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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

It Isn't the Old Evening News on CBS Anymore

April 06, 2006|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

Katie Couric said Wednesday morning on "Today" that she felt like Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz."

It had to do with how Matt Lauer is her Scarecrow and she was going to miss him the most. "The Wizard of Oz" is about a girl in a blue dress who, during a tornado, has a strange dream and then wakes up to find her family and friends all around her and very concerned. As you can see, it's all about Dorothy; we really don't get much news about the tornado.

"I really feel as if we've become friends through the years," Couric told viewers, confirming that she would leave the broadcast in May after 15 years to become anchor of the CBS Evening News. In the end, the media kerfuffle surrounding Couric's departure from "Today" and ascension to evening anchor had put us all around Dorothy's bed, post-fever dream, Couric exclaiming: "And you, and you, and you, and you were there!"

Though she isn't the first woman to anchor a nightly newscast, there's a "Hillary for president" tinge to the appointment. In both women, the personal narrative -- in Hillary's case, her husband's infidelity; in Couric's case, the struggles of solo motherhood after the 1998 death of her husband to colon cancer and her colon-cancer-screening advocacy -- is inseparable from the professional ambition.

It's what makes Couric and Clinton interesting as characters, the tension of their venturing into arenas of public life dominated by double-breasted suits and masculine rectitude.

The punditocracy debating whether she's too perky to be nightly newsworthy is precisely the sort of noise, sexist or otherwise, that CBS is buying for a broadcast that CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves had said needed reinvention.

Signaling his attitude about a successor, Moonves, who has an old-school belief in the appeal of bona fide TV stars, declared that younger viewers in an Internet age have no strong fealty to a single "voice of God"-type anchor.

He raised eyebrows by not discounting the idea that "The Daily Show's" Jon Stewart might have a place on some future incarnation of the evening news. What Moonves was rightly acknowledging is that comedy is increasingly the default position for all kinds of information aimed at youth, from cellphone ads all the way up to the war on terror.

"The Daily Show" gets a disproportionate amount of media coverage relative to its viewership. But news outlets of all stripes recognize that the show represents a subtly evolving, younger-demo news fluency -- one that embeds information in pop irony directed at an audience that doesn't necessarily distinguish an old-guard outlet from a new one.

Couric, then, seems like a halfway-between-the-two-approaches. She represents not comedy but something related, anyway -- empathy.

Whether or not it's an act is an after-the-fact concern, as with Bill O'Reilly's successful rage-based approach on Fox News. A quick-change artist of facial expressions, she's someone who has practiced serious journalism but who doesn't exactly represent a firewall between news and entertainment, having guest-hosted "The Tonight Show" in 2003 as part of a May sweeps stunt on NBC.

On Monday she was back on "Today" after a vacation; I'm sure she reported on something serious, but what stopped me was her dancing with Antonio Banderas to promote his new movie "Take the Lead." That was the live-through-Katie moment, what they pay her for. By Wednesday she was confirming that she was the new face of CBS News, where presumably there will be no on-set dancing.

Making the announcement on "Today," with Matt and Al Roker and Ann ("it feels like my sister is going off to college") Curry surrounding her, Couric got teary, doing what she does best, creating intimacy on what is, after all, a set. Now she will have to change character a bit so as not to clash with the carnage each day in Iraq. Or maybe she won't clash: Couric isn't Cronkite, but the news business is also not in Kansas anymore.

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