During the 5 September broadcast of the CBS Evening News, new anchor Katie Couric interviewed President George W. Bush. She asked what he meant when he said Americans would be fighting terrorists in their own streets if he pulled American troops from Iraq. “One of the hardest parts of my job,” Bush responded, “is to connect Iraq to the War on Terror.” Rather than asking him to explain this “connection,” Couric let the president continue. “Emboldened” terrorists might topple moderate governments if America was to “cut and run,” he said, and the War on Terror is the “great ideological struggle of the 21st century.”
The broadcast then cut to a staged shot of Couric and Bush walking through the White House. With her right arm draped across her chest and her left hand under her chin, Couric asked, “What do you fear most?” Bush said he fears someone will slip into the country and kill Americans. If Couric expected another answer, I’d love to hear it.
CBS billed this interview as an “exclusive,” even though Bush merely repeated the same things he’s been saying in speeches all week. This is a problem not only with Couric’s program, but all TV news, which regularly allows such statements to go unchallenged. All week, Couric and her reporters repeated their sources’ words as fact (despite occasionally replacing the word “said” with “claimed”) and there were too many segments where the opinions of journalists such as New York Times political columnist Thomas Friedman and CBS senior Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer were presented as gospel.
Couric spoke to Schieffer on Wednesday following a report about the transferring of 14 terrorists from secret CIA prisons to Guantánamo Bay. After exchanging pleasantries (“Hi Bob!”), Couric asked whether Bush had handled the situation well. Schieffer said he had, “No question about it.” Later, when asked whether Congress would take up the president’s proposed bill to transfer the prisoners, Schieffer said, “I don’t think there’s any doubt about it.” Phrases like that should not be used in any conversation about politics on a news program, no question about it.
Couric is prone to similarly lazy language usages. Most often, she lapses into cliché, as when she admitted she was “racking [her] brain” for a way to close her broadcasts (her racking was unsuccessful, however, since she ended Tuesday’s broadcast requesting suggestions from audience members), and promised that a story about a blind black boy—fulfilling both the diversity and disability quota for the week—would “knock your socks off” (my socks remained on my feet).
But when Couric, in her interview with Friedman, said, “Everyone is looking toward the fifth anniversary of September 11 and everyone is asking the question: Are we safer now?”, she committed a journalistic sin so common that we hardly notice it anymore, substituting the word “Everyone” when she meant, “The Media.” Luckily, Friedman saved her with his convoluted and essentially meaningless answer: “In some ways, yes. In some ways, no.” Thanks for the insight, Tom.
Also providing “insight” during the first week were mediocre filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times reporter Sonia Nazario, professional asshole Rush Limbaugh, and comedy writer Jim Twohie, who were all given two minutes to rant in a segment called “freeSpeech.” These two-minute opinions only underlined the appearance that the show is short on facts.
Much of the media discussion leading up to Couric’s debut centred on her gender, but the awfulness of the CBS Evening News under her management has nothing to do with her photogenic appearance, and everything to do with the ongoing decline of American television news.