Couric Ready But Cautious

Jul 31, 2006  •  Post A Comment

When it comes to covering news out of dangerous hot spots, incoming “CBS Evening News” anchor Katie Couric in May was thinking like a single mother looking out for her kids. By July, she was talking more like a TV news star.

In May, Ms. Couric said she wouldn’t want to go to an increasingly violent Iraq. Those comments came soon after a Baghdad bomb attack that critically injured a television correspondent and killed a cameraman and sound man. On July 16, during a Television Critics Association meeting in Pasadena, Calif., she said she’d make travel decisions on a case-by-case basis.

“Clearly if it’s going to serve the story, advance the story and be helpful to the story, I would like to be there,” Ms. Couric said. “I think it really depends on the situation and what’s happening.”

Asked whether she would want to be on the scene in the Middle East, she said, “Of course I would want to be there.”

Ms. Couric’s comments at the TCA meeting came as her anchor counterparts at ABC, NBC, Fox News Channel and CNN were in Israel and Lebanon covering the escalating violence. As broadcast newscasts lose viewers to cable news outlets and the Web, anchors face fresh pressure to enliven their newscasts by reporting from the scene.

Bob Zelnick, who spent 21 years as a correspondent for ABC News, did not start out as a fan of anchors parachuting into hot spots. Eventually he decided that when done thoughtfully and collegially, the practice can be a positive, bonding anchors and viewers.

“I think the public gets in the habit of looking for the anchor on big stories,” Mr. Zelnick said. “Iraq may be a very difficult place and it may be that in that one instance you might excuse an anchor, but I think the anchors ought to be over in the Middle East this week.”

It is during the big stories that the public begins to identify with and trust the anchor, said Mr. Zelnick, who in August will spend three weeks in Iraq, preparing a comprehensive status report for the Hoover Institute’s Policy Review. After leaving ABC News, Mr. Zelnick spent four years as chairman of Boston University’s journalism department, where he still teaches.

News executives must balance the benefits of sending anchors to danger zones against the hazards, he said. Starting Sept. 5, he said, Ms. Couric is going to have to think more like the $15 million-a-year anchor and managing editor of “Evening News” that she is, and less like a mother of two.

“Television news is fighting climactic battles for what it’s all about,” Mr. Zelnick said. “I don’t think an anchor who absents himself or herself from great events consistently is going to have the same competitive edge as his or her colleagues.”

A CBS spokesman declined to expand on Ms. Couric’s comments.