Bar the door - it's Katie

Posted: Apr 05, 2006 12:05 AM

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.

For example, in 2000, ABC News selected Leonardo DiCaprio to interview Bill Clinton about the environment for Earth Day. The staff, including Sam Donaldson, and outside critics erupted in a barrage of outrage. How dare ABC suggest that a dim-bulb movie star can do the same job as a seasoned journalist? The defensiveness was telling. Because the truth is that most news readers are little more than actors. That's one reason so many attractive young women want to be an actress/model/news anchor when they grow up.

Consider Barbara Walters. In the '70s and '80s, it was drummed into us that she was the Susan B. Anthony of American journalism. Even today, whenever her bona fides as a serious journalist are questioned, she gets her hackles up and plays the angered feminist. Then she returns to asking Hollywood movie stars what kind of tree they would be if they could be a tree and hosting that paragon of Cafe Vienna Moment journalism, "The View."

Indeed, the current host of "The View," Meredith Vieira, is NBC's first choice to replace Couric. Vieira has another job: She hosts the daytime version of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" Ms. Vieira's official bio touts up front that she won a Daytime Emmy as a game show host and buries the fact she won five real Emmys for her work as a "60 Minutes" reporter.

As co-host of the "Today" show, Couric seamlessly moves from hosting a fashion show to baking ladyfingers to discussing Social Security reform. The only thing that distinguishes her "news" personality from her work as a cruise director is which camera she looks into and how she pitches her voice. Often it's difficult to tell the difference. She began one interview thusly: "When I got this assignment I thought, 'Whoa, slow news day!' But the importance of the sports bra to American women can't be overemphasized."

Again, on the merits, none of this is that bothersome if you don't take television news too seriously. What is bothersome is how seriously television journalists take themselves.