Up til now I’ve tried to avoid the Katie Couric frenzy. Couric became the anchor of the CBS Evening News last week, the first woman ever to sit as the “sole” anchor on a prime time news program of one of the “Big Three” networks. But a commentary by Sally Quinn in today’s Washington Post triggered a memory that sharpened my focus on the Couric phenomenon.
Memory: a long time ago, truly in the last century, I had a brief, close encounter with CBS News. I was a young lawyer with the Street Law clinical program of Georgetown University Law Center, a legal education program working with the D.C. Schools. This was long before the 24/7 fascination with legal news, before “Law and Order” or “CSI,” even before widespread cable, good heavens, before anybody even heard of the Internet. Dark Ages, indeed. CBS News was starting a Saturday afternoon news magazine program for children called “30 Minutes” — yes, it was intended as a spin-off for kids of the network’s highly successful “60 Minutes” program. The producers wanted a short segment on each program explaining legal concepts affecting children. Long story short, even though I wasn’t looking for it, as part of my Street Law job I landed the part-time assignment providing two minutes of on-air legal commentary each week on issues like locker searches and child custody. Yes, it was a blast going to New York each week, taping the segment and being on national TV, albeit at 1 pm each Saturday. This innovative program wound-up winning many awards, including several Emmy awards.
For a few brief moments, I flirted with the idea of pursuing a full-time career in network news. But a CBS News executive took me to lunch to set me straight: aside from this experimental kids’ program, in 1981 there was not much demand for a woman lawyer on TV in a major market. I could try going to some no-name town in the Midwest, start in local news and work my way up. He wasn’t optimistic. Or, more likely, I could take a job as a secretary in the Washington or New York offices of a network and hope that some male executive would take a shine to me. Of course, I’d have to get a “makeover” — a substantial one! “The talk” was not subtle. I went back to teaching kids in D.C. about the legal system. (Greta Van Sustern, by the way, was a colleague working in another Georgetown legal clinic at that same time; her timing was clearly better than mine in pursuing a legal news broadcast career!)
I remembered all of this as I read Sally Quinn’s column discussing the double standard that Katie Couric has had to endure as she’s taken the anchor chair. “Brian Williams and Charlie Gibson, recent successors to the anchor chairs on NBC and ABC, didn’t have anywhere near the same build-up or scrutiny [as Couric]. Nobody mentioned their clothes or hair…” wrote Quinn. She goes on to quote CNN’s Judy Woodruff, who remembers being criticized for the length of her skirt during an interview, and Barbara Walters who recalls her brief time as ABC News co-anchor with Harry Reasoner as “the worst professional experience of my life.”
After reviewing the intense scrutiny and high stakes for Couric, Quinn goes on to state emphatically, “Katie Couric has done a brave thing. She hasn’t just stepped into a man’s shoes. She’s wearing her own.”
Opportunities for women in broadcast journalism have come a long way since that executive told me I’d have to start as a secretary and hope to find a male mentor to have a shot at the news. Yet, in the real power broadcast seats — still the nightly news for the “Big Three” and now a few others — women are still pioneers, still viewed as “experiments” more likely to be judged for the color of their lips than the words they enunciate.
Because of trail blazers like Walters and Woodruff and so many other notable women journalists, and because of her own charisma and professionalism, Couric may well succeed where other women could not sustain success for long. She is determined and tenacious. She’s wearing her own shoes, which is a good thing, since she may need the spikes.