It looks like Katie Couric, that apple of America's eye, will be the next anchor of "CBS Evening News," arguably the most prestigious job in television journalism. Not only will Couric be following in the footsteps of Murrow, Cronkite and Dan "Fake But Accurate" Rather, she'll also be joining the bullpen of "60 Minutes," the best TV news magazine in the history of television.
There is nothing the press likes to talk about more than the press, so we can be sure we will be hearing about Couric's career move ad nauseam. Much will be made about Couric the Female Pioneer who has finally broken the glass ceiling for female news anchors (though Connie Chung did briefly co-host "CBS Evening News"). Others will find even more evidence that it pays to be a conventional knee-jerk liberal in the mainstream media. Most media critics, however, will focus on the inside-baseball stuff like ratings and staff musical chairs at the various networks. You can be sure that TV writers will form something of a Manhattan Project to discuss her hair, clothes and level of perkiness once she starts reading a TelePrompTer every night.
But one thing few people invested in the glamour and seriousness of big-league television news will say is what a sham the whole enterprise is. Broadcast journalism is one of the only fields in American life where the job gets demonstrably easier the higher you go. Or, to be more fair, the parts of the job that have to do with what everyone thinks of as "journalism" get easier and easier, and in some cases the journalism simply vanishes altogether.
Consider how the respected television analyst Andrew Tyndall defines the job of news anchor. The job has two parts, he told The Washington Post. First, they have to read the TelePrompTer. The second part involves "sitting behind the desk when there's a crisis."
One can be as charitable as possible, conceding that reading a TelePrompTer convincingly in front of millions of people is not a skill all of us have, and it's still difficult to find what most of us would describe as journalistic substance there. And if CBS pays Couric the $15-million-a-year salary that's been reported, she will be compensated to the tune of roughly $60,000 per half-hour of on-camera work (that assumes no vacation time, by the way).
Now, as a free-market guy, I have no huge ideological problem with this. Executives at CBS have apparently concluded that they can sell more soap by having Ms. Couric read the news. What bothers me is all the reverence the rest of the media has for the people at the top of their profession and, worse, the grand fiction that there is a high wall between entertainment and news.