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Couric shows grace under pressure

The young student's name was Derek O'Dell. His right arm was in a sling. Just a few hours before he'd taken a bullet to it in the Virginia Tech massacre.

He was interviewed on Monday's CBS News by Katie Couric.

He was a strong kid. He kept it together as he told the story of the horrors that happened in his class in introductory German -- the kids in the class murdered as he hid under the desk, the professor "shot in the head, I think," the sneakered foot he jammed against the door to keep a still-firing Cho Sueng-Hui out while dialing 911 on his cell phone.

He kept it together -- but barely. You knew that one misplaced word from Katie Couric could send the interview in the wrong direction in a flash. The result would be emotional breakdown, not information.

Her voice grew ever quieter and more tender as the terrors he described grew worse. She sounded like a loving aunt trying to find out what in God's name happened from a nephew who would likely spend the rest of his life reliving it in his head.

And it occurred to me that, finally, we were seeing the Couric who was, indeed, a logical candidate to take over the CBS nightly news anchor chair.

This was what she had done on "Today" during the most traumatic news stories -- Virginia Tech's near-twin Columbine, for instance. She brought to victims a tenderness that helped them get the stories out but also a gentle, unwavering insistence on getting to the facts. At the same time, when she interviewed Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger (she mispronounced it "Seeger;" Brian Williams called him "Stayger"), she pressed hard for an explanation of why there had been no lockdown after the first dormitory murder.

I'd bet that Couric's was one of the first interviews with O'Dell. Eventually he seemed to appear everywhere -- a primary source, for obvious reasons.

Nevertheless, Couric's accession to CBS' anchor throne was one of the most overdone and botched stories, I think, in American media. What were almost entirely lost were the very real and exceptional skills she's always had and has been able to display at crucial moments.

The trouble was, there would have to be such a moment for her to do it.

It came, tragically, on Monday for -- as we were told everywhere -- the worst mass shooting in American history.

A lot of the old subjects -- the money's she's paid, the gender history she made, the new world she represents, the ratings she's not getting -- are now dead. So is the new trivia -- the blog, for instance, her producer wrote for her (and, as widely reported, plagiarized, leading to dismissal).

I honestly don't think any of that matters much -- not even the ratings (CBS News brass would undoubtedly disagree).

What matters simply are that her journalistic skills, at the right time, can be formidable.

I thought of Derek O'Dell and his accidental victimization by history as I watched his exact opposite an hour later -- Britney Spears in her latest contribution to the You Tube/TMZ universe, a bitterly sarcastic rant to a paparazzo in which she lampooned the tabloid world for the way it has followed her around and battered her.

No one could deny that here, too, was a troubled young person who's clearly having a lot of trouble making sense of a vicious world. It's just that if she's not exactly making her own hell, she's its willing resident.

My money's on the kid who survived the nightmare in his first-year German class.

e-mail: jsimon@buffnews.com

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