In Jordan, more somber Couric

The Baltimore Sun

Keeping her charm in check, Katie Couric made her first foray overseas yesterday as anchor of the CBS Evening News, hosting the show from Amman, Jordan.

President Bush was to have held a summit there with Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, but the meeting was unexpectedly postponed for a day, leaving Couric and her competitors at NBC and ABC scrambling to fill their broadcasts and Bush cooling his heels. The CBS anchor was plainly primed to deflate criticism that her performance has been overly chatty since she assumed the anchor position at CBS on Sept. 5.

With a backdrop of Amman minarets that was almost identical to those of NBC's Brian Williams and ABC's Charles Gibson, Couric whipped through several earnest interviews with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, and three of the network's correspondents. During her interview with Khalilzad, she awkwardly jabbed her notebook, her head tilted to one side as she asked a question.

All three evening news shows covered the same story as the main feature -- the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have fled the violence in their homeland and have settled, at least temporarily, in neighboring Jordan.

Before Couric was hired by CBS, Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a nonpartisan research group in Washington, begged the network to "seriously reconsider this public flirtation" with her. After last night's broadcast, he said she had acquitted herself well. But Felling added that he had counted at least 12 references to the fact that the broadcast was coming from Jordan.

"It was a little distracting," he said. "Aside from those verbal tics -- the constant repetition of the location -- it was a solid news presentation. [Last night's] show was an aberration from the trend toward fluff."

For Couric, the Jordan trip was a departure from the high-tech, warm-toned confines of her New York studio, where she has tried to come across as engaging and personable, exuding a far less somber demeanor than her predecessors, including Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather.

Couric, who had become a national figure as the longtime co-host of NBC's Today show, became the first female solo anchor of a major television network.

This summer, said the network was "betting a chunk of the ranch that the 49-year-old newswoman can boost ratings."

Couric's first appearance as the sole anchor on the CBS Evening News pulled the show into first place, but it has since slipped to third behind NBC and ABC.

In August, in an interview with The Sun's television critic, David Zurawik, Couric countered rumors that she would not be traveling to war zones and other danger spots to anchor the news.

"For me, family considerations are one consideration that I will keep in mind," said Couric, a widowed mother of two.

"If I had an important interview, if I had the opportunity to do real reporting, and if I felt comfortable with the situation, on a case-by-case basis, obviously, it's something I'd be eager to do," she said. "But I'm not interested in just standing somewhere in a flak jacket to say, 'Look everybody, I'm here.'"

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