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Katie Couric's intricate TV dance: Critic's Notebook

Give her this — Couric's got moxie. Her CBS News contract is up and what does the coy anchor want to talk about? Her new book.

April 14, 2011|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Matt Lauer, left, interviews CBS News anchor and former "Today" co-host Katie Couric on the "Today" show.
Matt Lauer, left, interviews CBS News anchor and former "Today"… (Heidi Gutman / Associated…)

"What advice would you offer young people trying to succeed today?" is the slowest-pitch softball in journalism — right up there with "How do you respond to your critics?" and "Who are you wearing?" It's the question of last resort, the one you ask when it becomes clear that you have exhausted all other topics of interest and still have five minutes to fill.

So there is something telling, and distressing, about the fact that after five years of anchoring "CBS Evening News," this is the question Katie Couric chose as the keystone for her new book. "The Best Advice I Ever Got" is a collection of "try, try again" essays that Couric procured from a wide, though not terribly deep, bench of people she had interviewed and worked with, mostly during her long stint on the "Today" show.

Watching Couric return to her native land of morning television to shill this book is equally symbolic and disturbing. As the multimillion-dollar contract for her unsuccessful stint at CBS winds down — despite Couric's high likability quotient, ratings have done nothing but slip — many are predicting that she will take her lemons and make lemonade by returning to the talk-show format. There, as she recently told Matt Lauer, she would have more room for her personality.

Work hard, have faith and embrace failure are the book's unsurprising themes — in Couric's worldview, no one has ever gotten ahead by threats, string-pulling, bullying, backstabbing or making a shady deal. No word is breathed about, say, having a good lawyer or understanding the power of publicity or working the room or leveraging your brand. Even Alex Rodriguez, who lied to the world — and Couric — on "60 Minutes," about his steroid use is allowed a sentimental paean to the combined efforts of his mother and an early coach who "taught me to trust my inner voice."

It's all about moxie (Couric), about getting to work early (Michael Bloomberg) and listening well (Larry King). One could argue that Couric's book is the embodiment of the decline of television news coverage — why would anyone answer an actual question posed by a reporter when, if he or she waits long enough, someone like Couric will let them email their response to a softball?

Couric's move from morning television to the nightly news was a big story, as was her $15 million a year salary, which means the decision to not renew her contract by this June, mutual or not, is also a big story. Much bigger than the publication of a book in which Matthew McConaughey exhorts readers to "never give up," a book that has, it must be added, Couric on the cover, in white button-down shirt, black pencil skirt and girl-next-door grin — in case you've forgotten for just one minute the brand you are purchasing.

As both "The View's" Barbara Walters and Lauer tried to pin Couric down this week on her plans for the future — Lauer, bless his heart, actually came right out and asked whether she had already made the decision but was just refusing to answer. Meanwhile, Couric demurred on "The View" on Tuesday morning, smiled coyly, and when Walters persisted, grew just a tiny bit impatient. Couric wanted to talk about the book!

It's apparently just coincidence that the book debuted mere weeks before Couric would either end or renegotiate her high-profile contract with CBS News — a happy bit of timing that she could not have possibly foreseen after 350 years in the business, some of it spent interviewing countless authors with similar hopes and tactics!

Why, oh why, does everyone keep asking her these questions — "I don't like this part," she told Lauer with an uncharacteristic flash of stoniness — when she has told them, with her sincerest wide-eyed look, that she Just Doesn't Know Yet.

Although, she has to admit, as she did to Lauer, there are clear advantages to a syndicated show — not so many critics breathing down her neck, more "wiggle" room to address the issues that really matter to her, a chance to "roll up her sleeves" and "dig deep" (though apparently not for new metaphors). But she really loves her job at CBS News! Really! The night Walter Cronkite took her out to dinner will never be forgotten, and it was great to have "front row seats" in Haiti and Egypt as well!

If that's not moxie, folks, I don't know what is. There is a breathtaking aspect to watching Couric work this moment, nodding vehemently as if her words weren't seven varieties of vague, smiling as sweetly as Scarlett O'Hara at the Twelve Oaks barbeque while the morning anchors try to get a straight answer out of her.

If there's one thing Couric knows, it's television. The medium has been very good to her, and she understands its most intricate dance steps. Nod while refusing to answer, make faux self-deprecating comments ("You know me, Matt"), and when all else fails, quote Linda Ellerbee. And if her brand is not quite elastic enough to make her a successful nightly anchor, well, it's just that she's got too much personality for the job.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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