The Two Faces of Katie Couric
TOUGH INTERVIEWER AND CLASS CLOWN, THE "TODAY" SHOW CO-HOST IS BOOSTING HER PROGRAM'S RATINGS AND ENERGIZING NBC.
Judy Flander, a Washington, D.C. based journalist, writes frequently on television news.
A friend of Katie Couric's was sitting in a San Francisco bar waiting for a companion when she overheard five guys next to her raving about how much they liked the newest NBC "Today" show co-host.
Couric is no sex symbol, they agreed. But, one said, "She's the kind of girl you'd like your daughter to grow up to be just like."
Recounting this anecdote, Couric laughs. "I was a little offended they didn't find me at all appealing in the sexual sense and I think it's a funny story."
Everyone's mom loves her, too, says Couric. "I think I'm wholesome," she adds with a wicked grin. "Pretty darn wholesome."
Wholesome is an understatement. A high school class of '75 cheerleader, gymnast, runner, National Honor Society member and school newspaper scribe, then a college class of '79 American Studies honor student, Delta Delta Delta sorority sister and campus newspaper associate editor. No drugs, no controversy, no political protests.
"Maybe it's trendy to be ordinary," muses Couric.
Squeaky clean, maybe. But ordinary? No way. In a Cinderella-like ascent, Katherine Couric – a diminutive, 35-year-old straight arrow from Arlington, Virginia – has jumped from local television news correspondent to co-host of NBC's "Today" show. An accomplished reporter and irrepressible comic, she's given the once foundering "Today" renewed energy, a sense of humor and a huge boost in the ratings. And in the process she's become a media star – without forsaking her hard news background.
Bouyant and Blunt
Couric is a class clown. If you hear someone singing in the "Today" show offices, you can be sure it's she. "I kinda pretend I'm like a lounge lizard around here," she says, producing an echo mike from her office cabinet and belting out, "L is for the way you look at me!"
"She's a terrific shot in the arm for everybody," says NBC Executive Vice President Donald Browne. "Not just for the 'Today' show, but for the whole organization."
People feel good just being around her and that quality leaps through the TV screen. "The camera doesn't lie," says the morning show's Jeff Zucker, who, at 27, could be the youngest executive producer in network television. "The great thing about Katie is what Katie is off the air, Katie is on the air," he says. "I think the viewer through the camera has connected with her.
"The key to a morning show is that they are personality-driven," Zucker continues. "Bryant Gumbel is a very strong personality. So is Katie. That's why their combination has really worked." With what he considers the two "greatest interviewers on morning television," Zucker has been working to make the show harder-edged but at the same time hipper and happier.
Co-hosting "Today" requires Couric, a former Pentagon reporter, to not only be up on current political issues, but current Top 10 hits as well. "She is very aggressive, very competitive, she has fire in her belly," Zucker says. "She is also very playful, very much a child of pop culture." That means, she says, "I can handle all the minutiae of my generation. I'm just up on the trends and what is happening. My finger is on the pulse of movies and television shows."
Such attributes are uniquely suited to morning "news" programs that, in addition to interviews with top newsmakers, feature friendly chats with actors, authors, musicians and the leads of network programming, as well as generous dollops of happy talk.
There she is, with what NBC anchor and former "Today" host Tom Brokaw describes as "her mix of effervescence, self-deprecating humor and empathy for the human condition." She's hugging a cat, gently stroking the foot of a Romanian baby held by its adoptive mother, patting Bryant Gumbel on the shoulder reassuringly when he thinks the program's getting a little too wacky, reaching over an ice cream counter to smooth Macaulay "Home Alone" Culkin's hair, taking a puff out of a huge stogie in Cuba – and liking it.
She seems too good to be true. Yet when one digs around for dirt on Couric, she comes out spotless. "Betcha nobody says anything bad about Katie" is a constant refrain from her colleagues and past associates.
Make no mistake, though. Couric is also tough if need be. Powerful public figures have found, to their shock, that she can conduct a killer interview. "Katie doesn't take any guff from anybody," says NBC Washington bureau chief Tim Russert.
When it comes to hard-news interviews, off come Couric's white gloves and her joking manner. Her questions are blunt and direct, she is not deterred by rhetoric or intimidated by titles, and, while she prepares carefully, she doesn't stick to a script for her zinging follow-ups.
When Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca explained that all he needed to sell his cars to the Japanese was access to their market, she shot back, "Well, that's the question. You can get into the market, you can have the product there. But can you make people buy them?" Iacocca's wife called up to complain, Couric says, because Couric also brought up his enormous salary.
As for lapsed Klansman and GOP presidential candidate David Duke, whom she challenged on his racist background, she began her interview by demanding, "What makes you think you're qualified to be president..?"
She asked another Republican presidential hopeful, Pat Buchanan, why he wanted to stay in the race after losing several primaries. "Are you trying to drive the president crazy? Or are you just on a big ego trip?"
Couric admits to having "a lot of chutzpah" and hopes she's not obnoxious when she conducts her uncompromising interviews. But she doesn't care if some people think she is.
"My only real concern while I'm being provocative and while I'm challenging an interview subject is that I'm being fair," says Couric.
She gets high marks for fairness. Even Brent Bozell, the chairman of the conservative Media Research Center – which has criticized Couric in its newsletter – says he has "not much to complain about.
"When she's discussing a liberal issue or talking to a liberal," he says, "she tends to be more flattering than when she's discussing a conservative issue or talking to a conservative. But when compared to her counterpart [Bryant Gumbel], she's a delightful change of pace. Occasionally she'll say things that I disagree with, like when she called Jimmy Carter one of the world's foremost statesmen, but she's not a liberal with a liberal agenda. She doesn't use her position as a soapbox. All in all she's a delightful personality..."
But Couric still has to rate electric juicers with the "Gadget Guru," cruise around Hollywood in a limo with comedian Jerry Seinfeld, and play with lizards, bear cubs and chimps. How does she feel about being on a program that combines serious journalism with lots of bells and whistles?
"There's definitely lighter moments in the show that don't necessarily require a college degree, but are interesting in their own right," she says. "It's interesting to me to talk to Martha Stewart about refinishing furniture, I'm learning something. Who am I to come off as some highbrow journalist? I'm doing some things day to day that people want to know about. If I feel people take me seriously and I am not fighting to be credible I can relax and have fun."
The Importance of Being Equal
While she may make newsmakers squirm, she's gaining fans – "Today" viewership is up 5 percent since her arrival in late February 1991. The show's ratings, which dropped from No. 1 to No. 2 behind ABC's "Good Morning America" when Deborah Norville succeeded Jane Pauley, keep going up. Since September, when she returned from a summer's maternity leave, "Today" regained the No. 1 position once after trailing "GMA" for 109 weeks, and tied with "GMA" four times. The fourth time was when Pauley joined Couric while Gumbel was on vacation.
What this womanpower is doing to Gumbel's ego is not easily ascertained firsthand. During a five-week period when this piece was being prepared, he was, according to an NBC spokeswoman, "unavailable" for an interview.
In April 1991, when Couric officially replaced Norville after three and a half weeks subbing for her, Gumbel told the Miami Herald that she was "a delight to work with." At that time, she'd already spent nine months as the show's national correspondent, so they were not strangers. The former sports announcer also observed, "Sometimes a baseball team has all the pieces and doesn't quite win and then adds one player and it works. Katie's an important part of this show, but I don't want anyone to get the opinion she has to bear the burden of it succeeding or failing."
An industry source says that Gumbel was surprised to discover that Couric is not a pushover. "She comes in a package that's a little deceiving at first. I think Bryant understands he is going to have a female there who is competition for him. Jane had to sit there and take a lot of grief, take a back seat and not do a lot of solid interviews. This isn't the case with Katie. She knows how important she is to that show."
While there are many who now believe that Gumbel is bearing the burden of Couric's success, Brokaw, Gumbel's longtime friend, reports that "he genuinely likes her and is intrigued by her. And she can handle him and he is not always easy to handle. He is still first among equals. It is in his interest to get along with Katie."
That Gumbel, 43, has come to the same conclusion was perhaps most concretely illustrated last December when the 10-year veteran of "Today" signed a three-year contract that reportedly pays him at least $2 million a year. Couric's salary was about a quarter of that until NBC signed her on April 1 to a new five-year contract for about $1 million annually.
When Couric is asked how she ranks with Gumbel on a show where Jane Pauley was a passive second banana and Deborah Norville was hung out to dry, her smile fades. She says it is of utmost importance to her that she be "perceived as an equal partner" and that she plays "an equal role on this show."
"If I was here doing interviews or spots that were considered less important or less newsworthy I wouldn't tolerate it," she says. "I wouldn't want the job. I'd just as soon be a reporter."
Gumbel, Couric says, "has been very generous and very gracious. I think he sees the importance of our being equals as well."
Making Herself at Home
Arriving at the "Today" makeup room at 5:45 one recent morning, Couric scoots into slippers and a light blue terry cloth robe, the seat of which is thoroughly worn. After a quick shower in her New York apartment, she'd left her 10-month-old baby daughter, Elinor, with her nanny, Nancy Poznek. Couric and her husband, Jay Monahan, 35, live just outside of Washington, D.C. in suburban Virginia, so she commutes to New York every week with Elinor and Poznek. Monahan, a lawyer, is able to join them there two or three nights a week because he has a couple of cases in the area. They're making do. "But we're tired all the time," Monahan says.
"Nancy takes great care of Ellie," Couric says. "She takes care of me. I don't think I could do it without someone like that."
Where did she find Poznek? "Oh, I just called Rebecca De Mornay and asked her if she had any friends," Couric deadpans. (The actress plays a homicidal nanny in the recent movie "The Hand that Rocks the Cradle.")
Couric's short hair is brushed back from her face. No makeup. Pretty and fresh, she looks about 16. As the hair stylist and makeup artist take over, Couric chats as she rummages through a box of junk jewelry for her morning's adornment. "I went crazy at the Gap to get clothes for Cuba," she says. "Such cute clothes they've got. Where else can you get a blazer for $68?"
A fat salary notwithstanding, Couric is as unpretentious as she appears. She has no shame driving a seven-year-old Honda and finds "something repugnant" about people who spend thousands of dollars on a suit. "I'm more Gap than Gucci," she says.
Couric, still in slippers and bathrobe, pads into the newsroom where she sits quietly at a computer preparing for a complicated interview on health care reform. Executive Producer Zucker joins her briefly to confer.
Shortly before 7 a.m. she appears on the set in white pants, white turtleneck sweater and a gray and white checked jacket that clashes somewhat with Bryant Gumbel's black checked jacket. Clearly, they do not do clothes talk. But there's no question they are a companionable pair as they settle into their chairs before a battery of cameras.
"Bryant and I spend more time together during the week than I do with my husband. I used to laugh thinking Ellie was going to come out of the womb thinking Bryant was her father."
Up and Down the East Coast
While Couric seems to be enjoying her new role, essentially she views herself as a good, solid news reporter. She's been at it since 1980.
Right out of the University of Virginia, Couric's first day as a desk assistant at the Washington bureau of ABC News was memorable. "Sam Donaldson bounded up to me and asked me my name. I said, 'Katie.' And he said, 'Katie!' And Sam jumped on my desk singing 'K-K-K-Katie!' Then he said, 'You come with me,' and he grabbed me and took me to a White House briefing."
Nine months later, ABC Washington bureau chief George Watson left to join the aborning Cable News Network, taking several staffers with him. Included were his secretary, Wendy Walker, now executive producer for CNN's White House coverage, and Couric. The women were and are close friends and, for several years, shared a Georgetown apartment.
Although Couric went to CNN as an assignment editor, it was not long before she was reporting on-air. "I wasn't a full-fledged reporter by any stretch," she says. "At first, at CNN, the janitor could get on the air. They were often desperate for people to cover events."
That early on-air stint ended abruptly when then-CNN President Reese Schoenfeld called from Atlanta with the edict, "I don't want her on the air again." She wasn't quite ready for prime time.
He changed his mind a couple of years later after she moved to Atlanta and became producer of "Take Two," a CNN program co-anchored by the husband-and-wife team Don Farmer and Chris Curle, whom she calls her mentors.
"Katie was really a spark plug," Curle says. "She always wanted to do more. As soon as she mastered something, she'd see something else she wanted to do and say, 'I think I can do that. Let me try. I can do that.' " Curle and Farmer managed to sneak Couric on the air from time to time "as sort of an unofficial reporter," and when they got a chance to have an exclusive live broadcast from Cuba in 1982, she was the producer and also did an on-air piece about Ernest Hemingway from one of his old haunts. Couric can't help smiling with delight when she remembers that after the piece aired, Schoenfeld called to tell her it was "brilliant."
"I have a vivid picture of Katie, sprawled on the floor of a dilapidated hotel room in Havana with research books around us, trying to put on a three-hour show, talking in halting Spanish to these local technicians," Farmer recalls. "She had them melting in her hands. She was her cute self, yet very tough. And it was just great how she charmed these macho Cuban guys."
Subsequently, Couric became a political correspondent for CNN. But after the 1984 election she was expected to go back to being a writer. "Our best advice was telling her to leave CNN," jokes Farmer, now an anchor for WSB in Atlanta, as is Curle.
Couric went to WTVJ in Miami, where she was a general assignment reporter and wrote and produced a prizewinning story on child pornography. Then she came back to Washington in 1987 as a general assignment reporter for WRC, the local NBC affiliate. By 1989 she had won a local Emmy and an Associated Press Award.
How she hopped from WRC to No. 2 at the Pentagon for NBC varies depending upon whom you talk to. Fred Francis, the network's chief Pentagon correspondent, likes to say he helped discover her. "I saw her doing some police crime stories in Miami several years ago," says Francis, who was raised in Miami and once covered the police beat there. "I asked some of my police sources about what kind a reporter she was and they said, 'Very aggressive.' "
"A lot of people take credit for her," laughs NBC Washington bureau chief Russert, who interviewed about 40 people for the job before hiring Couric for the Pentagon slot. "She said, 'Let me think about it,' " Russert remembers. He felt that said a lot about her. "She wasn't craven with ambition."
Francis loves to talk about how Couric broke into "the all-male club" at the Pentagon after she came on board in July 1989. "Katie had the overwhelming personality that caused people to tell her things." The first week, he says, she got a scoop that nearly made CBS Pentagon correspondent David Martin want to "cut his wrists." Martin doesn't deny he recognized immediately the competition was going to be stiff. "Tell me you gave her that story and she didn't get it on her own," Martin begged Francis.
"She really was the darling of the building," says Francis. "Frequently messages were taped on the door from colonels and generals. One day someone gave her flowers."
During the Persian Gulf crisis, Francis says, "we got Katie pulled off as 'Today' correspondent and she was coming into the Pentagon about 5:30 to do the morning shift. One day she was supposed to leave at about 3 p.m. and she told me, 'The general told me not to go home tonight.' And that's how we knew the air war was going to begin that night."
In June 1990, after her Pentagon stint, Couric became national correspondent for "Today." Everyone was impressed. So when it became clear that Deborah Norville's days were numbered, Russert asked Couric how she'd feel if she were offered the job.
Again, Couric said she'd like to think about it. "She'd just gotten married and wanted to have a family. She was very reflective about the pros and cons. She said her role models were beat reporters rather than anchors," Russert recalls. But when their conversation ended, Couric "got up from her chair, spun around and said, 'Hey, Tim! By the way, I can do it!' "
Russert has not been disappointed. Couric's move to anchoring has gone so smoothly that the network has tapped her to substitute on occasion for Tom Brokaw on the nightly news show and has asked her to co-host, with Dick Enberg, the morning coverage of the upcoming Olympic Games.
The "P" Word
In her very visible position on "Today," Couric is acutely aware of being a role model. "A lot of little girls see me and say, 'I can do that,' " she says. "I want them to see that I'm assertive and I can defend myself. That I don't have to be a 'yes woman.' I am definitely a feminist. I try not to be strident, I set my own agenda. I have principles I adhere to that anyone who watches carefully can understand."
But will she acknowledge that she's "perky" – a word used frequently to describe her?
"I have matured and grown up. I think I have proven I am a credible, serious journalist," says Couric, who concedes that the word perky "does bug me."
So much so that her husband looked it up in the dictionary for its precise meaning. Couric goes over to her desk and pulls out the piece of paper on which he typed the definition. "Briskly self-assured, cocky and jaunty," she reads. "If that is what perky is," she laughs, "I'll do perky." l