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Did Katie Couric Cross the Line into Advocacy?

WASHINGTON POST

Katie Couric doesn’t need to leave the “Today” show and join the talk-show circuit to do on-air advocacy work on controversial subjects, a la Oprah or Rosie. She’s already doing it on “Today.”

This week, for instance, at the end of a taped interview with the mother and brother of confessed child murderer Andrea Yates, Couric told viewers where to send contributions to the Texas woman’s defense fund; the address also appeared on-screen.

“Any money left over will be given to women’s charities dealing with postpartum depression and psychosis,” added Couric, arguably the most influential journalist in America today.

Heck, she persuaded hordes of Americans to get colonoscopies simply by having her own, on-air, in March 2000. Couric’s National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance, formally launched that same month, raised more than $10 million in just a few weeks, the Associated Press reported.

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Which is why, as her NBC News contract comes up for renewal, most major media companies, including Viacom and AOL Time Warner, reportedly are courting Couric to headline news programs or talk shows.

Couric gave the detailed information Monday morning about the defense fund, which was set up late last week, right after Yates’ mother and brother told NBC News correspondent Jim Cummins that they need help paying the legal bills.

“Six people since March, you know--I just got through paying for my husband’s expensive funeral” after his death from Alzheimer’s disease, Yates’ mother, Karin Kennedy, told Cummins.

Added brother Andrew Kennedy: “The prosecution has unlimited funds. And in a case like this, we’re talking about the general expenses of half a million, a million dollars. We don’t have that kind of funds.”

Still, “Today” spokeswoman Allison Gollust insisted that afternoon that the producers weren’t worried that inclusion of the defense fund address before the murder case is adjudicated might have given viewers the impression that Couric or NBC News subscribes to the idea that Yates was indeed suffering from postpartum depression and psychosis when she allegedly drowned her five children, one at a time, in a bathtub June 20.

Nor are they worried that having Couric tell her 6 million viewers this information might lead them to believe that Couric or NBC News believes Yates’ actions were defensible if she suffered postpartum depression at the time.

“I don’t see how it would suggest that NBC is agreeing or somehow supporting” the defense, Gollust said. “Today” has posted addresses for defense funds before, she said, although when asked if any had been given before a ruling in the case, she said she did not know. Gollust said the show does not have a policy about providing defense-fund addresses or phone numbers.

“This is a story that has generated a tremendous amount of interest from our viewers. We thought it was information that might be useful to them,” she said.

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But Monday afternoon, after the “Today” segment had been rerun twice on MSNBC, NBC News decided to remove the defense fund information before it ran two additional times.

“When we realized it might send the wrong message, we didn’t include it in the piece,” Gollust said.

The defense-fund details also weren’t included in a cut-down version of Cummins’ interview Monday night on NBC’s evening newscast.

Gollust says that running details of the Andrea Pia Yates Defense Fund was not a condition of getting the interview for “Today,” and the decision to include the information was made by show executive producer Jonathan Wald, who’s been in the post for three months.

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Yates has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to two charges of capital murder--one count of multiple killings and one count of killing a child younger than 6--in the deaths of the children: , Noah, 7; John, 5; Paul, 3; Luke, 2; and 6-month-old Mary. She has admitted drowning all five children.

District Judge Belinda Hill had imposed a gag order on lawyers, witnesses and investigators in the case, but because she allowed Harris County Dist. Atty. Chuck Rosenthal to announce last week that he will seek the death penalty, she allowed the defense team to announce it was setting up a defense fund.

Contacted this week for comment on the “Today” show segment, Harris County prosecutor Joseph Owmby said, “The judge issued the gag order to prevent this type of thing from happening .... This has been a most enlightening experience to me in regard to the press; other than that, I can’t comment.”


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