This week, the world will find out if Katie Couric has what it takes to anchor the “CBS Evening News.”
The world should keep in mind that it doesn’t take much.
Couric’s worthiness to sit in the same chair as Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and yes, the distinguished and underrated Bob Schieffer, will not be determined in the first few nights of reading the news. That task can be handled by any reasonably articulate human who is professionally coiffed, meticulously made-up and smartly attired.
Couric’s performance — as well as that of any evening news anchor — will be more accurately assessed over time, as events unfold and her skills as a reporter and interviewer become more apparent to those outside the “Today” show universe.
The job has two main requirements: 1) An anchor should have enough journalistic gravitas to make viewers feel as if they’re being informed by someone who holds a place of distinction in his or her field, and 2) He or she should have a personality that projects an image of trust and likeability.
The prognosis on Couric is promising on both counts, but by no means assured.
When Couric begins her first broadcast, she would be well advised to make a passing reference to how privileged and honored she feels about being there. But dwelling on it to the point of obsequiousness would be a mistake. It would call attention to the ballyhoo around her appointment and distract from the job at hand, which is to pick up seamlessly where Schieffer left off. She should simply touch on the hoopla, acknowledge it, then get to the news.
Brian Williams does a masterful job of anchoring the “NBC Nightly News,” but he had a distinct advantage, having filled in for Tom Brokaw on many occasions before assuming the big chair. His blend of in-the-trenches experience and good-guy charm ensured that he would succeed, and it disarmed any potential naysayers before they had a chance to pick him apart.
Couric’s challenge is much more difficult. Her debut broadcast alone is being met by a legion of pundits with swords drawn, ready to attack at the slightest hint of weakness. CBS chairman Les Moonves didn’t just want to fill the position, he wanted the Couric hire accompanied by a public-relations tsunami.
But that comes with a price. If a tuft of her hair is out of place on that first night, she’ll be skewered. If she guesses wrong and makes a light moment at an inappropriate time, she’ll be reminded that the “Today” vibe is best left to morning audiences. If she’s too grim and humorless, she’ll be criticized for that.
It may seem as if she can’t win.
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Katie needs to just be Katie
Katie’s best defense against the heavy scrutiny that comes with such a gargantuan career move is to just be herself. There is belief in some quarters that Katie being herself is precisely the problem, that a former morning show host known as the symbol for all that is perky can’t transfer to a more solemn full-time assignment. And maybe she can’t.
But honesty is essential to whether she pulls it off, and trying to be something she’s not won’t cut it. She needs to be Katie, for better or worse. She’s enough of a pro to understand that.
Look for Couric to adapt to her surroundings. She won’t be giggling next to Matt Lauer, she’ll be reporting amid the legacies of Cronkite and Rather. She’ll likely tone down the broad smile and the little sister friendliness, but keep enough of it to satisfy the fans who will alter their evening viewing habits in order to support someone who has made their mornings pleasant for several years.
Much of her debut will be out of her control, dictated by events. If something should occur that would require her to break with what would be the normal routine and instead jump on a developing news story, it would actually work to her advantage. Remember that this is a journalist with extensive experience in reacting to major news stories, most notably 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Any moments in her first few outings that would underline her qualifications for the job would be a plus for CBS.
It would help Couric also if she made an impact on the design of the “CBS Evening News” rather than just occupy a chair and read a teleprompter. In other words, create a segment or two with her imprint. Although NBC’s “Fleecing of America” pieces may not be Williams’ baby, he has adopted it and it is one of the more recognizable aspects of the evening broadcast. Couric would benefit from making a contribution to the content instead of simply narrating it.
And of course, she’ll need her own personal tagline. She would be wise to avoid, “And that’s the way it is,” or anything that sounds like it.
It might also help if she enlisted help, especially in the early going. The more informative guests Couric can bring into the studio — foreign policy experts, health specialists — the more it will ease the burden by removing some of the spotlight from the new anchor.
Her rapport with correspondents in the field will be another area of interest. By now, Couric surely has reached out to most if not all of the CBS reporters she will be interacting with on-air. But she’ll need to develop a smooth and sharp dialogue with them until it appears that she is as knowledgeable about each correspondent and his or her story as any managing editor of any news organization.
For now, Couric will have to concentrate on getting through that first night and handling the daunting dilemma of enduring intense scrutiny while not bringing too much attention to herself. It’s much easier reading the news than being it.
Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to MSNBC.com. He lives in Los Angeles.
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