Q&A: Katie Couric on Her New Documentary, Premiering Wednesday on Grounds

Couric headshot

Couric at an event in the Rotunda Dome Room in 2013. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications).

In her new “America Inside Out with Katie Couric” documentary series from National Geographic, University of Virginia alumna and veteran journalist Katie Couric crisscrosses the country for difficult conversations about some of the most divisive issues in America today, including debates about race, feminism and technology.

Couric will reveal the first episode of the six-part series on Wednesday at UVA, joining students, faculty and staff for a screening and discussion at 3 p.m. in Culbreth Theatre, followed by a public screening at 7 p.m. in The Paramount Theater. Both events are presented by the Virginia Film Festival and will include post-screening discussions with Couric and Charlottesville community members featured in the episode. The events are free, and ticketing information is available online.

The episode, which will premiere nationwide April 11, explores tensions surrounding Confederate monuments in cities across Ameica. It contains footage from the violent white nationalist demonstrations at UVA and in Charlottesville on Aug. 11 and 12. Couric was in Charlottesville that weekend to document what she and her crew suspected would be a challenging and important moment in the ongoing debate around Charlottesville’s Robert E. Lee statue and others like it nationwide.

The footage Couric captured of the weekend’s violence – which left many injured and one woman, Heather Heyer, dead – raises difficult memories and questions for the nation and for the University and Charlottesville communities, where the repercussions of that weekend continue to unfold.

The University is working to answer some of those questions through the Deans Working Group, formed by President Teresa A. Sullivan to assess the University’s response to the demonstrations and outline necessary changes. Less formally, conversations continue on Grounds and around the country as Americans reckon with racial discrimination and question how social and political changes can improve or heighten those tensions.  

Couric puts those discussions front and center in her series.

Among other interviews, she invites UVA historians Gary Gallagher and John Mason to discuss the Civil War and civil rights in America; interviews the clergy members who guided community responses on Aug. 11 and 12; and talks directly to members of the white supremacist and alt-right groups who organized the demonstrations. She also speaks with officials in New Orleans who led contentious discussions around that city’s memorials and with lawmakers in Alabama who passed legislation protecting Confederate monuments.

We talked with Couric before she arrived on Grounds to hear more about what she learned from those conversations and many others as she traveled America to talk about issues many would rather avoid.

Q. When you set out to make this series, what were you hoping to achieve?

A. There are a lot of controversial issues dividing us, and in many cases people are digging their heels in without fully examining those issues or truly understanding different perspectives. I thought it would be helpful to have conversations on various topics that would give people the context and the background to support their position or perhaps even challenge it. We tend to live in echo chambers, so I wanted to create something that would break those down a bit, promote some intellectual cross-pollination and hopefully help people grappling with these issues.

Q. You were in Charlottesville on Aug. 11 and 12. What was that like as a journalist and as a UVA graduate?

A. It was devastating, really. We knew it was important to be there, and it was very eye-opening, but it broke my heart to see those events unfolding in a place like Charlottesville. I love UVA and I love Charlottesville, and people who are familiar with both communities fully realize what we saw that weekend is not the Charlottesville we love and hope for.

One of the more emotional parts for me personally was an interfaith service I attended the night before the rally. It was really moving to see so many people from Charlottesville and all over the country coming together to take a stand against the hateful rhetoric that was being expressed during the rally on Saturday and the despicable torch rally the night before.

One woman came up to me and remarked that we could really use my sister right now [the late state Sen. Emily Couric, who represented the Charlottesville area in the General Assembly]. That was very bittersweet to hear, of course. I thought about Emily a lot that weekend, wondering what she would have done. I think she could have been an important voice in a very challenging and upsetting time. 

Q. How did those events inform your approach to the larger topic of race in “America Inside Out”?

A. The first episode is about what these Confederate statues mean to different people, how they became a part of our memorial landscape, how we look at our history and our past, and what we have recorded or failed to acknowledge. Race is deeply entrenched in that whole conversation, of course.

I came to Charlottesville that weekend because I wanted to unpack the debate around the Lee statue. In addition, I went to New Orleans, where jazz musician Wynton Marsalis worked with Mayor Mitch Landrieu to start a discussion on Confederate statues that spread around the country. I also went to Montgomery, Alabama to talk to a state senator who spearheaded a law prohibiting the removal of monuments more than 40 years old and to talk to [Equal Justice Initiative director] Bryan Stephenson, who will open a museum on lynching in Montgomery this month.

Q. As you traveled the country talking about these and other issues, what were some common themes that emerged?

A. Many of the episodes overlap and touch on monumental technological changes, demographic changes and cultural changes we are experiencing, exacerbated by the growing urban-rural divide.

Technology in particular was a common theme, as it affects so many aspects of how we work, live and relate, and how we consume news and information. People are wrestling with these changes and it can be very unsettling.

Most people I met were trying to figure out these questions in some way. I certainly hope everyone will try to do that. If we don’t, we risk getting stuck in deeply entrenched points of view without being open to other perspectives.

Q. What encouraged you?

A. I remember talking with some EMS workers in Johnstown, Pennsylvania about Colin Kaepernick, his protests in the NFL and the Black Lives Matter movement. We talked about their reactions, their feeling that “all lives matter” and their concerns about disrespecting the flag.

In the middle of that conversation, another EMS worker, an African-American, walked in. He talked about what the Black Lives Matter movement has meant to him and his view of how that movement came about. They listened to each other, and afterward one of the guys told me that the conversation really made him think about things differently.

It might seem like a small moment, but it felt really big to me at the time. Too often, we avoid talking about these things because they are too fraught, but I watched these men lay it out on the table over cold pizza and witnessed how that could change someone’s perspective.

I might be a Pollyanna, but I believe people are inherently good. If we can provide a platform or a setting where people with different backgrounds and opinions can sit down and really talk about these issues, maybe we can make some progress.

Q. What discouraged you?

A. The rally and the violence in Charlottesville was obviously extremely discouraging and horrifying. Beyond that, however, in my conversations for the series I tried to listen without being judgmental.

Q. Between this series and your previous documentary on gender issues, “Gender Revolution,” you clearly don’t shy away from tough topics. Why are such conversations important to you, even when they might be uncomfortable?

A. Because we are not having enough of them. Too often, people have these instantaneous reactions or form opinions without really exploring them. If we are going to make progress, we need to hear people out, empathize with them and where possible engage in the art of persuasion and or the art of compromise instead. We need to listen more and perhaps talk a bit less.

Q. What are you taking on next?

A. I am planning to take a few weeks off after finishing this up. This series has been grueling, really one of the hardest projects I have ever taken on. We have worked very hard trying to get it right. I am sure people will take issue with different parts of it, but I hope it will encourage people to keep talking about these topics and engage in civil discourse, which I’m afraid has become something of an oxymoron.

I’m endlessly curious, and I am sure that there are other topics that I will want to explore soon. For now, I am looking forward to focusing on my podcast, resting a bit and celebrating my daughter’s college graduation in a few weeks.