Sunday, April 09, 2006

Katie Couric And the Force Of Gravitas

I've been doing a lot of thinking about Katie Couric and I'm afraid. Not of her, for her. I get the distinct impression that she's being perceived as the "saviour" of The CBS Evening News, and if - or probably more accurately when - things don't improve for the program people are going to look for someone or something to blame and it's going to be her. It's starting already - most of the comments on the CBS News blog The Public Eye seem very negative and it all comes down to one thing, "gravitas" and her lack thereof.

In ancient Rome gravitas was one of the virtues that a public man was expected to have; it "communicated a sense of dignity, seriousness, and duty." In modern times it has come to mean "a sense of substance or depth of personality." Of course it most cases what it really means is to be perceived as having a substance or depth of personality. Certainly that would seem to be the case of TV news anchors - they need to be seen to have a depth of personality and substance, and even the Roman virtues of dignity and seriousness, regardless of whether they actually possess those qualities in any real sense. Consider if you will the great anchors of the past - Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, John Chancellor, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and of course Walter Cronkite. They practically oozed gravitas. There was a reason why Cronkite was known as "the most trusted man in America" - and would probably still be anchoring the CBS Evening News if he wanted it - and it was because he was perceived by the viewing public as having the sort of substance and depth of personality that demanded to be trusted. Even his personal prop (if you want to call it that) - his pipe, which he occasionally smoked during shows although not during the evening news - signified depth, dignity and seriousness. Cronkite probably understood it. Certainly Lyndon Johnson got it; Johnson's response to Cronkite's 1968 report during the Tet Offensive that the Vietnam War was unwinnable "If I've lost Walter Cronkite, I've lost Middle America." Johnson decided not to run for reelection soon after, influenced I suspect by polls which showed that his evaluation of the situation was correct.

You may have noticed that my listing of anchors with gravitas did not include Peter Jennings. Jennings is a special case, maybe the case that proves the theory. By the time of his death last year Jennings was one of the most trusted figures active in American broadcasting, certainly better respected than Dan Rather was following the "Memogate" scandal, but it was not always so. When he started as anchor of the ABC News the first time, back in 1965 he was inexperienced as a journalist and in American topics. Even at his own network in this period he was known as "Stanley Stunning" and "Peter Pretty". It took years of working in the field as a reporter, primarily covering the Middle East, to earn respect both from his colleagues and the public, so that when he was named as sole anchor of ABC's World News Tonight in 1983 following the death of Frank Reynolds he had a stature greater than that of "Peter Pretty" almost 20 years before, and the trust in him grew as his depth of personality, dignity and seriousness were revealed to the public.

So what does this have to do with Katie Couric? Through no fault of her own she lacks gravitas and has been thrust into a situation where gravitas is demanded. For the past fifteen years she has been the co-host of NBC's Today Show starting in 1991 and for two years before that, while she worked as an NBC correspondent she was also filling in for absent cast members on the Today Show. The perception is that her actual journalistic abilities is next to nil even though she has in the past served as a replacement anchor on the weekend NBC Nightly News, was a "contributing anchor" at Dateline NBC and had filled in for Tom Brokaw as anchor of the NBC Nightly News on occasion. The problem is that the Today Show isn't seen as a news program or journalism so much as it's seen as an entertainment program that occasionally dips its toes into news stories. It doesn't help her credibility that when she guest hosted on The Tonight Show on May 12, 2003 the desk was cut away to show off her legs (in fact there's a website devoted to Couric's legs). Such things don't exactly help to build a sense of "dignity, seriousness, depth of personality or substance".

Certainly this feeling is reflected in the comments to The Public Eye that I mentioned at the beginning of this piece. One person called her "a mere lollipop", while another called her "giggle-box". Yet another commenter wrote "I don't think I thought at all about her gender, hairstyle, age, etc. I thought about her credibility. She has been a morning host doing hard hitting interviews with Gwyneth and cooking with Emeril in the kitchen. Are we to assume she can put the moves on Chirac or Putin and be taken seriously?" It's that matter of gravitas again, the notion that Katie Couric hasn't paid her dues and isn't fit to fill the shoes of Cronkite, Rather or interim anchor Bob Schieffer. The initial impression of people - who of course haven't seen her in the new job - is that she's all perky style and no real substance. Instead of being perceived as a serious appointment, it is - fairly or unfairly - seen as a cynical move on the part of CBS President Les Moonves and the new President of CBS News and Sports Sean McManus to undermine the importance of journalistic experience and to emphasize the importance of personality by hiring an underqualified "star".

I'm not sure that Katie Couric will be successful in her new role. It's not a matter of her gender but whether people will take her seriously. There are other women who would probably be able to muster the gravitas that the job requires - Dianne Sawyer and Christianne Amanpour come to mind immediately. I'm afraid that I have to come down on the side of those need to have it proven to them that she can be effective at doing more than raising the ratings temporarily. I know she'll be successful in that; the question is whether she'll be able to earn the trust and respect of the viewers that is needed to keep the ratings up after the initial curiousity has worn off. I just don't know if perky and gravitas can co-exist in the same person.

No comments: