she’s making quips, checking her lines, jotting notes; she’s always aware of the goings-on of the staff — she never zones out.

At the end of the show, she stands in front of her desk to do the sign-off. Even though the camera cuts her off at the hips and once again deprives viewers of a look at her famously shapely legs, the new position — the new perspective — adds what Couric might call a personal touch. It makes the broadcast feel, in some small way, different. It is one of many tweaks to the show: another loosening, a minute reality check, an attempt to move out from behind the desk and in the direction of her television viewers.

On the night I watch the news from the control room, Couric has to stay afterward to do a generic introduction to the Alabama tornadoes story, in case the death toll rises later in the evening. (The death toll did rise.) After the taping, Couric chats briefly with a writer for the show; she has discarded her jacket, and her biceps, emerging from her sleeveless silk shirt, show a lot of definition. (She plays tennis often and works out on an elliptical machine at the gym in the basement of her apartment building.)

Balancing Family and Work

Her day finally ends at around eight, when she takes a car home after changing once again, from the Akris suit into her white pants and orange pullover. Her bag and coat are both beige and high quality. Somehow they do not exactly match the purple yoga mat she has tucked under one arm. She also wears a half-forgotten rubber hair band around her wrist. There’s always a detail or two about Couric that tells you she’s focused more on the activities of life than on fulfilling any image.

She lives with her two daughters in a spacious and opulently comfortable apartment in a building near Central Park. As we enter the lobby, she notices racks filled with coats and says, "Someone’s having a party, and I’m not invited. Oh, well." But she does sound a tiny bit disappointed. She checks her watch.

"Oh, I’m so late — they’re going to be starving!" she says about the girls. Her daughters spent their entire childhood on a Today show schedule and were used to having early dinners with their mother. (As everyone who watched the show knows, Couric’s husband and the girls’ father, Jay Monahan, died of colorectal cancer in 1998, when Carrie was only two years old. Ellie, the elder daughter, is now 15.) But, surprise, the girls are not clawing at the fridge when we walk in the door. Instead, Ellie is on the floor of Carrie’s bedroom with a computer on her lap.

"Why are you in here?" Couric asks. "Internet connection’s better," says Ellie, who, once introductions are made, does not look up from her screen. Carrie, meanwhile, is in her pajamas on her mother’s big bed, eating what look like brownies from a big pan and watching television. It could be an evening scene out of the house of almost any working mother in America. Except that in the kitchen, minding three small dogs — Archie, a Yorkshire terrier; Maisy, a Cairn; and Cecelia, a Havanese — is Lori Beth Meyer, the girls’ nanny, Couric’s housekeeper and, as Couric puts it bluntly, "my wife." The dogs are yipping and frolicking around Lori Beth’s ankles. Meyer, a tall, slender woman with glasses and long, blonde hair, has worked for Couric for eight years and, in spite of dealing with dogs, dinner, and a late-arriving Katie, seems completely collected.

"We try to discourage all of her relationships!" Couric says, laughing. "We always joke in our household that the girls have two mommies, that we’re a family, but a ‘different kind of family.’ But seriously, I couldn’t be me without Lori Beth. And by the way, she rules with an iron fist!"

Her Own Spin

Seeing Couric in this secure, homey environment, with the bulbs at candlelight brightness and everything upholstered in warm reds and golds, I keep thinking about what it was like at the studio. The broadcast itself, at least viewed from the control room, is the epitome of tension, especially when, as with the recent night after tornadoes swept through the South, there is breaking news. And the anchor sits in the middle of the swirling stress like a mobile home in the middle of a twister, vulnerable to being undone by the smallest shift in timing or tone. It’s roughly 22 minutes a day, but those minutes are fraught with anxiety for all who create and package them. It’s like an insane roller-coaster ride whose only proper finish would be a stiff martini or a little yellow pill.

On air and off, in the world of network news, anything can happen. Three days after I meet with Couric, the executive producer of the NBC Nightly News — the show in the first-place spot — is fired. Two days after that, Couric’s executive producer is out. Although clearly concerned about her program’s ratings, Couric seems otherwise unfazed by her working conditions. Maybe the leather chairs and the dressing room and the $15 million a year are palliative. "I’ve tried to infuse the place with enthusiasm," she says of working at CBS, "and I’ve tried to have fun." She’s standing next to a console table in her front hallway that is topped by a dozen or so pictures of Katie and family, Katie and friends, Katie and heads of foreign states; there’s Katie and Prince Charles. (They look good together.) "I’ve tried to bring a little high-spiritedness along with me," she says, almost wistfully. "A little joyfulness. I hope the people at CBS are enjoying it, but, of course, the nightly news bunch is a fairly hard nut to crack. Some of them can’t quite make me out. I don’t pound my fist. I try to be reasonable and fair. I’m approachable. I’m accessible." "Nice" is her public persona. She has joked, with me and others, that her epitaph will be "Perky no more."

"It’s not to say that there aren’t people who hate me," she continues. "People see everything through their own prism." But for now, she’s thinking less about her coworkers than about her audience. She has the Web downloads going and the blog, and in 10 years, she expects, she’ll be doing something else entirely — a third act — but it’s clear she’s upbeat about delivering the news to as many people as possible through an old-fashioned TV screen. "I want to reach right through the screen to them," she says. She puts her head to one side and smiles that big, bright, good-girl smile.

Originally published in MORE magazine, May 2007.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:04

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