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

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.”

In April 1997, Couric found out exactly how ridiculous and irrational. That was when Monahan, her young, apparently healthy husband, who had become a popular criminal-justice TV commentator, went to the doctor feeling tired and achy. After months of covering the O.J. Simpson trial, Monahan thought he was just run down. He soon learned he had a softball-size tumor in his colon—a cancer that had already metastasized to his liver.

Lori Beecher, a coordinating producer at Katie who’s also a close friend, recalls how Couric became a one-woman crusade to save her husband. Kathleen Lobb, a college friend who is now senior vice president of the Entertainment Industry Foundation, was blown away because, she says, Couric’s “background is in humanities. But she instantly learned the science.”

Herculean as they were, Couric’s efforts did not turn into the stuff of a triumphal made-for-TV movie. In retrospect, she has said she wishes she and her husband had acknowledged “what we both knew was inevitable.” Monahan died in 1998. He was 42; Couric was 41. Their daughters, Ellie and Carrie, were six and two.

After one month of bereavement leave, Couric returned to Today wearing Monahan’s wedding ring on a chain around her neck. “I needed to have a piece of my husband with me,” she says. “I wasn’t doing it for sympathy. Or maybe I did. I was just trying to make it through, and it was hard to be on television again and interview [Secretary of State] Jim Baker or go to the weather with Al Roker.”

She received some 10,000 condolence notes—and a few doses of breathtaking criticism. “Michele Greppi at the New York Post. G-R-E-P-P-I,” Couric spells out. “She totally trashed me.” Indeed. Greppi wrote that Couric “should stop dangling late husband Jay Monahan’s ring on a chain short enough to choke a chihuahua on TV 10 hours a week if she is going to maintain that this is a private pain.”

Couric describes herself as “a natural pleaser” and admits that though she has tried to outgrow the habit, to this day she indulges in minor acts of masochism, such as reading nasty tweets about herself. “Pack it in!” “Give it up.” “You’re a loser.” “You’re ugly,” she recites. She doesn’t let them upset her but confesses that one recent criticism really hurt. During Superstorm Sandy, people asked what she was doing. Couric tweeted, “Now watching Diners Drivers and Dives. Good times.” She says people tweeted back, “You insensitive bitch. People are suffering.”

“I shouldn’t have sent that,” Couric says, “but I was just communicating as someone who was holed up. I later apologized because I actually think I am a very empathetic, caring person.”

Couric certainly knows what it is to be hit by a superstorm and suffer. Two years after her husband died, her oldest sister, Emily, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Like Monahan, Emily died within a year. “I remember someone saying, ‘You’re like the Kennedys,’ ” Couric says, but in truth, she recalls, she felt more like an alien. “It’s these parallel universes when someone you love is sick. Your world is this completely foreign place involving radiation and tumor markers. Outside, people are buying sweaters.”

Couric says that, contrary to her “perky” reputation, she is not at all Pollyannaish. Maybe it is just that as a journalist she has learned that a lot of bad stuff happens randomly. “So many people have been through so many tragedies,” she says. Furthermore, Couric believes, pain is like a bad drug: You suffer enough, you build up a tolerance. “I have become slightly inured,” she says. “That doesn’t mean if something else bad happened to me I wouldn’t suffer. It’s just that your threshold for suffering increases.”

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.

“I really did love my husband a lot, but after Jay died, I always thought I’d end up like Florence Henderson on The Brady Bunch,” Couric says, meaning she dreamed of uniting her family with a man’s. “It’s actually surprising to me that it has been almost 15 years and I haven’t remarried. I think life is more fun when you have someone in your life. And I always wanted to find a father figure for my daughters, but it hasn’t worked out that way. I’ve had long-term relationships, but they haven’t turned into lifelong partners.”

It’s not for Couric’s lack of effort. When she first tried dating again—about two years after Monahan died—she threw singles parties. “We insisted that every woman bring two male friends,” Kathleen Lobb recalls. “I went out with a couple of people. I don’t think Katie did.” After the breakup with Perlin, Couric changed tactics: “I didn’t say, ‘I want to meet somebody,’ because I thought that smelled too desperate. I just said I was interested in dating.” When Couric’s friend Molly Helfet told her she knew a nice guy, Couric brought him up at every Spin class they attended. “I’d say, ‘What happened? He never called.’ ” Eventually he did. Now Couric and Molner have been growing closer for the better part of a year.

“I have had dates where we didn’t click,” Couric says. “I once went out with a heart-transplant surgeon who talked about valves the whole night. But I appreciate that it’s not easy to go out on a date with someone like me. Also, when you get to my age, everyone is a little bit wounded. So I think it’s important to handle people with care—not to think, ‘Oh, what a terrible date,’ but just, ‘This person isn’t for me.’ Everyone has a lot of baggage. It’s just, can you fit it into the overhead bin?”

Couric has made no bones about feeling that the CBS Evening News was a poor fit. The inaugural episode of Katieopened with a video joke in which Couric wakes up thinking the anchor job was a nightmare. Then Matt Lauer appears and breaks the news that it was all real life. What is equally true, though, is that daytime talk shows are, like news shows, a TV genre that is struggling with a shrinking viewership.

That said, the audience is still in the millions, and new shows are -always competing for it. Lori Beecher, who has worked with Couric for two decades, likes the format because it gives the multifaceted star—journalist, health advocate, working mother and midlife singleton—the chance to be herself. “People always ask me if Katie is -really like what she’s like on TV. I always say, ‘Katie is exactly the same person in -person.’ ”

And that, perhaps, is what makes her various self-reinventions look so effortless. Whatever new challenge she faces, she is always, always just herself.

Katiehad the strongest daytime-talk-show debut since Dr. Ozin 2009. Three months in, the show has remained number one in the 2012 freshman class. But in all the triumph, Couric is again having to regroup. Her good friend Jeff Zucker, the show’s coexecutive producer, left in November to become president of CNN Worldwide.

In a way, Couric seems to be weathering all this midlife change by opening up more than ever to her audience. On a September show about eating disorders, she revealed for the first time that in her twenties she struggled with bulimia. “I [was] asking people to reveal their innermost feelings about [this issue], and I actually know about it. I have had this issue; my sister Emily, who passed away, had this issue. So I thought, This is the time. I tried to do it in a way that wasn’t, ‘I had bulimia!’ But just ‘I had bulimia, and I know this mind game that goes on where if you don’t adhere to this strict calorie restriction, it makes you feel really bad about yourself, and this vicious cycle kicks in.’ ” Her revelation was picked up by People, Us and Celebuzz. “I had no idea it would be a big bulletin,” Couric says. “But I think it got traction because in a way people see me as somebody who has her shit together.”

Certainly, that’s part of her appeal. Many journalists display a whiff of condescension toward the people they probe, but for all her success, wealth and fame, Couric just wants to talk. She so obviously believes in story—her guests’, her own, even her daughters’. Though she protects the girls’ privacy, she encourages them to share what presses on their hearts. “There are moments where I crumble at the thought of my father, often unexpectedly,” Ellie Monahan, now 21 and a senior at Yale, wrote last year for the Huffington Post. “I dread the annual father-daughter dance both in grade school and now in my sorority, a tradition my mother tried to abolish on behalf of all the fatherless daughters in my school . . . to no avail. One year I asked my mom if Brad Pitt could be a stand-in . . . Matt Lauer was a distant second. I ultimately decided to stay home.”

So there it is. Rather than reporting storms from a newsroom, Couric weathers them, trying to figure out how and why we survive. After a late-afternoon meeting, she pulls her producer aside and says, “Get me out there!”—to the floods, the downed electrical lines, the blackouts. Couric knows she will be knee-deep in suffering. But that’s where Couric’s stories are. That is where her heart is.

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First Published Wed, 2013-01-23 13:06

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