Published on Wednesday, April 12, 2006 by the Long Island, NY Newsday
Couric Isn't Qualified to Anchor News
by Barbara Walder
What's more important in the discussion about Katie Couric and network news is not what she's been doing for the past 15 years, it's what she hasn't.
She hasn't been assigned around the country and the world in a rough-and-tumble, seat-of-the-pants struggle for stories. She hasn't been mixing it up with foreign reporters and politicians on their home ground. She hasn't fought deadlines, found surprises or earned bigger assignments. And she hasn't grown into a knowledgeable, experienced reporter who's seen the world and shown it to the rest of us.
You can't do that from the back of a limousine or the "Today" show studio. So however Katie Couric started out, instead of a newswoman, she's become a celebrity and entertainer.
That's fine for morning TV, but it's ridiculous that she was considered as the next CBS anchor and preposterous that she actually got the job. Very simply, she's not qualified.
Neither were Barbara Walters or Connie Chung. Matched up, respectively, with Harry Reasoner and Dan Rather, what they and others saw as sexism was appropriate scorn. They were anchor tokens - not talent - hired just as actresses would be, to read lines. Couric and, to a lesser extent, Elizabeth Vargas at ABC, fit the same mold.
It's a shame, because there are truly talented newswomen who could do the job - who started out just like men with a passion for the news, going to war zones and capitals here and abroad, with courage and creativity.
And network TV, with less tradition and more flexibility than print media, seems to have more talented, broadly experienced women. But, as often happens with women and minorities in all kinds of jobs, the men in suits who do the choosing - culturally lagging years and even decades behind the rest of the country - are more comfortable with the mediocre than the superior.
It's all about tokenism. The result is, as a woman, I'm embarrassed by Katie Couric, TV anchor, in the same way some black Americans seem embarrassed by Clarence Thomas, Supreme Court justice. It's as if we want to say - as women, blacks, whatever - "We can do better than this!"
Couric might have been able to do more, too. As has been pointed out time and again, she started out in "hard" news, but went "soft" when the "Today" show was offered.
If she had wanted to, she probably could have made a news career. But it's use it or lose it. Dumbed down by "Today's" infotainment and Olympic shilling, and without those 15 years developing crucial tools and experience, how can she tell us real news stories anymore, or even know what they are?
It's impossible to see how she can be an effective managing editor for CBS' network news, especially at a time when all network programs need to be challenged and invigorated.
It's a shame more media critics don't point out the obvious, but many want to keep their connections and job options in TV, while others, such as CNN's Howard Kurtz, are already employed by TV and not likely to bite the hand that helps feed them.
It's also a shame that more women don't take themselves seriously enough, or have enough courage, to speak up. We're not all the dopes TV executives think we are. If you give us a qualified female broadcaster and an innovative broadcast, all of us - the whole desirable age range and beyond - will watch.
But right now we're stuck with Couric, who seems more interested in herself than the news. Why else would she reportedly even think about bringing "soft" news producers with her, when she needs all the help she can get from the experienced CBS producers? It appears it's image-making and ambition, rather than a passion for the news, that's propelling her.
As for the much-debated gravitas, that's simply the accumulated authority that comes after years as a journalist and newsperson. Women already in TV news have it, just not Couric and women with her focus.
I think the chivalrous Bob Schieffer, who said he's pleased she'll be taking the anchor seat, would view a man with her credentials differently. And as for men evaluating Couric and other women now, it's easier to give praise than to hear accusations of sexism.
It's up to women to demand a fair fight. When competing with men, golfer Michelle Wie will be no more than a gimmick until, instead of being comped in, she qualifies for tournaments like everyone else. Female anchors will continue to be lightweights until they qualify, too.
For them, that should mean that only those who can anchor a presidential debate should anchor a network newscast.
I don't think Couric could pass that test, do you?
Barbara Walder is a Manhattan-based writer on women's issues and sports.
© 2006 Newsday Inc.