Katie Couric and the Gravitas Issue

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.

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.

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