Katie Couric, news anchors and the cult of personality

Special to The Times

Tailored suit, tasteful hair, good posture, all business, only rare hints of perkiness.

I’ve been checking out Katie Couric, really putting the evil eye on her. You know, Couric, the former NBC “Today” superstar and subsequent $15-million-a-year Jeanne d’Arc who fell hard from her CBS high horse when delivering no miracles to lift that network’s evening newscast from third in the ratings.

Media wonks are now wondering who will leave office first, George W. Bush or Couric.

It matters because even though their popularity has steadily fallen since their glory years, and more and more Americans turn to the Internet for news, the flagship newscasts of NBC, ABC and CBS together still attract more than 21 million viewers on weeknights, according to Nielsen Media Research. That’s nearly seven times the combined prime-time audience of cable’s Barnum & Bailey gang of Fox News, CNN and MSNBC.

The dubious common wisdom is that Couric has lacked the gravitas, poor kid, to challenge the twin towers of NBC’s Brian Williams and ABC’s Charles (formerly known as Charlie) Gibson. True or not, her newscast’s failure has earned her full blame, for if she’d passed these front-runners, wouldn’t she have received all the credit? Not the troops she fronted, just her.

Which is why this whole sainthood thing, this persisting TV news cult of personality, is so . . . so . . . what’s the word I’m searching for?

Oh, yes: absurd.

Now, Couric herself is not absurd. She’s every bit as good as Williams and Gibson at reading a TelePrompTer, and the world she describes each night is as depressing as theirs. Plus she sounds just fine in election chats with Jeff Greenfield (still among the media’s smartest politics watchers after being marginalized into obscurity at CNN, perhaps because he rejected joining its swami multitudes in predicting the future).

Look, 22 minutes of network news still tells you little beyond how to stop coughing, wheezing, decaying and leaking -- the advertised pharmaceuticals indicating just how many viewers are watching from behind oxygen tents. But from what I can tell, the newscast that Couric heads is as credible as NBC’s and ABC’s.

It’s no mystery to many of us why Bush derailed. Less apparent is what undermined CBS Corp. chief Leslie Moonves’ grand scheme to remake “Evening News” in Couric’s image while paying her obscenely high money at a time when the news industry was reeling from budget cuts. Perhaps the mistake was pushing that scheme in the first place. Did CBS wise men make the newscast too gee-whiz neighborly when she made her debut nearly two years ago as Dan Rather’s permanent successor? Or was Couric herself the turnoff? Her looks? Her wardrobe? Her voice? Her manner? Her high-wattage grin? Her . . . whatever?

You won’t find an answer here. As Nancy Franklin wrote in the New Yorker recently, “No one knows exactly why anchors are or aren’t popular or why they do or don’t last.” Or why anyone but bean-counting news insiders should care.

Newspapers have their stars, but relatively modest ones who shine less brightly than those in TV’s constellation. In contrast to personality-driven newscasts, a newspaper’s credibility, or lack of it, centers not on a single person or even a few. The entire paper, not one or two individuals, gets the glory as well as the blame, the reverse of TV.

News media hero worship was mild prior to 1950 BC (Before Cronkite), when Walter surfaced on TV en route to getting picked to famously anchor the “CBS Evening News” a dozen years later. Though he’d worked on CBS, relatively few knew of his earlier record as a combat correspondent during World War II. So the Katie questions apply here too, in reverse: What gave Cronkite his transcendent cred? What made CBS viewers and others believe in him so totally, made them mentally sit in his lap and coo when he read the headlines?

Whatever the answer, it’s foolish to invest such trust in one person -- news anchor or presidential candidate -- because of something intangible that one can’t define. Yes, CBS News was blessed with a handful of talented holdovers from Edward R. Murrow’s radio days, but Cronkite was The Man, at one point punctuating Vietnam War doomsday reports with such moral authority, for instance, that embattled LBJ was said to have remarked: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

And now, these many years later, cults of personality endure.

Take CNN, whose quest to overtake cable-news ratings leader Fox features a determined attempt to nail the chatty star of “Anderson Cooper 360" to a pedestal. More than just its anchor, Cooper is the weeknight newscast’s illuminated epicenter. Nearly everything he does is accompanied by CNN-generated buzz, and a personal spotlight accompanies him on his CNN travels. That happened most notably during his on-site chronicling of Katrina’s aftermath in 2005 when, with CNN’s blessing, he lashed himself to the catastrophe and assured flood victims he felt their pain. As if Katrina could be validated only by his presence, just as CNN used the disaster to validate him.

“You like it when someone becomes a pop-culture icon and deserves it,” Jonathan Klein, president of CNN/U.S., told the Boston Globe at the time.

Another opinion: Enough of newscaster larger-than-lifeness.

Flashback to June 13. As downtown Des Moines, sections of Cedar Rapids and other parts of Iowa were being evacuated because of raging flood waters that would become a major catastrophe for much of the Midwest, CNN, Fox and MSNBC ignored that development for hours and spent the afternoon talking about that day’s death of Tim Russert. In addition, Russert was the evening’s lead story on the newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC. On NBC’s “Nightly News,” in fact, he was the only story, the rest of the world disappearing much as chunks of Iowa had vanished beneath the water.

Add to that the evening’s NBC prime-time special on Russert plus a weekend-long slab of MSNBC eulogies, along with two hours of live coverage it gave a Russert memorial several days later, and you had the most lavish tribute for a news figure ever, rivaling even the misplaced orgies of attention paid to the funerals of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Jr. in the late 1990s.

In no way do I make light of Russert’s death. As host and impresario of NBC’s “Meet the Press” and chief of its Washington bureau, he was an important journalist. And I accept at face value voluminous testimony from his colleagues and others that he was a swell guy with many admirable qualities. However, part of being a journalist is having the discipline to put events in perspective and understand that what moves you personally may not merit a banner headline.

Somehow in death, Diana became “our princess,” JFK Jr. became “our crown prince,” and Russert, according to some of the extravagant hyperbole, “changed the face of journalism.” Given much of media’s current preference for personality cults, he didn’t change it enough.

Former Times television critic Howard Rosenberg is the author, with Charles S. Feldman, of “No Time to Think: The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-Hour News Cycle,” to be published in October. He can be reached at