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Katie Couric deserves to be watched

I hate what's happening to Katie Couric.

If, for instance, you've been in a supermarket checkout line recently, you've seen her face plastered on the cover of the National Enquirer, next to a headline that declares that bad ratings and backstabbing have demoralized her so much she wants out.

True or not, such Enquirer stories are indicators in their own way (of someone's wish fulfillment, if not necessarily hers).

You can't call Couric blameless for the rain of ill-will she's now enduring. She's been in media all her adult life and she knows full well that few worlds fulminate with gossip and backstabbing the way media do. In journalism particularly (a different subject than media, no matter how often these days the two are carelessly conflated), information is both the end product and the raw material but there are rules on how it's processed, all of which sometimes make journalists, privately, as prone to gossip as proverbial fishwives.

Couric has lived in those worlds her entire adult life. She knows that for any potential rival or competing agenda or miffed colleague, a turned back is the world's juiciest target.

What's fascinating about Couric, though, is the stratospheric amount of pure schadenfreude (pleasure in other's pain) that has accompanied her ratings woes. Clearly, there are those who really want her to fail and you can see them as "unnamed sources" in every reported story written about her, beginning with Alessandra Stanley's famous New York Times piece about Couric, back at NBC, causing underlings to flee at the very sound of the click, click, click of her "little heels" in the halls.

Whether out of restlessness or a desire to make some history or an ordinary American desire to move up, Couric took the CBS anchor job. Most importantly, she did not adamantly refuse to partake of the ridiculous hype-storm and radical revisionist chest-thumping that accompanied her accession to the nightly news throne.

That's what did her in. The CBS promo department did its work. In huge numbers, people tuned in and they didn't like what they saw and said goodbye. Lots of luck getting them back.

If CBS had truly learned the lesson of Bob Schieffer -- who, somewhat miraculously and against all conventional wisdom, posted ratings gains over Dan Rather -- they'd have soft-pedaled her accession as much as possible and let the audience find her while they got the kinks out. You don't let first year interns do brain surgery and you don't throw a huge party in your living room while you're still remodeling.

The sad fact is if you watch CBS nightly news now, it's a pretty solid old-style broadcast, with a little extra concentration on health matters, in deference to Couric's past.

What people continually refuse to see is that nightly anchor is not a journalistic job as much as it is a theatrical one. It's a role. And what we want from whoever takes the role is simplicity and reassurance. The nightly news anchor is auditioning for that moment when the country truly needs them -- election nights or, most importantly, moments of national trauma when it's their job to impart bad news in ways that keep spirits on an even keel.

In an era where absolutely no one looks to the White House to fill that central role (as people once did when Reagan and Clinton occupied it), it's even more important.

That's why Walter Cronkite was once "the most trusted man in America" and why Charlie Gibson is beating both Couric and Brian Williams black and blue in the numbers. He's a chortling, avuncular guy -- the fellow who rolls in the new keg down at the firehall when the old one is tapped out. He is continuity incarnate.

It isn't exactly gravitas Couric lacks, it's reassurance. She's small, scrappy and intense. Her eyes flash at the camera. You'd have to be blind not to see a lively inner life. She can be a good, big-hearted Aunt Katie, at smaller moments of national trauma but her very presence will never level pulse rates. She's just not bland enough.

Interestingly, CBS could have made major history if they'd talked Diane Sawyer into taking the nightly gig. Sawyer could have given the audience what it craves -- the appearance of seriousness and loftiness and that inner calm and resolution that passes for dignity in national anchordom.

What's most interesting is that CBS, in fact, didn't entirely err in plucking Couric from the "Today Show." There is a place where she'd be perfect and they seem to be beginning to understand it. As the lead correspondent on "60 Minutes," she'd be exactly what that show needs to lend fire to its perennial graveyard tilt.

News has never been a young person's subject and never will be. You need to be a little settled in your own life to care about it.

Now that Couric is anchoring a nightly broadcast that isn't trying to remake its own audience, she and CBS are doing a very creditable job.

Now is when people ought to stop by and sample her.


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