In Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney’s black-and-white love letter to Edward R. Murrow and the CBS newsmen of yore, there was one underlying theme beneath the din of clinking highballs and plumes of cigarette smoke: the flimsiness of loyalty. When push came to shove, CBS chairman William S. Paley caved to advertisers and threw his anchor under the bus. Now imagine Murrow with a dirty-blonde bob and a pair of pricey stilettos, and here we are…in 2008.
In recent weeks, reports have surfaced that CBS and its $15 million-a-year Evening News anchor, Katie Couric, have held top-secret talks about a possible divorce before her contract expires in 2011 — perhaps even as soon as January, right after the presidential inauguration. Problem is, these supposed talks didn’t stay a secret. And while we’re loath to compare Couric to Murrow, ever since the former Today show host was promoted to the stentorian stage of network news in September 2006, gossip lovers have been treated to the kind of bitchiness and backstabbing that rivals anything you’d see in a movie — or on Wisteria Lane, for that matter. As the first woman to anchor an evening newscast alone, Couric has been painted as a naïf, a lightweight, a tempestuous diva. None of which would have mattered, of course, had she delivered viewers. Couric’s ratings were a train wreck from pretty much the start, dipping below even those of interim predecessor Bob Schieffer. After just 10 months, she seemed to be regretting her decision, telling one reporter, ”I have days when I’m like, ‘Oh my God, what did I do?”’ Was she just trying to get out ahead in the spin wars, or was she simply sowing the seeds for a departure that now looks inevitable?
Either way, a bigger question looms over the Couric affair: Would the path to splitsville be this nasty if she were a man? In 1976, when Barbara Walters cohosted ABC Evening News she endured insults from deskmate Harry Reasoner. (She is expected to reflect on this in her autobiography due out May 6.) Connie Chung didn’t have it any easier when she tag-teamed with Dan Rather in 1993. So, as nice as it would be to think that network news has evolved, it’s hard to say it has.
At first, CBS loudly proclaimed that Couric could reinvent the Evening News as she saw fit — with guest editorials, one-on-one interviews shot from an angle that would flatter her tanned gams, and even a contest to determine how she would sign off each night. But after just a few months of disappointing ratings, her revamped blueprint was crumpled up and tossed aside, until the show was virtually indistinguishable from the competition. Now, with three-plus years left on her contract, Couric could be a lame duck, even if CBS maintains that ”there are no plans for any changes regarding Katie or the broadcast.”
Then again, that’s the very same CBS that first courted her with the promise of ”blowing up” the evening news format. As Murrow himself once said, ”Anyone who isn’t confused really doesn’t understand the situation.”