The news leaked out Monday that Katie Couric is stepping down from her failed experiment as the anchor of the “CBS Evening News.” People inside the news business greeted the news as shocking. But what’s shocking is that Couric didn’t get the boot years ago. CBS’s ratings cratered while she earned $15 million annually.
Couric was once projected as the Great White Female Hope after Dan Rather’s involuntary retirement in 2005. His numbers in his last week had dropped to a last place 8.1 million nightly audience. But what did Couric deliver?
The end may have looked near at the end of March, when CBS saw its lowest-rated first quarter among both total viewers and the prized 25-to-54 demographic since at least 1992 – as far back as Nielsen’s breakdowns for the show go. Couric was averaging only 6.4 million total viewers (and less than 2 million among viewers 25 to 54). That was way behind NBC at 9.8 million and ABC at 8.65 million.
On NPR, evening anchor Michele Norris mourned that “when you reach back to the era of Rather and Jennings and Brokaw, it seemed like getting an anchor job in the past was much like a lifetime appointment, much like a Supreme Court justice.” Media reporter David Folkenflik answered that “holding one of these jobs is no longer being one of the highest priests of journalism because the notion of authoritativeness has been undermined. Even the New York Times does not command, in some ways, as absolute a voice about what is news and what isn’t any more.”
It is refreshing that Americans today reject the notion that we should bow before the network TV anchormen as the most hallowed of political actors, let alone “priests of journalism.” In the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate period, the media asserted themselves as a fourth branch of government, abiding by left-wing urgings to resist being “stenographers to power.” So they struck their self-righteous blows against “risky” tax cuts and “foolish” wars and asserted their courage in refusing to wear flag pins.
Now they’re surprised that more than half the audience has rejected them. So much for the high priests of authoritativeness.
The media elite’s rhetoric about rejecting the “stenographers to power” label sounds most ridiculous when facing one of their heroes. There was perky Katie, grinning and bowing before President Obama on July 22, 2009. "You're so confident, Mr. President, and so focused,” she blushed. “Is your confidence ever shaken? Do you ever wake up and say, 'Damn, this is hard. Damn, I'm not going to get the things done I want to get done, and it's just too politicized to really get accomplished the big things I want to accomplish'?"
She also raved over the Obamas when she wasn’t on the White House lawn. In September of that year, Couric joined many in expecting an Obama victory before the International Olympic Committee. "The Dream Team pushing Chicago's bid for the 2016 Olympic summer games is nearly complete,” Couric cooed. “First Lady Michelle Obama landed today in Denmark where Olympic officials are meeting....The team captain, meanwhile, President Obama, arrives Friday ahead of the final vote."
Couric didn’t fail at this job or lack authority because she was the first female nightly news anchor. She lacked authority because she was such a blatant feminist and liberal activist. In her first weeks at CBS, she set the tone by attacking Rush Limbaugh as “certainly heartless” in mocking Michael J. Fox’s ads for Democrats. She supportively interviewed Fox for eight minutes on his crusade for embryo-killing stem cell research – just as she had repeatedly loaned her celebrity to the movie star’s foundation fundraisers.
Journalists hailed Couric for her pounding on Sarah Palin in 2008. As Folkenflik at NPR put it, she “earned praise” for how “her steady questioning style allowed Palin to reveal herself as uncertain, at times, of her bearing on policy issues,” which earned Couric “a bevy of awards.” But others saw it differently. She never, ever treated a Democrat this way.
Just days before, she hailed Joe Biden on the campaign trail. “He's the close-talking, free-wheeling, ice-cream eating Democratic nominee for Vice President.” His weakness for gaffes became a strength. “You say what's on your mind and I think people appreciate that,” she told Biden. “Have you found that you have to be uber-careful and disciplined in terms of being out on the campaign trail?”
No one imagines that Katie Couric’s replacement on CBS means less liberalism. The leading candidate to replace her is Scott Pelley, who’s been tougher on people he’s compared to Holocaust deniers -- global warming skeptics -- than actual Holocaust deniers, like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, whom he asserted was “genuinely religious, genuinely humble” and “said to be absolutely incorruptible as well.” The meltdown at CBS will continue.