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Critics compelled to review Couric's clothes

Some reviews of newscast point out ‘white after Labor Day’ issue
/ Source: The Associated Press

Smart. Crisp. Simple. Unfortunate. Awful. Gimmicky, even.

Katie Couric’s performance on her first night? No, just the outfit she wore, according to many critics, who couldn’t help evaluating Couric’s wardrobe along with her initial broadcast.

Predictable, yes. But perhaps necessary, to a point? After all, this was no mere journalist’s debut, but opening night for a genuine television star.

“It is part of the story,” said media analyst Bob Steele. “Presentation is always a part of television news.” With Couric, moreover, “her celebrity status and her physical appearance were part of her ’Today’ show persona.”

However, “It should be a small piece of the portrait,” said Steele, an ethics specialist at the Poynter Institute in Florida. “The issue is one of tone and proportion.”

The day after one of the most talked-about debuts in television history, the revamped “CBS Evening News” got mixed reviews, with many critics reserving final judgment for now. The ratings, though, were unambiguous: Opening night was a hit.

Nearly 13.6 million people watched Couric’s debut, according to Nielsen Media Research. That’s nearly double the average audience for the “CBS Evening News” last week, and the program’s biggest audience since Feb. 16, 1998, in the midst of the Nagano Olympics.

The normally top-rated “Nightly News” at NBC, Couric’s former home, was second with under 7.8 million viewers. ABC’s “World News” had 7.6 million. CBS has long been in third place.

CBS News President Sean McManus called the opening night ratings “terrific,” but said the network had always expected a significant spike at the beginning. “This was the most-hyped, most written about premiere maybe in the history of television,” he said in an interview.

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In the long run, he said, the network has set no timetable for success: “If you look at history, those shifts take months and years.”

McManus said the first show had accomplished its goal of “introducing enough new elements without changing the fact that it was a hard-news program.” Many critics, though, felt the show veered too far away from news and toward a magazine-y feel.

“A title change would seem to be in order,” in The Washington Post. “Maybe the ’CBS Evening No-News.’ Or ’The CBS Evening Magazine.’ Or ’30 Minutes.”’

In the Miami Herald, critic Glenn Garvin noted the show had not reported on a key ruling by Mexico’s electoral tribunal: “Unfortunately, neither Tom Cruise nor Katie Holmes is a member of the tribunal, so it didn’t make the cut.” (Couric had displayed the first photos of the elusive Suri Cruise, trumpeting an exclusive from Vanity Fair.)

The Los Angeles Times, though, called it “hypocritical” to criticize the Cruise-Holmes story. “It’s nothing that would be out of context on the front page of any newspaper in America,” wrote Paul Brownfield, who called Couric “an ideal figure to ease a transition toward a more accessible, less arch media elite.”

Others wondered why a new “Free Speech” segment was giving voice not to ordinary people but first to filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, of the documentary “Supersize Me,” and later this week to conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh.

Finally, there was some grumbling over Couric’s signoff feature, where she showed famous anchors both real (Walter Cronkite) and fictional (Ted Baxter) signing off, and asked viewers to send in their own suggestions.

Sexist to comment on her wardrobe?On Couric’s wardrobe, the reviews were hardly black and white — which were, of course, the colors she chose for her first outing.

Couric “oddly wore a white blazer over a black top and skirt,” Shales wrote, “the blazer buttoned in such a way as to make her look chubby, bursting at the button, which we know she isn’t.”

In the New York Daily News, critic David Bianculli called Couric “impressive ... serious at the start, folksy at the end, and poised and professional throughout.” He noted that she’d selected “a smart, crisp, white jacket over a black top and skirt.”

The rival New York Post had the opposite opinion, sartorially speaking: “For the first time in history that a female was allowed to deliver a network’s evening news alone,” wrote columnist Andrea Peyser, “Katie chose to wear an unfortunate white blazer — the result, no doubt, of some jokester lying to her face when Katie asked, ’Does this make me look fat?’ And the day after Labor Day, to boot!” (Peyser wasn’t the only writer to refer to that old fashion rule: no white after Labor Day.)

All the attention to Couric’s wardrobe — it was mentioned at least cursorily in the majority of reviews, including briefly by The Associated Press — may have been expected, but it does point out a need to be vigilant when it comes to gender issues, says Steele, the media ethicist.

“Our skewed societal lens makes it seem like appearance, when it comes to women, is more important than substance,” he said. “It’s a matter of how we do it and how much of it we do. At worst, it’s a sexist observation.”