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Can Couric overcome 'fluffy' image at CBS News?

Katie Couric will make history if she takes over as anchor of the CBS Evening News in June as expected. But as the buzz about her impending departure from NBC's Today show intensifies, it is clear that she also faces a wall of questions over whether she has the right stuff to succeed as the first woman solo anchor of a network newscast.

The question being asked again and again in one form or another: Does the broadcaster who rose to prominence in morning TV as the "girl next door" have the "gravitas" to anchor the nightly news? The answers, according to some analysts, might have as much to say about societal attitudes toward women in power as they do the talents of 49-year-old Couric.

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"It's seems kind of unfair that the question is even being asked," says Marguerite Moritz, a professor of journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder who specializes in issues of gender.

"You look at Diane Sawyer, Barbara Walters or [CNN correspondent] Christiane Amanpour and you have to wonder why is there even a question as to whether women can perform at the highest levels of television journalism, when these journalists have clearly done so. Unfortunately, the question about Couric carries a larger implication about women in general and their abilities."

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Others, however, contend that questions about Couric's ability to succeed at her expected new $17 million-a-year CBS job are not as much about gender as they are a reaction to how she has conducted her career at NBC: "I don't think what you're hearing with these questions about 'gravitas' is resistance to a 'woman' sitting in the CBS anchor chair - you are hearing resistance to Katie Couric," says Lee Thornton, a former CBS White House correspondent who now holds the Eaton chair in broadcast journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"I will bet you even money if this were Christiane Amanpour, you would be hearing something quite different. Katie Couric's total career direction has not been in the tradition of a person who would head the flagship broadcast at CBS News - 'The House That Murrow [legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow] Built.' She's a brilliant interviewer. But let's face it, this is a broadcaster who is known for light-fluffy. This is also a person who went on The Tonight Show, pointed to her [breasts] and said, 'See these - they're real.'"

Given a history that includes such moments, Thornton says, it's perfectly reasonable for critics to question Couric's seriousness.

But the on-air moment that Moritz feels is most relevant came on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, when Couric was at NBC's anchor desk as terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

"If she has developed an image of being lighter-weight or softer, I suspect a lot of it has to do with the fact that she did most of her work at a morning show," Moritz says. "On the other hand, if you watched her as I did on Sept. 11, you saw her handle a big, big story for which there was no preparation. I mean, I've got the tapes, and they show her being completely in control. The person who had the harder time was [co-anchor] Matt Lauer. At times, he was struggling with his composure - while she was calm."

There is general agreement that in the wake of the attacks - and the initial absence of President Bush - TV news anchors played a major role in providing a sense of calm leadership for the country: "Until Tom Brokaw [then anchor of the NBC Nightly News] arrived, she held her own," Moritz says. "I think that is a clear example of what you might expect from her at the CBS anchor desk."

In her favor, Couric will inherit a rejuvenated newscast on the upswing - thanks to a jolt of energy and focus from CBS News President Sean McManus and the sure-handed performance of Bob Schieffer, the evening anchor since Dan Rather was forced to step down in March 2004.

The CBS Evening News with Bob Schieffer has gained some 750,000 viewers compared to the same time last year, while both the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams and ABC World News Tonight have lost audience. Since Peter Jennings left ABC's anchor desk a year ago after announcing that he had lung cancer, World News Tonight has lost almost as many viewers as CBS has gained.

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For the first time in more than a decade of dwelling in a distant third place, CBS Evening News is within striking distance of overtaking ABC - and Couric could be the beneficiary of that.

But the success CBS has enjoyed is a double-edged sword. Should the momentum falter - or worse, the ratings start to drop once Couric arrives - the blame is sure to be placed solely on her. Further pressure comes from the need for Couric to make sure that Schieffer is awarded a place of prestige within a new landscape of CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, without undermining her sense of authority as the new managing editor of the flagship broadcast.

The dictionary defines gravitas as solemnity, authority, seriousness or earnestness. When it comes to TV news anchors, gravitas is also defined by the mental image of older, gray-haired men like Walter Cronkite or Schieffer, says Donna Flayhan, associate professor of communication and media at the State University of New York at New Paltz.

Despite the fact that 30 years have passed since Barbara Walters joined Harry Reasoner at the anchor desk of what was then called The ABC Evening News, such stereotypes still hold sway: "Whatever you think of Couric's worthiness or unworthiness, you have to understand the cultural stereotypes behind the debate of whether or not she looks or sounds 'right' for the job. For a long time, 'sounds right' was defined as having a deep, male voice," Flayhan says.

"Maybe Katie Couric isn't going to be the perfect person for the CBS Evening News - I don't know," Moritz concludes. "But I think it's unfortunate that so much already seems to be riding on her failure or success with its implication that if she fails at the CBS anchor desk, no woman should be in that chair."

david.zurawik@baltsun.com


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