With an eye on building audience anticipation, and maybe a little political gravitas, CBS sent its anchor-in-waiting, Katie Couric, on a six-city promotional tour, complete with town meetings. Associated Press reporter David Bauder compared her "listening tour" to Hillary Clinton's, and like the former first lady's sojourns, these were frantically pre-screened to be safe and boring. (A blogger in Minneapolis had his pen confiscated.)
Couric told gossip writer James Brady in Aspen, Colo., she was going out to see "real people," but Couric has been doing something else at tour stops. She's been raising money for local cancer charities at $150 a plate. Since her husband, Jay Monahan, and her sister, Emily Couric, died of cancer, Couric has been an active fund-raiser for anti-cancer causes. Working with a charity called the Entertainment Industries Foundation (EIF), she is a co-founder of the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance (NCCRA). They have built a Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health at New York's Presbyterian Hospital.
In her sister's memory, she has pledged to serve as honorary chairwoman of a campaign to raise $100 million for a new cancer center at the University of Virginia, her alma mater. In May, Couric gave a short commencement address at the University of Oklahoma for an eye-popping fee of $115,000, paid by private donors. The six-figure sum was sent directly to the UVA charity. Will she do more six-figure speeches for charity cash?
Couric has established an admirable record of public activism in the fight against cancer and is to be commended for her efforts. But, this also the first time one of the nation's leading news anchors has had an aggressive, high-profile side career in philanthropy (we're not counting Dan Rather's one-night stand helping raise $20,000 for the Democratic Party of Travis County, Texas in 2001). Couric's activity triggers the uncomfortable but necessary question: Is there a political conflict of interest at play here?
Reporters have been skeptical of politicians like Tom DeLay having charities (his DeLay Foundation for Kids supports abused and neglected children), viewing them as potential influence-peddling opportunities for lobbyists. Should Couric's network of charitable connections be viewed any differently?
What is to say that -- as was suggested with Delay -- the celebrities, politicians and corporate chieftains who assist in her charity work won't have a special influence, in Couric's case, on how she reports the news, the stories she pushes -- and perhaps more importantly, the stories she decides not to push at CBS?