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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Don't Adjust Your Set: Her Brightness Is a Contrast

September 06, 2006|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

She referred to the Taliban in Afghanistan as "Al Qaeda's best friends," as if the two groups schedule play dates. Oh, God, you thought, here it comes, what's been brewing for months and what the pundits have been pundit-ing about. It's the Katie-ing of the evening news; let the infantilizing begin.

Al Qaeda's best friends? Would Murrow have said that? Cronkite? Rather? That last guy?

And yet, nobody can turn a frown upside down the way Katie Couric can. Which is precisely why she gets away with "Al Qaeda's best friends" and why Tuesday's debut showed she is such a great choice to drag a moribund format not so much into the next century as toward the next iteration of what is, in a large sense, a commercial enterprise.

Couric, under the weight of it all, seemed to have taken herself down a notch; she might even have been nervous, quickly correcting herself when she flubbed the word "soil." On "Today" she could joke her way out of a gaffe; here, she was auditioning for the biggest part in her life.

With a woman, Nancy Pelosi, 15 Democratic seats away from having a good shot at becoming the first female speaker of the House, Couric is the first female solo Speaker of the Evening News.

And she's an ideal figure to ease a transition toward a more accessible, less arch media elite. She had toured the country, conducting town halls on what people want, and her first broadcast practically came with a How's My Driving? bumper sticker: She's taking suggestions on what her sign-off should be, and she introduced a soapbox segment called "Free Speech" that invites guest contributors to the nightly news.

Mostly, though, Couric brought what the evening news hasn't had in some time: buzz. (It's like Hollywood's best friend).

Couric is reportedly making $15 million a year in her new job. What, you wanted CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves to spend that beefing up overseas bureaus? He knows you don't watch the evening news, because he probably doesn't either. And frankly, why should you or he? I mean, what's on network news each night is far more in depth than the news crawl in an elevator and not as scary as Wolf Blitzer's Panic Room on CNN. But still, it isn't as good as the video and context you get on public television or the BBC or C-SPAN -- except in a crisis, and even then, all of our crisis counselors have gone: the late Peter Jennings, disgraced Dan Rather, gracefully retiring Tom Brokaw.

Because of those men, Couric is inheriting a role that comes with a lot of male baggage. You have to pick a face and set it there, decide whether to tilt the head for emphasis (too Jennings?).

None of this should confound Couric, though; she's a quick-change artist of the facial mood. Tuesday night she seemed determined to keep, well, a straight face, which is to say not too many faces.

It was over 15 years on "Today" that she earned the reputation for having really nice teeth (i.e., the "perky" smile), but of all the Katies on "Today," my favorite was the one who put those reading spectacles on the bridge of her nose before sitting down with a dignitary or intellectual.

That's when I was so in the moment with her it became very nearly titillating. She went without the glasses Tuesday night, sitting down for an interview with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman for some plain-spokenness about the Middle East, after a lead story on the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan and President Bush's latest poll-juicing exhortation about the threat of Islamic bad guys.

What was perhaps most striking about the broadcast, in its infancy was how it mirrored the identity crisis newspapers are going through, with readership at risk from all the sea changes in news gathering and disseminating. It has produced in the old-guard media a recognition that they'll have to be more transparent to survive -- meet me at my blog! -- more adaptable to the way we live now.

Enter Couric, who will take us by the hand, make the evening news more of a mi casa es su casa experience. It's hypocritical to criticize her for showing the Vanity Fair cover of the first public photo of Suri Cruise, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes' daughter; it's nothing that would be out of context on the front page of any newspaper in America.

But you need Couric to make the transition toward news-o-tainment seamless. She simultaneously populates the big-media hierarchy and conveys that she's not of it.

The not-of-it part was represented on Tuesday night by Morgan Spurlock, the documentary fabulist who in his film "Super Size Me" lived on McDonald's for a month to condemn the health effects of eating fast food.

He was first up in the "Free Speech" segment. It's an essay, if you will, a giving-back-of-the-airwaves to the people who, after all, own them in the first place. Spurlock used it to say: "It seems like every time I turn on the TV some 'reputable' news source is telling me how we're a nation divided.... Well, I don't buy it."

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