Note to Katie: It’s called the “CBS Evening NEWS” for a reason.
The evening news telecasts on the three major networks last for 30 minutes apiece, which means after commercials there is only about 22 minutes or so of actual news. Slip in the occasional light feature or human interest story, or a closing feel-good segment, and that’s a painfully small plate upon which to serve up the day’s important world and national news stories.
Katie Couric’s much trumpeted debut on the CBS anchor desk Tuesday night was, for the most part, solid and professional, with a few blemishes here and there. But overall, the most noticeable and unfortunate change was not so much the person reading the news, but more what she chose to read.
It’s unfair to judge Couric on one show, and I won’t. But if she wants to completely shed the “Today” show’s “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!” attitude, she should retool some of the segments she unveiled Tuesday night and place more emphasis on the myriad stories around the globe that are crying for attention.
It’s admirable that Couric wants to infuse the evening news with new ideas. Yet some of the segments felt jarring and out of place.
The most notable of these was the “Free Speech” portion of the broadcast. It’s unclear whether this is planned as a nightly spot, or an occasional one; she did mention that Rush Limbaugh would appear on Thursday night.
The problem here is that there’s commentary everywhere you look. CNN has a veritable pundit parade in a seemingly endless quest for controversy and ratings. Ditto for MSNBC and Fox. Talk radio is an endless sea of yapping blowhards. The blogosphere is growing larger and more imposing by the hour.
Do viewers really need their cherished less-than-a-half-hour of straight news pared down even further so yet another talking head can spout off? For goodness sakes, Limbaugh is on radio every day. The country isn’t dangerously low on opinions, it’s dangerously low on hard news.
Filmmaker Morgan Spurlock did the kickoff commentary on “Free Speech” and talked about how the nation isn’t as split on issues as many believe. Maybe he’s right, but any more commentaries like this one and it will be.
Commentary creates demand for equal time
Couric also did a segment with Thomas Friedman of The New York Times in which he opined on the state of the world. Friedman is a brilliant journalist and commentator, but again, this is supposed to be a news broadcast and not “Charlie Rose.” Friedman works for the Times, which is perceived by many as being liberal. So to be fair, Couric probably also should have somebody on who is from the Washington Times or Wall Street Journal, which is conservative.
It’s a slippery slope. Now to show she’s not biased either way, Couric will have to get opinions from both sides of the aisle. That’s what happens when you invite so much commentary into a news show.
Commentary isn’t new to evening news. Walter Cronkite’s famous critical assessment of the Vietnam War after covering the aftermath of the Tet Offensive is widely believed to have turned public opinion around. But that was a different era and an unprecedented situation. The news business now is much more sophisticated and the number of political partisans who lie in wait for any media types to reveal their biases has grown exponentially.
Couric probably would have been wise to keep commentary on the back burner until she settled more comfortably into the anchor chair, or better yet, keep it out altogether.
The segment called “CBS News Snapshots” shows some promise, as long as the network keeps it brief. But it will be interesting to see where Couric goes with it, since the first one was about the much-anticipated Vanity Fair issue with the Suri Cruise photos. It will be hard to top that for famous images. A little frivolous entertainment news sprinkled in here and there is acceptable, as long as it’s over in the time it takes to take a snapshot.
The news about the “News” wasn’t all bad Tuesday night. Couric was smart to open the show without calling too much attention to the new anchor. She said she was “very happy to be with you tonight,” then got right to the day’s top stories, including a fascinating piece by correspondent Lara Logan from Afghanistan. Like a good quarterback, Couric managed the game rather than try to do too much.
The final segment on art students in Nicaragua was the perfect close. It doesn’t have to be all war and ugliness. Humans doing good deeds for other humans is news also.
Couric made a fine first impression. She came on in a simple white jacket over a black top and anchored the show in a mostly straightforward manner that instantly made viewers forget about the attention paid to the 20 or so pounds that were airbrushed from a recent publicity photo, or her world-famous legs. But she needs to do something about the raccoon eyes. It appeared as though her makeup person allowed her to fall asleep under a sun lamp with cucumber slices over her peepers.
The show itself seemed to have trouble with pacing. The segues from one story to another seemed jumpy and abrupt. Perhaps with time Couric will smooth that out.
Maybe Couric’s most successful moment came at the very end, when she admitted she hasn’t been able to figure out a signature catch phrase to end her nightly broadcast. She invited viewers to log on to the network’s Web site to make suggestions, a cunning ploy to increase Web traffic.
But then she showed a series of famous sign-offs by some of the giants who preceded her, including Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. While she ponders which group of words she will adopt for her own, she would be wise to remember that all of those anchors are respected and remembered not for their catchy closing remarks, but because of their devotion to the news that came before them.
Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to MSNBC.com. He lives in Los Angeles.