Katie in Kabul
Joseph Epstein, last of the news-watchers
May 30, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 35 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
By the time you read this, Katie Couric will no longer be the anchorwoman on the CBS Evening News. She could not do what she was paid $15 million a year to do: bring up the ratings for CBS prime-time news and with them its advertising revenues. Both fell further during her tenure. While advertising revenues are down 9.1 percent for prime-time news shows generally, CBS’s revenues fell, according to the Wall Street Journal, a full 23 percent.
I have been among Katie Couric’s dwindling audience, and, in perhaps a slightly perverse way, I shall miss her. Prime-time news in Chicago goes on at 5:30 p.m., which is drink time chez Epstein: specifically, time for a glass of cold Riesling and a handful of Paul Newman pretzels, which, as the spoonful of sugar did to the medicine, helps the news go down. My demographic cohort, to use the charming advertising phrase, is the chief audience for prime-time news, or so I judge from all the Viagra, Plavix, Boniva, and other older players’ medicines, palliatives, and panaceas hawked on all three news shows.
I have a dim memory of a stern gent named John Cameron Swayze (great portentous name) doing prime-time news. I recall Edward R. Murrow, broadcast journalism’s Mother Teresa, demeaning himself on a show called Person to Person, in which one night I heard him ask, “Fidel, is that a baseball bat in the corner there?” “That’s right,” the genial dictator replied, “love de game of baseball, Ed.” I remember Huntley and Brinkley, and enjoyed Brinkley’s subtle hints that politicians were not to be taken entirely seriously.
By the time Walter Cronkite came along I was old enough to realize that behind his avuncular omniscience was a man with a face only a nation could love and who knew even less than I about the way the world works. The blandness of Tom Brokaw made me doubt even the greatness of his Greatest Generation. Peter Jennings I thought a nice enough looking shaygetz, but unduly soft on Araby.
In the era A.C. (after Cronkite), I began watching Brian Williams, who easily had the best tailoring. But Williams ended his show with a segment called “Making A Difference,” which usually entailed some retired steel magnate teaching ghetto children how to make lanyards, and, frankly, I could never see the difference it might make. I tried a guy named Charlie something or other on ABC, who was substituting for the deceased Peter Jennings, though it was evident that he had neither the requisite hairdo nor smile for the job. When ABC brought in as its new anchor Diane Sawyer, with her heavy-breathing empathy, I was out of there.
That left me as part of Katie’s diminishing audience on CBS. In the meanwhile, progress being our most important product, I had acquired a television set with a DVR, which allowed me to record shows and movies to watch when I wished. Best of all, a pre-recorded show could be fast-forwarded. This meant that, by recording beforehand, I could eliminate all the commercials on the evening news and all those weepy stories that they all go in for: stories about veterans missing limbs, young children with cancer, old people whose homes have been wiped out in floods. (Television news likes people crying on camera; if it weeps, it keeps.) The happy effect has been to get the formerly 30-minute evening news down to roughly 12 minutes.
For a while I thought myself rather grand in overlooking all the standard prejudice against Katie Couric: that she was a light (make that a bantam) weight, syrupy, a dope generally. I would sometimes tell people that whoever was editing her show was selecting more interesting stories than were available on ABC and NBC, and for a while I think that may have been so.
But soon Katie, like all television anchors people watch with any regularity, began to get on my nerves. Given her widely known salary, it was hard to credit her sympathy for people suffering mortgage foreclosures or other economic hardships. She had acquired two physicians as medical reporters, always ready with news about the latest false cures for hideous diseases, who resembled no one so much as aging Barbie and Ken dolls. One night when she wasn’t on set, a man named Harry Smith announced, “Katie’s in Kabul.” Katie in Kabul, Katie in Kabul—I couldn’t get the phrase out of my mind; it reminded me of Eloise at the Plaza.
Katie’s replacement on CBS News is a man named Scott Pelley, who has the mien of a ticked-off Niles Crane, from the Frasier sitcom. Pelley threatens more hard news under his—is there such a word?—anchorship. He, I suspect, will drive me back to Brian Williams; to Diane Sawyer I cannot return. But, then, what does the news matter if the Riesling is good.