02.19.09

Katie Talks Katie

The CBS News anchor talks candidly about facing off with Sarah Palin, being lied to by Alex Rodriguez, how she landed Sully, why George W. Bush is smarter than you think—and of course that new haircut.

For Katie Couric—who replaced Bob Schieffer as anchor of The CBS Evening News nearly three years ago and has spent much of her time since as a television-press piñata—things are finally looking up. A small surge in the ratings for her third-place newscast has been accompanied by professional awards and critical raves, dispelling earlier rumors that Couric and CBS will part company well before the end of her five-year-contract.

“I never have judged any broadcast I’ve been involved with solely on ratings, and CBS has been in third place for many, many years.”

“If Couric stands a chance of elevating the newscast to second or first place in the nightly ratings, one reason may be that she's finally the right anchor for the times,” the Washington Post’s authoritative Tom Shales wrote the other day in the kind of media valentine that has been filling up her in-box lately. “Not simply because she is a woman, Couric has a warmer, more benevolent presence than her two competitors… That doesn't mean she tries to sugarcoat or prettify grim realities. She has proved her toughness time and again.”

On Wednesday afternoon, after a long weekend in Mexico, the 52-year-old Couric sat down with me in her windowless office in the rabbit warren at the CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th Street. Wearing sexy high boots (“I wanted to look nice for you.” that showed off those celebrated gams, she seemed grateful for her turn on the right side of the zeitgeist, as she dished about being lied to (and recently apologized to) by Yankee Alex Rodriguez, her infamous Sarah Palin interviews, her salary, and how she landed US Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger from under the nose of the Today show.

Two years ago, everybody was saying this move to the anchor desk is a disaster, Katie can’t stay here too much longer. The worm has turned—why is that?

I don’t think everybody was saying this is a disaster. I think there were a handful of media critics maybe, and then some media writers who basically regurgitated stuff that was already out there, so it became a bit of a feeding frenzy. Clearly, things weren’t going as well as we had hoped, the ratings weren’t doing as well as we had hoped. I think we had a change in executive producer pretty early on, but I never felt like my hair was on fire, and, oh my god! I also think part of it was kind of a typical hazing that you go through when you’re in a very high-profile position, and an established person coming from another network after being there for 17 years, a brand-new job that had never really been held by a solo female. So I think there was a lot of interest, a lot of the spotlight was pretty white-hot. I never felt like “Oh woe is me,” even though that New York magazine headline said, “Some mornings I wake up and say, 'Oh my god, what have I done?'” But if you open the magazine, it says, “I think 98 percent of the time I’m really happy I made the move.”

Are there days even now when you have that 2 percent?

No, no, not at all. I’m really happy I took on the challenge. I mean, it’s frustrating for me when people misrepresent things I say in that manner. It makes me embarrassed for journalism at times, but no, I feel really positive that I took this challenge head on. And there have been moments where it hasn’t all been easy, but that’s OK, too. I'm really very proud of the quality of what we put on every night. I feel the program is really good and I feel that the correspondents are really contributing great journalism.

But the ratings aren’t appreciably different—1 percent, according to the piece in the LA Times I just read.

Is that right? One percent? I don’t know. I know it’s the highest it’s been in two years. But I never have judged any broadcast I’ve been involved with solely on ratings, and CBS has been in third place for many, many years. I don’t think it’s hard-wired, but it’s one of those things that you can’t turn around overnight.

Do you feel that CBS and Leslie Moonves have lived up to the promises they made you?

Well they didn’t make any promises like, “You’re going to be No. 1.” I think Les has been extraordinarily supportive. I didn’t take this job thinking I’m going to turn CBS News around. I thought this is going to be an exciting challenge. If I can in any way contribute to the revitalization of an evening-news format, then I thought it would be an exciting opportunity.

But if you look, CBS News is closing bureaus—for instance, you have just a radio guy in Moscow now.

I think all networks are going through that, and probably most newspapers and periodicials.

You tried a lot of things at the beginning that were sort of untraditional. But now it seems like you are running a pretty traditional broadcast—why is that the case?

I think that because the people who watch the evening news are pretty traditional viewers. If you look at the age of an evening news viewer, I think it’s, what, somebody in their 60s? I think that obviously nontraditional news sources are becoming increasingly popular, and I think we tried too many things too quickly. First of all, there was a brand-new person that a lot of CBS viewers weren’t necessarily familiar with, it was a woman, and I think maybe that coupled with tweaking or altering the format too much was just too much. We were a bit naïve to think, “We’ll try things and if it doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.” But I think trying new things in this kind of venue, when people are watching so carefully, was probably a lot riskier than we anticipated.

When so many people are watching on the Internet—for instance, 7 million people saw the Sarah Palin interview online—how do you measure who’s watching, and how do you deliver the audience?

I think it’s a little retro to strictly talk about ratings, and I think you also have to talk about getting your product out there to the way people are watching, and that’s what I think about. I think about, what about that person who isn’t in front of their television at 6:30 at night watching an evening newscast? How can we get some of our really strong content to them, so they can, even watch it, not always on CBSNews.com but in other venues as well.

Has your role at 60 Minutes been as much as you’d like? Recently you obviously had a huge get with Captain Sully Sullenberger and the crew of US Airways Flight 1349.

I’d love to do more 60 Minutes pieces. It’s hard because I have a day job. To me there are plenty of great stories to go around, but I can’t necessarily take two weeks off and go to Europe or Africa, or necessarily work day in and day out on an investigative piece.

Speaking of Sullenberger, how did you get that? Did you send them cakes with funny frosting on it?

No, we just did it the old-fashioned way: hard work. And I basically think that we were able to convince them that for their first foray into the national media, a 60 Minutes piece could be produced and crafted in a way that I think would give them a high comfort level and that they would be really happy with the finished product.

What did you make of the Today show just entirely opting out of interviewing him afterward and saying “if you’re going to do that, to hell with you.”

Yeah, I mean I think there was some anger there, and I’m not sure I would’ve done the same thing. But I don’t work on the Today show, as much as I really like the people who are there, that was the decision they made.

Can you tell when someone is lying to you in an interview?

Apparently not. [laughs]

Were you surprised that A-Rod was lying to you about his steroid use, just bald-face lying?

Yeah, I was disappointed. Obviously you want somebody who’s going to be forthcoming.

Just disappointed? He used you and your air to lie.

I mean, was I livid? Well, he’s basically suffering the consequences of it. I can’t control my interview subjects and I can’t hook them up to a lie detector. He’s his own person. He wanted to present himself in a certain way and now he’s suffering the consequences of that.

He called you to apologize. Were you convinced that he was sorry?

Yeah, I mean, how do I know? But I took him at his word this time. I mean, we had a very brief conversation

How did it go?

I think he means well. I think he’s just a person who’s trying to find his way, and I think what he said really rang true about how he wished he had gone to college. It doesn’t excuse his behavior, and I’m not being an apologist for him, but I think he lacks a certain maturity and worldliness and kind of a core that only develops when you’ve had life experiences. Not to sound too psychoanalytical about it, I think some of his missteps have been directly connected to the fact that he doesn’t quite know who he truly is yet. That’s my drugstore psychiatry.

Do you think you, Brian, and Charlie are the last star anchors given the economics of the television business?

Well I don’t think we’re even star anchors

You get paid star salaries.

A lot of people get paid star salaries, Lloyd, if you look around.

In fact some have told me that you don’t make in fact $15 million but $22 million a year.

Really?

Let me give you my Larry David stare.

Haha, wow, who’s that? No that’s not true. A lot of what’s been written about that has been inaccurate.

What’s your impression of President Obama, having sat down and interviewed him recently.

I think he’s incredibly relaxed and confident, and focused, and I think he was probably making a huge effort to be the anti-Bush when he did his mea culpa about Tom Daschle, and I think he’s getting some hard lessons in the ways of Washington and that everybody’s not going to hold hands and sing “Kumbaya.” But he himself told me he never though it would be easy, he didn’t have this, “Well I’m going to change the way Washington works in the first 100 days of my administration.”

What’s the experience of interviewing him—how was that different form interviewing Bush?

I didn’t get a chance to interview President Bush all that often. I often went to lunches that I was invited to before the State of the Union, before they announced the "surge," and that was really interesting because I think President Bush felt a lot more relaxed and was a lot more facile with information and details and policy than I think probably the American people gave him credit for and were exposed to.

Do you think Sarah Palin will be a player in the future?

I don’t know. I mean she certainly seems to hold the public’s attention. She certainly is out there. I think so much can happen in four years, or can’t happen in four years, so it’ll be interesting to see. I really don’t know. I often ask people the same question and the answers are all over the map. A lot of people say absolutely not, you know, flash in the pan, and other people say she’s going to be around for a long time. She’ll be really interesting to watch, I think everyone agrees with that.

One of the things I noticed about you particularly and good interviewers in general, like with Sarah Palin, you just stopped talking. You don’t fill the silence.

There wasn’t a lot of silence to fill, and I did do a lot of follow-ups, but I did try to give her an opportunity and time to articulate her views on some pretty complex issues, whether it was the Hamas victory in democratic elections, or why a "surge" would work in Afghanistan as it worked in Iraq.

Is that a tried-and-true technique? Just not rushing to fill the awkward silence or stop the awkwardness?

It wasn’t any technique. I try to be fair, and ask good questions and have a tone that is appropriately challenging when necessary but not necessarily confrontational. Especially when someone at that point is as unknown as she was in terms of her true positions on a number of policy issues. I think tone is really an important factor. Tone, I think, makes people comfortable talking, that’s something that Jeff [Zucker, former executive producer of the Today show and now CEO of NBC Universal], and I used to talk a lot about on the Today show—my time with David Duke, when I’m quoting him saying Jews belong in the ash bin of society, when interviewing somebody who’s just suffered a terrible loss, it’s really your approach. It has to shift depending on the subject. I’m obviously going to have a different sensibility with Justin Timberlake than I have with Robert Gates.

But you can still feel comfortable doing the entertainment stuff.

Sure. Edward R. Murrow interviewed Liberace, Marilyn Monroe, and a whole host of people on Person to Person. I don’t think anyone ever questioned his credibility.

As the first sole woman anchor, what’s that experience been like? Have you felt that unique role in anything you’ve been doing?

Sometimes. I think sometimes in the way people analyze what I do. Making note of the color of my khaki pants or things that I think are—

Hair is very big, isn’t it?

Yeah, I got a haircut, which obviously created an international incident, and you know I think you’re just probably scrutinized a lot more closely. And other than that, I haven’t experienced anything major being the first woman. I think obviously I bring my own sensibilities to the broadcast, but so do Charlie and Brian, so I don’t think that’s necessarily gender-specific.

It used to be that women sort of couldn’t stay in television beyond a certain age. That’s completely different now, isn’t it?

I hope so.

Lloyd Grove is a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio and a frequent contributor to New York magazine. He was a newsmaking gossip columnist for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006 and previously wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics and the media.