After two years of stories about bad ratings and an uncertain future, Katie Couric is back to making news the old-fashioned way — with her work.
The “CBS Evening News” anchor is on an impressive run of interviews, including a “vice presidential questions” segment in which she will ask Sarah Palin and Joe Biden about abortion and the separation between church and state on the show Wednesday and Thursday.
This comes after getting John McCain to come by her studio last week on the day he announced the suspension of his campaign and — much to David Letterman’s chagrin — use that venue to explain his decision to the American people.
Her program won an Edward R. Murrow award as the best newscast from the Radio and Television News Directors Association over the summer and is gelling after its shaky start, although it’s still a distant third behind ABC and NBC in the ratings. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture between NBC Universal and Microsoft.)
“I’ve never really lost confidence in my abilities, which I guess is pretty miraculous,” Couric said Tuesday. “I didn’t really have a lot of platforms to do what I excel at, which is talk to people and do interviews.”
ABC’s Charles Gibson beat her to the Palin interview, but Couric was the first to speak to McCain and Palin together. Her talks with Palin, done in five separate sessions including backstage at a campaign rally, have aired this week on the “CBS Evening News.”
Couric interviewed congressional leaders Monday on the failure of the Wall Street bailout plan. Her talk with McCain last week was set up without knowing the GOP presidential candidate had backed out of a Letterman appearance the same night; Couric had no comment on Letterman’s relentless attacks on McCain since then.
Getting to the candidates’ heart and headThe broadcast has gotten its most attention with its semi-regular “presidential questions” segment, which started during the primaries. Each candidate is asked the same question, then given time to answer it. The segments run seven or eight minutes, considered an eternity in a 30-minute evening newscast, and aren’t chopped into soundbites.
The idea is to get into the candidates’ heart and head, and not ask something that would put them on automatic pilot, said Rick Kaplan, the program’s executive producer.
McCain and Barack Obama were asked to describe a personal flaw that they thought might hinder their ability to be president. They’ve been asked to describe a situation where they thought it was appropriate to lie to the American public, and about their favorite books and movies.
Couric asked each of them: “Why do you think there has not been another terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11 and, as president, what would you do to prevent another one?”
“You’re going to give them a lot of airtime, so you want to make sure your questions are not insipid or ridiculous,” Kaplan said.
During the primaries, several candidates — including John Edwards — were asked: “Harry Truman said a man not honorable in his marital relations is not usually honorable in any other. Some voters don’t feel comfortable supporting a candidate who has not been faithful to his or her spouse. Can you understand their position?”
Couric’s favorite is when she asked candidates, “What are you most afraid of losing?”
Grilling the potential vice presidentsPalin and Biden were asked to explain why Roe vs. Wade was a good or bad Supreme Court decision. They were asked to describe a Supreme Court decision that they disagreed with.
They’ll also be asked about Thomas Jefferson’s writings on the separation between church and state.
Kaplan said he felt Couric handled the Palin interview with “polite persistence.” The veteran newsman, who has produced Peter Jennings and Ted Koppel among others, said he’s never worked with a better interviewer than Couric.
Her “CBS Evening News” interviews now are usually pointed and direct. Although Couric doesn’t necessarily agree — she’s proud of her Michael J. Fox interview from her first months — initially it seemed she did some interviews simply for the sake of using that skill.
“When you try to do those that are artificial, most of the time they blow up in your face,” Kaplan said.
One disheartening sign for CBS is that the broadcast hasn’t moved much in the ratings. But Kaplan noted that CBS was second behind ABC for its coverage of the first McCain-Obama debate last week.
“The joy for me is that she’s getting her due now,” Kaplan said.