Katie and Rush and the face of corporate news

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

There was a revealing, if unintentionally ironic, moment during Katie Couric's first week on the job as host of the CBS Evening News. It surrounded the segment called "Free Speech," which featured commentaries from invited guests. "Expressing your opinion is very American," Couric told viewers, stressing: "Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion." On Thursday night, Couric welcomed right-wing talker Rush Limbaugh who taped his 90-second contribution and took a very different tack. He suggested during his "Free Speech" commentary that the wrong kind of free speech (i.e., criticizing the war in Iraq) undermines patriotism and drags down the morale of U.S. troops. So much for CBS' attempt at a democratic dialogue. In fact, CBS' ill-conceived decision to include Limbaugh was just one of countless media missteps associated with her debut.

There was a revealing, if unintentionally ironic, moment during Katie Couric's first week on the job as host of the CBS Evening News. It surrounded the segment called "Free Speech," which featured commentaries from invited guests. "Expressing your opinion is very American," Couric told viewers, stressing: "Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion." On Thursday night, Couric welcomed right-wing talker Rush Limbaugh who taped his 90-second contribution and took a very different tack. He suggested during his "Free Speech" commentary that the wrong kind of free speech (i.e., criticizing the war in Iraq) undermines patriotism and drags down the morale of U.S. troops. So much for CBS' attempt at a democratic dialogue. In fact, CBS' ill-conceived decision to include Limbaugh was just one of countless media missteps associated with her debut.

While ABC's blatant attempt to rewrite the history of 9-11 with its widely criticized "docudrama" likely generated more cries of protest, the Couric story, viewed as a package, was almost as upsetting in terms of the collective media arrogance on display. The news anchor's public launch perfectly captured so much of what's wrong with today's corporate media, watching the press' incessant, flood-the-zone coverage of Couric, a millionaire celebrity journalist who in her first week on the job pitched softball questions to president Bush and decided Limbaugh -- who claims "what's good for Al Qaeda is good for the Democratic Party" -- represents "civil" discourse and deserved a special invitation to appear on the CBS Evening News.

On the eve of Couric's debut, the Los Angeles Times was right to report her move from NBC to CBS "has been covered with the kind of intense scrutiny and speculation usually reserved for prospective presidential candidates." Left unsaid was the fact that the Times itself published nearly two dozen articles and columns mentioning Couric during the month surrounding her debut. There's no doubt CBS pushed Couric with a shameless zeal. The FishBowlNY blog noted that on Couric's first day, there were 40 separate mentions of her on CBSNews.com. The former Tiffany network reportedly spent $10 million marketing and promoting Couric's launch, which along with her annual salary of $15 million, meant CBS spent nearly $25 million this year in making its anchor switch. (Four days after her much-hyped debut, the CBS Evening News was back in third place in the ratings race.)

Naturally, it was in CBS' financial interest to hype Couric's debut as a very big news story. But there was absolutely no reason for the mainstream media to play along and produce coverage so wildly out of proportion with the story at hand. The stampede of stories represented incestuousness run amok -- out-of-control journalists who couldn't stop writing about another (really famous) journalist. The Christian Science Monitor, as part of its obligatory Couric coverage, tried to suggest her debut was a really big deal because it had "spurred a national conversation about everything from the emphasis on celebrity in public life to gender roles and political bias in the media." But that seemed like a stretch.

And don't believe the hype that Couric's debut represented a key strategic move within the very big business of television network news and that's why it deserved so much attention. Truth is, the viewership for the evening newscasts has been declining sharply for years, with the median age of the remaining viewers now hovering around 60. In other words, it's not a particularly large viewership nor an influential one (unless you market pharmaceuticals).

Yes, the network newscasts make money, bringing in roughly $500 million in ad revenue annually. But that's nothing in the larger scheme of corporate America. There are hundreds of American companies that generate $500 million or more in revenues annually and are routinely ignored by the mainstream press. And even within the networks themselves, that $500 million number for nightly news is miniscule. Fact: The parent companies of ABC, CBS, and NBC last year took in approximately $20 billion in ad revenue, which means the nightly newscasts accounted for just 2.5 percent of the networks' total business. Again, there was simply no way to justify the Couric coverage as a legitimate business or news story.

Nonetheless, there were more than 550 separate articles and columns in American newspapers that mentioned Couric during her launch week, according to search of the electronic database at Nexis. (And that's just the newspaper tally.) The morning after Couric's debut, virtually every major newspaper in the country contained a "review" of the broadcast, treating the evening news (just as CBS did) as a piece of entertainment:

  • "Couric seemed a little stiff at times." (USA Today)
  • "Couric was great." (The Philadelphia Inquirer)
  • "Couric opened strong." (Boston Herald)

The Boston Globe gave readers an in-depth look at the design firm that created the new on-air graphics for Couric's broadcast. (Fact: The color of the line that appears on the bottom of the screen below correspondents' names has been changed to orange). And not one, but two major dailies, The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, ran features on James Horner, the hand-picked composer who created the new theme music for Couric's Evening News. The Journal thought the angle was so important the paper ran its Horner feature on Page 1. Meanwhile, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution actually assigned one of its arts-and-entertainment writers to review the 12-second theme song. ("A clichéd cross of heartland Americana and sci-fi pomp.")

What were newspapers not covering while they were so busy chasing Couric mania last week? Well, compared to the 550 Couric newspaper mentions, here were just 60 major American newspaper mentions of a new, definitive study conducted by the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York regarding the sweeping health problems facing 70 percent of the Ground Zero recovery workers. (The same workers who were assured by the government that the air quality in lower Manhattan was "safe.") In fact, here's a list of metropolitan dailies that took time to 'review' Couric's debut in their pages but, according to Nexis, made no next-day mention of the landmark Mount Sinai report:

The Arizona Republic, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Boston Globe, Boston Herald, The Charlotte Observer, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Contra Costa Times, The Denver Post, Detroit Free Press, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Miami Herald, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Orlando Sentinel, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Providence Journal, Rocky Mountain News, Salt Lake City's Deseret News, The San Diego Union-Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, St. Petersburg Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, and USA Today.

Couric herself set aside just 42 words on the Evening News to report on the just-released 9-11 health study during her Tuesday broadcast, despite the fact that days later Evening News executive producer Rome Hartman, responding to criticism that the broadcast had been on the soft side, complained that Tuesday had been a slow news day. But if it had been such a slow news day, than why didn't CBS give the landmark 9-11 health study more airtime?

Perhaps one reason was the broadcast was too busy adding non-news portions to the broadcast, including the "Free Speech" opinion segment. Executive producer Hartman assured viewers the segment would not "be a collection of the 'usual suspects' or 'talking heads'." So who appeared on the third night of "Free Speech"? Rush Limbaugh, the most listened-to pundit in America. And what exactly was the goal of "Free Speech"? "We want to encourage more civil discourse," Couric announced.

"Civil discourse" and Rush Limbaugh are terms rarely used in the same sentence. After all, it was Limbaugh who called Sen. John Kerry a "gigolo," mocked Democratic Party chief Howard Dean as "a very sick man," labeled liberal philanthropist George Soros a "self-hating Jew," and announced that Democrats "hate this country." The right-wing talker has also mocked anti-war crusader Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq, by teasing, "'Oh, she lost her son!' Yes, yes, yes, but (sigh) we all lose things.'"

And here's what Limbaugh was saying about former Senate minority leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) during the 2002 midterm elections:

  • "Is Tom Daschle simply another way to portray a devil?"
  • "In essence, Daschle has chosen to align himself with the axis of evil."
  • "You are worse, sir, than the ambulance-chasing tort lawyers that make up your chief contributors. You, sir, are a disgrace."
  • "You are a disgrace to patriotism, you are a disgrace to this country, you are a disgrace to the Senate, and you ought to be a disgrace to the Democratic Party."

Nonetheless, according to Limbaugh, Couric personally approached him about contributing to the newscast and assured him he would have freedom to say whatever he wanted, and -- most importantly, according to Limbaugh -- there would be nobody following him on the Evening News to rebut his comments.

Couric's not the only newly minted network anchor to genuflect before Limbaugh, perhaps in search of a conservative seal of approval. Just weeks after he took over the NBC Nightly News anchor chair in late 2004, Brian Williams told a C-SPAN interviewer that he felt it was his duty to listen to Limbaugh every day and hoped that Limbaugh would get his "due" as a broadcaster. Williams made no mention of Limbaugh's outlandish brand of hate speech. But that look-the-other-way approach is something of a tradition at NBC, which in 2002 famously invited Limbaugh to be an on-air commentator for NBC's election night coverage.

And just for the record, during her first week in the anchor chair, Couric did not invite an openly partisan liberal to appear on the "Free Speech" segment.

Welcome to the new era of the CBS Evening News.

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.