The media and the bloggers seem to have lost self-control when it comes to Katie Couric. What has happened in recent weeks can only be described as “piling on.” In football, piling on is the action of defensive players who jump on the ball carrier after he has been tackled and the play is over. In a more general sense, piling-on is overkill – going much farther than is necessary in order to achieve the objective. Newspaper, magazine, and TV critics – along with a large number of bloggers have made their points, yet continue to criticize Couric fiercely.

Here are the facts: when Couric made her debut as anchor on the CBS Evening News, 13.6 million people turned in for her first broadcast. Now, the audience has shriveled to 7.04 million viewers and CBS is in solid third place, after NBC (8.56 million viewers) and ABC (7.97 million). When Bob Schieffer was the interim news anchor on CBS, his audience averaged 7.39 million.

The Washington Post’s TV critic, Tom Shales, referred to Couric as “chipmunk cheeked” and added the appellation “Her Cuteness.” Others said it was a foregone conclusion that she would disappoint expectations because we all knew of her liberal bias and that she absolutely loved Bill Clinton. The reason why Couric has foundered is all of these things…and none of these things.

Les Moonves, chief executive officer of CBS, is the driving force behind the hiring of Couric, and is described by Shales as “a former actor who still appears in an occasional CBS drama or comedy, and who knows nothing about news.” In addition to paying Couric a multimillion dollar salary (said to be around 13 million, but yet to be verified) Moonves also named her “Managing Editor” of the CBS Evening News. You can search her resume until the pages are in tatters and you will not find any true claims to ownership for that title. Then there is the shabby and mean spirited way Moonves treated Dan Rather after Bob Schieffer took over as interim anchor: a threadbare office and the “silent treatment” from many of Rather’s former colleagues.

Pure and simple, here is the problem with Katie Couric as anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News. She is a splendid interviewer, all round good sport in holding the lobster during a cooking segment on the Today Show, an adorable smile, and a rather good body. Indispensable anchor requirements? In fact, reading the printed word from a news script is not one of Couric’s strong points. She is what they call in announcing class as “ready” – pronounced reedy – she is reading, not communicating and in no way conversational. Oh for the sound of David Brinkley one more time!

And then there is the question, how much serious consideration was given to the stable of CBS correspondents warming up in the bullpen: Harry Smith, John Roberts, Scott Pelley, Mika Brzezinski? And as long as you’re willing to disappoint all those fine people by going outside the network, there are the likes of Anderson Cooper (CNN), and even Ted Koppel (former ABC).

Moonves actually had delusional thoughts of Couric overtaking and maintaining the ratings race over NBC and ABC. CBS News says it has no plans for major changes to remedy the current ratings standings. One CBS producer said that reacting to short-term ratings shifts “probably would do more harm than good.” Karen McCallum, a TV advertising guru, says CBS should continue building on Couric’s strengths, which include interviews and reporting.” But Couric is now an anchor – not a street reporter and interviewer. That’s why so many darned good correspondents never get to be full-time anchors or even weekend anchors. They are not, however, superlative professional script readers.

I don’t know how this problem is going to be resolved without great loss of face for CBS. And it certainly can’t be “fixed” by bailing out after the first few weeks – that is, unless there is a bloodletting and purging the likes of which no television network has ever experienced. The Post’s Tom Shales has referred to this perplexity as “Katiegate.”

CBS used to be known as the Tiffany network – and its news division was among television’s finest. No one seems to know exactly what to call CBS News now.

– Chase.Hamil

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