For Couric, 'Today' is past


American presidents have left the Oval Office with less fanfare and ritualistic pomp than Katie Couric's monthlong departure after 15 years from NBC's Today show. And it all culminated yesterday in a three-hour orgy of nostalgia and Katie-worship that showcased some of the best and worst of network television news.

Excessive and over the top? How could a telecast not be when it opens with the kind of hyperbole co-host Matt Lauer served up at the very start of the show: "You have, Katie, dazzled us with unsurpassed grace, wit and charm."

Unsurpassed? How about Jackie Kennedy, Dorothy Parker and Audrey Hepburn for grace, wit and charm, respectively? But it wasn't a morning for such restraint on NBC - and for true Couric believers, maybe it shouldn't have been.

No medium does video production like American network television, and the Today crew, under the leadership of executive producer Jim Bell, did a superb job of making the three hours sing, swing and occasionally even touch one's heart.

The montages of moments from Couric's career - from her serious coverage of the aftermath of Katrina, to lighter moments focusing on her wardrobes and hair - consistently evoked memories and often induced smiles.

The concert-in-the park musical moments, staged in Rockefeller Plaza, leapt off the screen with energy. Martina McBride's introduction to "This One's for the Girls" verbally linked Couric to female achievement, and then the song itself sealed the deal emotionally.

And who could resist 79-year-old Tony Bennett singing "The Way You Look Tonight" after it was introduced as the first song to which Couric and her late husband, Jay Monahan, danced at their wedding?

But, as is often the case in network television, the producers also did not know when to stop.

Most questionable was a segment featuring six people who had been involved in personal and national tragedies, ranging from the parents of a child dying of cancer, to survivors of the attack on the World Trade Center on Sept. 11.

Today newscaster Ann Curry set up the sequence saying, "What's amazing, Katie, is how you held America's hands through a lot of difficult times." Curry's words were followed by survivors thanking Couric in-person.

"In meeting her and talking to her, it helped heal me as well," said Lauren Manning, who was burned in the World Trade Center attack.

"I'd like to say directly to Katie, thank you for helping me to heal," said Trisha Meili, who came to be known as the Central Park jogger after she was viciously attacked while running in Manhattan.

Celebrating a morning show host for brightening a viewer's day is one thing, bringing guests on who describe what she does in the language of spiritual transformation or medical cure crosses the line into overkill. One should not confuse TV popularity with the power to heal. As much as we have become a television culture, there is still a difference between being a TV anchorman or anchorwoman and a medical doctor or member of the clergy.

Nor should one mistake reading the news with covering it.

As skillfully as the montages were produced, there was at least one highly questionable editorial choice. Under such headlines as "Smart" and "Tough," Couric, who is leaving Today to become managing editor and anchor of the CBS Evening News, was shown reading stories about earthquakes, floods, Sept. 11 and the war in the Iraq.

There is nothing particularly tough about reading news stories in a New York studio about a war in the Middle East.

Given the deaths of two CBS News staffers and serious injuries to correspondent Kimberly Dozier on Monday, either NBC producers or Couric herself should have been more careful or respectful of those who really are putting their lives on the line to bring the war - not just read stories about it - to American viewers.

Two-thirds of the way through yesterday's extravaganza, Couric described the proceedings as a "celebration of moi - ad nauseam."

Most likely, she was trying to use a bit of sarcasm in hopes of not appearing too taken with herself.

If so, she failed.

In 2004, NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw seemed genuinely embarrassed by the on-air sendoff that the network gave him even though it was far more restrained and modest. Couric, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy almost every moment of her farewell yesterday - and to think such overblown talk about her "holding American hands" and "healing" people was her due.

It might have been a great send-off from NBC's Today, but, perhaps, not such a wise projection of the woman picked to lead the flagship broadcast at CBS.

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