The nightly news has been Katie-fied. At long last, Katie Couric debuted last night as the nation’s first female solo anchor on “The CBS Evening News” in a white blazer, rose lipstick and a pert smile — permanently affixed, whether she was talking up a celebrity baby or pondering American military efforts in Afghanistan.
“Why is it unraveling now?” she asked her first guest, the New York Times’ Tom Friedman.
With a $15 million annual salary, Mrs. Couric will receive somewhere around $50,000 every time she sits in the hallowed anchor chair once occupied by Walter Cronkite.
“I know Katie Couric, and she’s no Walter Cronkite,” said Bob Lichter of the Center for Media and Public Affairs yesterday. “At this point, the news coverage at CBS has become a function of her personal celebrity.”
The half hour unfolded in rapid-fire comments and a swirl of special effects that at one point superimposed President Bush on photos of Hitler and Lenin — in a segment on the president’s speech comparing the war on terror to World War II and the Cold War.
Mrs. Couric ruled her fancy new set in towering black pumps, and was introduced by the unmistakable voice of Mr. Cronkite himself, with snappy theme music fresh from a Hollywood composer.
“Her ascension to the anchor chair carries the unstated implications that the evening news is trying to move towards a softer, friendlier approach,” said Christopher Harper, a Temple University journalism professor and former ABC News bureau chief.
But Mrs. Couric “can’t save” CBS, he said.
Much is at stake for the network, which has been in third place behind NBC and ABC for almost a decade.
And she has much help: Mrs. Couric landed a personal interview with Mr. Bush tonight, and another tomorrow with radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh.
“It was wise for them to appear with Katie Couric,” said Rich Noyes of the Media Research Center yesterday. “If there is any unbalance in the coverage, no one can accuse conservatives of not cooperating. The unbalance would occur because CBS is slanting the news.”
The network has annoyed some.
“Conservatives have been upset with CBS for years. Remember that Mr. Bush also gave personal interviews over to Dan Rather and Bryant Gumbel, and they both gave him unfavorable treatment. Extending the olive branch does not always guarantee a fair shake,” Mr. Noyes said.
Meanwhile, the CBS Evening News will be a showcase for the “Couric brand,” according to Fran Kelly of Arnold Worldwide, an advertising agency. Mrs. Couric’s extra duties include “managing editor” plus frequent stints as a modern-girl blogger, radio reporter and correspondent on “60 Minutes.”
A recent Pew survey found that while she had plenty of cozy public recognition, Americans also described her as “liberal” and “biased.” Still, CBS has asked viewers to suggest a catchy sign-off phrase for Mrs. Couric, other than the chummy “Thank you so much for watching” she used last night.