Thursday, June 14, 2007

Dan Rather and Katie Couric

You may have been following the debate about what Dan Rather said concerning Katie Couric's low ratings as the head anchor (in the position that used to be his):

From the June 11 edition of MSNBC's Morning Joe:

SCARBOROUGH: You know, Dan, the thing that Chris Licht [executive producer of MSNBC's Scarborough Country] was talking about -- maybe you read in the Times, or I don't know where you read it -- but there was, seemed to me, this terrible miscalculation by Rome Hartman and a couple of CBS News execs that they were going to soften up the news, and that way they could expand their viewership. Yeah, I would think that if I'm sitting down at 6:30 to get the news, to see what's happened in the day, I don't want fluff stories. Do you think that's one of the problems that Katie Couric's had coming in -- that maybe they tried to re-brand the Evening News in a way that Americans just didn't want to accept?

RATHER: Well, I totally agree with you, Joe. That -- I want to make very clear that I have nothing against Katie Couric at all. She's a very nice person, and I have a lot of friends at CBS News. However, it was clear at the time -- and I think it's become even clearer -- that the mistake was to try to bring the Today show ethos to the Evening News and to dumb it down, tart it up in hopes of attracting a younger audience. And I just don't think people at 6:30 or 7 o'clock at night, or even 5:30 in the Central Time Zone or 6 o'clock when it's seen, that that's what they want. This is the continuation of a trend that we've talked about before, Joe and Mika [Brzezinski] and John [Ridley], and that is the combination of what I call the corporatizing of the news, has led to the trivializing the news.

I bolded the crucial sentence in that quote. Now, what happened next is that the well-known feminist and supporter of women everywhere, Russ Limbaugh, chipped in:

LIMBAUGH: Yeah, this is a clever technique, folks. I myself have used this technique. I love Katie Couric! Oh, I love CBS -- I've got friends at CBS News. A lot of respect for what goes on over there. And then you slam them. Tarting up the news. Dumbing it down and tarting up the news. The Today show ethos.

Now, when I saw this last night -- I was talking about this -- I said this is -- that's sexism. Dan Blather [sic], this is pure sexism -- dumb it down and tart it up. So we went back today. Here's a montage of Dan Rather on the air on election night November 2000. This is a montage of Dan Rather's coverage. And let's listen to dumbing it down and tarting it up.

And the public debate has been framed! Dan Rather is sexist! But Rush Limbaugh is not. I want to crawl into my bed and pull the pillows over my head. Wake me up when a saner world has been born.

Luckily, Jennifer Pozner has presented a more nuanced view of all this, and her arguments are available on video.

Here is my recap on the issues: There are two separate questions floating about in this discussion. One is about what the tone and contents of the news should be. The other is about whether women are up to presenting evening news and whether the audience wants to watch a woman in that role in general. It is quite feasible to keep the two questions separate for analytical purposes, and I intend to do that. But in terms of the actual decisions of the CBS they are rather deeply intertwined, and I intend to address that, too.

First, the selection of Katie Couric for that post was partly because the CBS wanted the news to become something different, something more like what Couric's morning program achieved. Perhaps the idea was that this would appeal to women, say. Or perhaps the idea was to just do something new, in the hope that people would be interested. Let's keep in mind that Couric wasn't the only woman CBS could have picked. There were several other possibilities, many of them very qualified indeed. That she was picked means that a certain tone and approach was preferred.

Now, this tone and approach is something I don't like in the evening news, and neither do many other people, I've noted. But this does not mean that it is Couric's gender that I would disapprove of. I disapprove of the way the program does the news.

Second, it is probably true that some viewers disapprove of Couric's gender, in that place of authority. Perhaps even many viewers do. Does Dan Rather? There is no way I could tell, but I haven't noticed him talking in the same way as Rush Limbaugh does about the dangers of "chickification" of the American culture. So perhaps Rather's statement should be interpreted with a certain amount forgiveness here. He may just have been carried away with his disappointment over the recent developments.

But here's where the two arguments must be brought back together: CBS must have known that picking a new approach to news and then picking the first female anchor for the evening news will cause the two decisions to be united in many minds. If the approach fails, then Couric can be blamed for that, or rather the sexism of the audience can be blamed for the failure, not the bad plan to begin with. And Rather's use of "dumbing down and tarting up" certainly contributed to the identification of what is wrong with the CBS evening news with the gender of Katie Couric. It also slapped lots of women right in their faces, whether he intended that or not.