Katie Couric and the Gravitas Issue – UPDATED

Taking a break from his lengthy vacation Greg Kandra — who during his long career at CBS spent some time toiling on behalf of Katie Couric — argues that, despite charges of sexism, or Gail Collins’ weirdly bar-lowering, denial-laden praise (which declared that as long as Couric didn’t make it “worse” for women, she’d been a “total success”) Couric was simply a bad fit for the anchor’s desk, and that everyone seemed to know it but Couric herself, and Les Moonves. Noting with irony that the new theme music for the CBS Evening News had been composed by the same fellow who wrote the score for the movie The Titanic, Kandra writes:

Despite Les Moonves’ public contention that sexism was behind Couric’s pitiful ratings (he at one point even compared her to Jackie Robinson, which would have been laughable, had it not been so patently offensive), the problem for Katie—and for CBS News—was not her sex or her gender, but the kind of woman she represented.

. . . In the popular imagination, she wasn’t that far removed from Kelly Rippa or Mary Hart—and that was the problem . . . people took offense that the woman from the Thanksgiving Day Parade was sitting in a chair once occupied by Walter Cronkite. Despite some enterprising journalism—the interviews after Columbine, that courageous colonoscopy on national television—she was not considered “up to the job.” Some said outright that it was unearned.

She was perceived as lacking gravitas. While Kandra acknowledges the unfair double-standard that puts much more emphasis on a woman’s appearance than on a man’s, he suggests that Katie Couric did not do much to help herself, when she insisted on playing cute:

Katie got in the habit of sitting on the anchor desk at the end of the show every Friday to say goodnight. Some viewers were horrified—I remember one who compared this posture to “acting like a sexy secretary from the ’50s”—but Katie thought it was fun. She kept doing it until the president of the news division intervened.

The hair and wardrobe extremes, the desk-sitting all seemed like invitations to nitpick; they created distracting battles that didn’t need to be fought, and reinforced the public perception of Couric as a lightweight, and so it went.

In her NY Times column, Gail Collins tries to imply that Diane Sawyer took over the anchor desk at ABC News with no rippling mention made of her gender, thanks to Couric’s having cracked the glass ceiling and paved her way. This is profoundly insulting to Sawyer, whose chops as an intelligent, serious newswoman were forged over decades, and whose “gravitas” was never in question. As Kandra writes:

“. . . had CBS had wooed Sawyer to the Evening News, instead of Couric, the outcome might have been very different . . .. She was less like Joan Lunden, more like Charles Collingwood in a dress, and when the time came, the torch passed from Charles Gibson to Sawyer with barely a hiccup in ratings and no public melodrama.

And that makes sense. Sawyer fits the mold for a TV anchor: intelligent, serious, articulate, comfortable in her skin; in a word, credible.”

Perhaps the difference was simply this: the formidable Sawyer brings more to the table than her chromosomes; the limited Couric had nothing else to recommend her.

Hopefully we will soon reach a point where someone can be judged on the content of their character, rather than on the character of their chromosomes, but for some, like Couric, the chromosomes are a crutch. Perhaps to hold up a weak limb.

I hope you’ll read Kandra’s piece in its entirety.

UPDATE:

An early childhood hero of mine was Nancy Dickerson, a true broadcasting pioneer; she was CBS News’ first female correspondent, and she ably “anchored” the afternoon newsbreaks when I was very small. Remembering Dickerson (and for that matter Barbara Walters) I do have to reiterate how unseemly I thought it of Couric (and Moonves) to try to blame her lack of success on the sexism canard, especially when — as Kandra points out — we’d been watching women anchor news on the cable networks for years.

For that matter women had already been corporate heads and had acted as Secretary of State (a somewhat more exalted position than the anchor of a 30 minute news broadcast) long before Couric’s “breakthrough.” At the point of her ascension, it was not simply “enough” for Couric to be a token woman breaking through (as Gail Collins’ or Eleanor Clift’s careers might arguably be assessed); she needed to be good at the job, too, and she simply wasn’t.

Blaming the nation for her failure, and charging that we just weren’t ready for the wonderfulness of her apparently unique womanhood, was insulting to viewers in precisely the same way it is insulting to Americans — who elected President Obama by a wide margin — to be told that any problem they have with Barack Obama or his policies are simply “racist.”

What both Couric and Obama do not understand is how unseemly it is to cry “victim” while on the pinnacle.

As I have noted elsewhere:

Once you’ve reached a pinnacle, you can’t keep whining that you’re only teetering because you’re a woman victim. You’re teetering because the pinnacle is slim, sharp and lonely, and you can only remain there if you belong there, or if you have one hell of a safety belt supporting you. Those who belong there make the pinnacle look easy, the rest impale themselves or fall. Or they loll about in the safety belt, and stagnate.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • http://www.sthubertsrosary.com shana

    As an anchor, she’s dreadful. Simple as that. If she can’t accept responsibility for her own failure, she truly didn’t belong where she was.

    Frankly, I’m surprised she’s lasted this long.

  • Andy

    What both Couric and Obama do not understand is how unseemly it is to cry “victim” while on the pinnacle. So when Sarah P. and Ryan claim that they are victims then the answer is that it is unseemly? Please all of you keep that in mind, and no more complaints about how someone is out to get someone else, and that conservatives are victims.
    Thanks

    [Actually, Andy, if you read me with any regularity you'd know that I have long-complained about Sarah Palin crying "victim" and (particularly after the Family Guy incident) suggested that it was unseemly and counterproductive. I'm not sure which "Ryan" you're talking about but if you mean Paul Ryan, well, he's hardly at the pinnacle, and I think when a President with a bully pulpit invites you to a speech so he can essentially defame you before the nation, that's something worth feeling bruised about. Thanks. -admin]

  • http://www.xavierz.blogspot.com Xavier

    I posted the following on my blog in May 2004:

    She’d be a strong contender in a contest for most annoying television personality, and her standard of integrity would be at home on a used car lot. Miss Couric adds to her irritating qualities an apparent belief that her publicity flaks are correct and that everyone likes her. She’s been a large part of the orgy of self-celebration that NBC has made of the end of the television series Friends and Frasier and I saw a bit of her show last night. I expected that she’d be both obvious and cheap. But there was no excuse for her snide allusion to John 1. Some things should be safe from the pawing of her grubby little hands.

  • Joseph Marshall

    What both Couric and Obama do not understand is how unseemly it is to cry “victim” while on the pinnacle.

    Why drag Obama into it? He doesn’t work for CBS and, as far as I have ever heard has made no personal claim to be a victim. And you present absolutely no evidence that he ever has. None. You don’t even have a previous post on Obama under your tag of Victimhood. So how do you know what he does or doesn’t understand?

    I follow NBC as a nightly news summary and have never seen Couric. But you don’t seem to offer any evidence that Couric herself has called her low ratings or her removal “sexist” [As I believe Connie Chung did a few years back]. If this is so, how do you know what she does or doesn’t understand?

    One of the things that really annoys me about my conservative friends is exactly this sort of projective fantasy and soft libel. If you want to disagree with what someone says about someone else, you should disagree with the person who actually said it, and not the person being spoken of.

    You will not see any such thing on the air from NBC or CBS. If Obama says something, it is reported as Obama saying it, if it is a spokesperson, such as a press secretary, who is on the White House staff, he or she is named, or if the briefing is “deep background” it is attributed to “the White House” or “the Administration”. And there is absolutely no reason whatever for them to personalize it. None.

    Now it may be that the so-called MSM news purveyors distort what they report by exclusion of relevant fact, or by a biased emphasis or unjustified interpretation of fact. But you don’t see them referring to statements that a public figure never made. And if they do so accidentally, they publish or broadcast corrections.

    You and your conservative peers do this interminably.

    And even news commentators with an open and liberal political agenda such as Lawrence O’Donnell or Rachel Maddow make every effort to interview a person directly when they can, put up the soundbite of them saying it as evidence if they can’t, and keep to the same standards of quoting and reporting that you find in the nightly news summaries on the same network, if they can’t put up a soundbite.

    The Bill O’Reileys, the Glen Becks, and the whole crew of conservative broadcast commentators [and sometimes even broadcast news reporters who are part of the same news entity] simply make stuff up about people and things as they go along. Routinely. If what they purport to be quoting is truly outrageous and implausible for an individual they disagree with to have said, they just make it up and attribute it to a Strawman: “liberals”, “the MSM”, or whatever. If there is some possible plausibility to it, they simply make up a quote that the person referred to simply never said.

    And they seldom or never play a soundbite or quote another news source that is responsible enough to get the facts straight about who said what to whom.

    But who cares about the facts….?

  • Katherine

    Mr. Marshall,

    Did you really write the following without the slightest twinge of irony?

    The Bill O’Reileys, the Glen Becks, and the whole crew of conservative broadcast commentators [and sometimes even broadcast news reporters who are part of the same news entity] simply make stuff up about people and things as they go along. Routinely. If what they purport to be quoting is truly outrageous and implausible for an individual they disagree with to have said, they just make it up and attribute it to a Strawman: “liberals”, “the MSM”, or whatever. If there is some possible plausibility to it, they simply make up a quote that the person referred to simply never said.

    And they seldom or never play a soundbite or quote another news source that is responsible enough to get the facts straight about who said what to whom.

    But who cares about the facts….?

    I don’t know or care why Ms. Couric failed, NBC et al have long since foregone any claim on my eyes due to their standards, which fall below my own.

    I’ll take The Anchoress instead.

  • Bill M

    CBS’s woes transcend and precede Katie Couric. It was Van Gordon Sauter who first ‘humanized’ CBS News in the early Eighties, to dreadful effect. I that recall certain reports even had musical accompaniment. Perhaps they still do.

    I chafe a little at Diane Sawyer’s celebrity, but everything you say about her here is true. The woman has gravitas.

  • Peggy Coffey

    Marshall,
    You obviously have never seen O’Reilly or Beck because they cite their sources ad nauseum, to the point that it’s almost as if they are bending backwards to grovel to the left.
    But keep drinking that kool-aid….

  • http://nolanimrod.com nolanimrod

    “…chair once occupied by Walter Cronkite.”

    Hmmmmm … Randolph Scott!

  • http://jscafenette.com/ Manny

    I don’t find Sawyer all that compelling either. The tone of her voice puts me to sleep. It’s as if she’s purposely trying to be overly mellow. I didn’t think Couric lacked gravitas. I always felt her problem was her manifest bias. It was apparent on any broadcast that I caught. Maybe her history followed her and tinged her reputation. I don’t know. I never trusted her.

  • sam

    Diane Sawyer may have gravitas but she is still smoking hot.
    Anchors have always been over-rated and the nightly news is more depressing now than during the Vietnam war. It is all drug ads and sound-bites of news. Mr. Moonbat can’t believe that he is on a sinking ship. He is blaming the glacier for getting in his way. King of the Void!

  • HMS

    To Joseph Marshall:

    In your typical kind and reasonable rhetoric you have exposed the real agenda of those who will find and exploit any piece of information to undermine this president.

    THEY JUST DON’T LIKE HIM!

  • Andy

    Dear Administrator – I was not speaking of you specifically, I was speaking to many of the person who do respond here. I have read here frequently for the past approximately a year – and have for the most part that you are evenhanded and do call out both sides in your own way. So if you took my comment as a commentary on you I am sorry – it was directed more broadly at many posters. Again accept my apologies.

    [well, I'm sick, tired and cranky (and sadly battle-ready by nature) so I beg your pardon, too! :-) -admin]

  • lethargic

    Well call me a misogynist if you wish, but no one named “Katie” has the je ne sais quoi of gravitas. Kate or Katherine, but never Katie. Kinda makes me think of The Anchoress’s little saying “well, slap my a$$ and call me Sally/Katie” ….


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