February 7, 2012 —Every day, says Katie Couric, she comes across a topic that deserves an hour of intelligent discussion.
Her four years at the University of Virginia sparked that intellectual curiosity, Couric said as she reflected on her life, and her experience in the College of Arts & Sciences, at a College-sponsored event in New York City on Jan. 19.
Her degree in English and American studies honed her writing and provided her with an understanding of history necessary to place ideas and issues into context, said Couric, a 1979 alumna. "I think there's a certain civility, respect and poise that was refined at the University of Virginia," she said, which undergirded her pioneering career in TV news.
"Just as it's a place for Virginia gentlemen, it's a place for gentlewomen as well," she said. "I credit, first and foremost, my parents for raising me with certain values, but I think those values were reinforced at the University of Virginia."
Couric – award-winning journalist, best-selling author and this May's Finals speaker – was addressing an intimate audience of about 100 U.Va. alumni, friends and parents who came from across town, and across the globe, to the TimesCenter auditorium in the New York Times building in midtown Manhattan.
One College alumna, Christina Kim (foreign affairs), a young TV journalist working in South Korea, said she flew from Seoul to meet her professional role model and hero at the urging of College Dean Meredith Jung-En Woo, who hosted the event – the first in what she hopes will be a series of unique experiences designed for College supporters.
Peter Kiernan, a 1979 graduate of the Darden School of Business and a parent trustee of the College Foundation Board, faced the unenviable task of interviewing one of the greatest interviewers of our time, said media studies chair Siva Vaidhyanathan during his introduction of the two.
However, Kiernan and Couric, seated in spare leather chairs on an otherwise empty wooden stage, appeared so relaxed they could have been chatting in a mutual friend's kitchen. Their conversation was punctuated with laughter, some self-deprecating quips, and a couple of spot-on imitations by Couric of famous people she had interviewed. The audience listened raptly to the hour-long chat and then asked a few questions. ("What was Lady Gaga like?" Couric: "She is crazy! But in a good way.")
The evening began with brief video highlights from Couric's on-air career. She made broadcast news history as the first solo female anchor of a weekday evening news program on a major broadcast network, when she helmed the "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric" from 2006 to 2011. But she first became a household name well before that, during her 15 years as a co-host of NBC News' "Today" show. The video highlights included her coverage of era-defining news stories, from the 9/11 attacks to the Arab Spring protests in Egypt's Tahrir Square, and her interviews with presidents, world leaders, celebrities and other newsmakers.
Arguably Couric's most influential work was her 2008 interview of then-vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who struggled to answer several straightforward questions, including naming any newspapers or magazines she regularly read, or explaining how being governor of Alaska enhanced her foreign policy experience. The interview became a cultural touchstone and turning point in the campaign; College alumna Tina Fey (drama, 1992) parodied it on "Saturday Night Live," millions watched it on YouTube and Palin's approval ratings collapsed in its wake.
"I feel really proud of that interview, because I think that's what journalism is supposed to do," Couric told Kiernan. "It's supposed to seek the truth, ask challenging questions, listen to the answers and follow up when someone is circumlocutious and not responsive. I felt like I was persistent, but respectful, in those interviews."
Even though her Palin interview, which won Couric the Walter Cronkite Award for Journalism Excellence, had an outsized impact on the 2008 election, and she won several other awards during her five years anchoring the "CBS Evening News," the show's ratings never budged from third-place among the major network evening newscasts.
"Expectations were set very high," she said. "CBS had been in third place for 13 years. They wanted to change the format of evening news, but that was a much harder endeavor than anyone imagined. To really change something up, you have to really live through a decline in audience numbers, but in the climate, that was too scary for the business side of CBS News."
She said she's proud of her work at CBS and glad she took the job. "But I also think they had me fit into a format that didn't allow me to show my authentic self, to interact with people, to be more casual and spontaneous. ... I ended up doing a job that I probably would not have come to do, if I'd known that we were going to do a more traditional, formulaic newscast."
For the next chapter of her career, Couric is throwing out formula and hosting her own syndicated daytime daily talk show, "Katie," starting this fall.
She expects her new show to play to her strengths. She has creative control and says she is excited to be able to spend an hour discussing one or two topics in depth. "It's so exciting to have a blank canvas, and to be able to focus on stories that deserve our attention, and that are sometimes given short shrift," such as the state of marriage in America, she said.
She refuses to dumb down the show to increase her mass appeal, she said. "I hope there will be an appetite for intelligent discussion. That doesn't mean it's going to be snobby or overly intellectual. I want it to be accessible and understandable. But I do want it to meet a certain standard that I feel comfortable with, and that I've worked my whole career to uphold."
Her career began right after graduation, as a desk assistant in the Washington bureau of ABC, the network she has rejoined after leaving CBS.
In a move that required "chutzpah for someone who was 31 at the time," she said, she signed on to co-host "Today" only after NBC agreed to have her share coverage of hard news equally with co-host Bryant Gumbel. "I thought it was really important for young women and young men watching the 'Today' show to see a woman have as much responsibility as a journalist as her male counterpart. That was really important to me philosophically," she said.
At the end of her 15 years with "Today," The Wall Street Journal called her one of its most successful anchors ever.
During his introduction of Couric, Vaidhyanathan, who worked as a journalist before entering academia, suggested that U.Va. has a record of producing some of the finest journalists in the world – other luminary College alumni include Wyatt Andrews, an Emmy Award-winning correspondent for the "CBS Evening News"; former CBS correspondent Kimberly Dozier, now working for the Associated Press; and Mike Allen, chief political correspondent for Politico – precisely because U.Va. does not have a school of journalism.
"The job of a journalist is to distill complex events and issues in a fair, concise, and – most of all – clear manner," he said. The skills and attributes required to do so are exactly what "a successful liberal arts student at the University of Virginia carries forward into life."
"In addition to those attributes," Vaidyanathan said, "journalists have to develop patience – patience with the world, patience with tragedy, patience with absurdity. Katie Couric has done so with an amazing amount of grace and dignity, and she's taught us a lot in the process by living so much of her life in public.
"Nobody exemplifies the success of a liberal arts education better than Katie Couric."
– by Brevy Cannon