NEW YORK--Katie Couric, who will mark her one-year anniversary as anchor of "CBS Evening News" next week, is embarking tonight on a 10-day trip to Iraq and Syria, the first network evening news anchor to visit the war zone in six months.
It will be Couric's first visit to both countries, and the network plans to devote substantial air time to her coverage, with 16 stories by the anchor and chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan slated to run over four days. Beginning Tuesday, Couric will anchor the broadcast live from Baghdad for two nights and from Damascus another two nights.
CBS executives declined to provide other details about her travels, citing the U.S. military's request that the network withhold specifics about her movements for security reasons.
Iraq has been an especially treacherous terrain for journalists, including some high-profile television correspondents. Last year, ABC anchor Bob Woodruff was nearly killed and his cameraman Doug Vogt was seriously injured as they traveled in an Iraqi personnel carrier north of Baghdad. Four months later, a car bomb in a Baghdad neighborhood killed a CBS crew and gravely wounded CBS correspondent Kimberly Dozier. And last week, Anwar Abbas Lafta, a translator for CBS' Baghdad bureau who would have worked with Couric during her visit, was abducted from his home and murdered.
"Quite frankly, everything gives me pause about sending anybody to Iraq," said Sean McManus, president of CBS News. "It is a fact that is the most dangerous place on the face of the Earth, and every move we make over there is made with grave hesitation and trepidation. But Katie very much wanted to do this story. She feels it is the most important story that we're covering on a daily basis, and she wanted to cover it firsthand."
Couric will be the first network anchor to visit Iraq since March 2007, when NBC's Brian Williams made his third trip there since the start of the war. ABC's Charles Gibson has not traveled to the country during the current conflict.
The extensive nature of her travels and the amount of air time the network is giving the coverage will spotlight the third-place newscast as Couric observes her first anniversary behind the anchor desk.
But Rick Kaplan, executive producer of "CBS Evening News," said the trip was not planned to gin up attention for the broadcast, which has lost 8% of its viewers during the 2006-07 season.
"Only fools will perceive that," he said.
Kaplan said that he and the 50-year-old anchor have been discussing making the trip for some time, ultimately deciding that it would be most worthwhile to go before Army Gen. David H. Petraeus delivers his progress report to Congress in mid-September.
"We thought that as the American public is going to start hearing what the politicians and the generals start talking about, that wouldn't it be good if we could give them some sort of grounding," said Kaplan, who will accompany Couric on the trip, along with Washington bureau chief Chris Isham.
"We're going to take stock of all kinds of things, from the infrastructure of the country and how well that's working to various aspects of the surge to what various other countries' involvements are in goings-on in Iraq," Kaplan said. "I think you'll see, in the course of four days, a rather complete and, I think, extraordinary presentation on just where the war is, where the peace is, what is lacking from this picture, what some of our biggest obstacles are."
Though the network's Baghdad bureau has been covering those issues extensively, "there are certain things we're going to be able to do because Katie is there," he added. "A number of doors open up."
McManus said he is hoping Couric will land some high-profile interviews, adding that the anchor feels she will benefit from being on the ground in the region.
"We discussed all the potential downsides, but in the end, it's a decision that she made that she wanted to go over there," he said. "You take whatever security precautions you can, and you basically hold your breath."