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Katie Couric’s First Day

September 6, 2006

Be cynical if you like, but this was one newscast that I would not miss—because it was the one I thought I’d never see in my lifetime. When Katie Couric debuted on the CBS network news, I was there with millions of other women, cheering her on, confirming with my own eyes and ears that one more artificial barrier was gone. After all, one or two women had already become Supreme Court justices, senators and secretaries of state, heads of Fortune 100 companies, gone into space—yet until now, the anchor seat on network television has been a male preserve as sacrosanct as the priesthood. I spent 30 years as a reporter and anchor inside the American broadcasting system. I watched many a gifted journalist work her whole professional life beside an impossibility: no matter how good she was, she was not good enough, serious enough, convincing enough, or popular enough for the network anchor seat. We can only marvel at the dramatic events that had to fall into place—scandal, death, war injuries—to create an opening large enough for a woman to step through; and wonder how many more years it would have taken for a woman to assume the network throne if Katie had said no. She says she did not take the job to be the first woman—but because she’s a journalist, making a purely professional decision. And that’s the way it should be. It will be too, once we cross off all the “first woman” categories left. We still have a bit of work to do. Since the Couric announcement we are reminded, in story after story consumed by trivialities of hair and clothes, that despite its democratic ideals, America has a hard time with its women. An immature fixation on the superficial combined with a culture that abides a continuing discrepancy in participation does us as a country a great disservice. Now that women run whole countries, we might as well be a backwards nation. Of course women have made progress. It is precisely because we see so many local women anchors and reporters (now 57 % of the industry) that some people have started asking, in a panic, where are the men?  Not to worry: men occupy almost every top executive suite in media. As journalism programs have filled with women students learning the basic ropes of street reporting, the men have withdrawn to the boardrooms, managing the news and the reporters. Despite their on air presence, women news directors run only a quarter of the newsrooms; 85 to 90% of radio programmers and managers are men; several of our major newspapers have only one woman op-ed writer—against 14 or so men. According to Catalyst, the research organization that keeps track of these things, women hold only 3 % of titles in media that actually have “clout.” Katie’s real coup is not sitting at a desk, reading the news, which we all know full well she is capable of doing—and did well, with composure and aplomb, even under the enormous pressure of a first night. Rather, it is her title as managing editor, with the attendant influence on content and context, that gives rise to hope. Her arrival, bringing a taste of “woman rules,” comes just at the moment when all media rules are being torn up and re-written: when broadcast viewership has dropped by half over 20 years, and new media has gotten so good at delivering the ever-breaking story that “old school” operations—networks and newspapers—are quaking. The fact that the Couric broadcast runs simultaneously on some of the CBS radio stations and on the internet—re-playable at the viewers’ convenience—gets it right, I think. I haven’t regularly viewed a nightly newscast in several years now, but I will watch Katie at two in the morning just before I head to bed. Couric & Co, Katie’s daily blog, and a daily Couric e-mail alerting you to top stories are all standard communications tools now. I will be interested in what she has to say—and in responses from her viewers/readers. But when all is said and done, the 20 minutes set aside for the “news” in a half hour newscast is still a slight affair. I think Katie Couric can make the best of it—she is accepting ideas from a wide range of people and has said one of her goals is to bring civil discourse back into our lives. There could be many hard days ahead when Katie will have to challenge the executives who run the network—and they happen to be men: from the president of news, to the president of the network, to the chairman of the company. Let’s make sure she knows we appreciate her stepping through that door. In Katie Couric’s case, it’s not so much a glass ceiling we’re talking about as a glass house of the future with the world peering in to see what develops.
Tags: Media