Couric: Women deserve more network anchor spots

When Katie Couric started her television career in 1979, she saw very few women in leadership roles.

Three decades later, Couric has shattered the glass ceiling. In September 2006, she took the seat as "CBS Evening News" anchor. In the process, she became the first solo female anchor of the weekday evening news on one of the three traditional U.S. broadcast networks.

"I never thought I would see the day," she said. "In 1979, when I started, there were few women in production. Most were secretaries."

For her lifetime achievements, Couric received Thursday the "Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media." She was presented the award in the DakotaDome on the University of South Dakota campus.

Couric became the 22nd person to receive the award, begun in 1989. The award is named after South Dakota native and USD graduate Al Neuharth, who founded "USA Today."

The award presentation was broadcast on South Dakota Public Television and will be re-broadcast Sunday afternoon.

As part of her USD visit, Couric appeared at a Thursday afternoon press conference. The reporters included USD students who weren't even born when Couric began her career. And those USD students included young women who have never known a world where females didn't play a prominent role in journalism.

Now, women will solo anchor two network evening news programs when Diane Sawyer takes over ABC News' "World News" anchor spot in January. She will replace Charles Gibson, who is retiring from the position at the end of the year.

At Thursday's press conference, Couric was asked her feelings on leading the way for Sawyer.

"Diane Sawyer doesn't need me to break any glass ceilings for her," Couric said. "She is accomplished and very deserving."

The time has come for women to take their place as solo anchors, Couric said.

"Women make up more than half the country," she said. "It's only right that women anchor two of three network news programs."

When asked about her move from NBC's "Today" co-anchor spot to "CBS Evening News," Couric said the transition wasn't difficult. She said many viewers may not have realized the body of hard news that she covered on "Today" that prepared her well as CBS anchor.

"There were lighter moments on the 'Today' show. I had a lot of fun doing the 'Today' Show, but those were emphasized the most," she said. "I also did pieces on 9/11, the Oklahoma City bombing and the O.J. Simpson trial. I also interviewed CEOs, congressional leaders and policy makers."

Couric noted that she also covered the Pentagon during her career.

"I enjoyed the versatility of 'Today', but I was ready to roll up my sleeves and do more serious reporting," she said.

Couric's coverage of the historic 2008 presidential race included an interview with then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential candidate. Many observers considered the interview a defining moment in the campaign.

The interview provided one of the first major insights into Palin as a person and politician. Some persons denounced the interview as a "gotcha" moment designed to embarrass or trap Palin. Others praised the interview and said it showed Palin was ill-prepared for the vice presidency.

Couric said she approached the interview with a historical perspective. She saw it as an opportunity — and obligation — to inform Americans about a candidate that the general public didn't know well.

"I wanted it to be revealing, perceptive and peel the layers away from the onion," she said.

Palin also received the opportunity to present herself to the American public, Couric said. "It was a vehicle that allowed Gov. Palin to express her viewpoint and positions on various issues," she said.

Couric said she sought to ask a variety of questions to provide insights on Palin. "I asked what the American people wanted to know about (Palin) as a person and a policy maker," she said.

"I covered critical issues, but I also wanted to know what (Palin) read to see what shaped her world view," she added.

In a world with a 24-hour news cycle, Couric still sees an important role for the 30-minute nightly news.

"It's challenging in the media business," she said. "We are in an increasingly fragmented media landscape. The evening news plays an important and significant role."

Round-the-clock news coverage sometimes leaves journalists scrambling to fill air time with anything, Couric said. "Twenty-four-hour news is an insatiable monster, and the monster has to be fed," she said.

In contrast, "CBS Evening News" spends the day polishing stories to present a half-hour package, she said. But even that format carries limitations, she said.

"It's frustrating to have 22 minutes, including commercials, and not have a longer period of time (on the air) to flesh out stories," she said.

Gone are the days when the traditional family gathers around the television for the nightly news, Couric said. But that doesn't mean that the nightly network news lacks an audience, she said.

On the contrary, the evening news allows in-depth reporting, she said.

For example, CBS recently spent three days covering all aspects of Afghanistan and the difficult decisions facing President Obama, Couric said. The series of Palin interviews also allowed more coverage of the candidate, and expanded formats are used in other ways, she said.

CBS holds a tradition of solid journalism, Couric said, citing "60 Minutes" and "Face The Nation" as well as the "CBS Evening News," she said.

"'60 Minutes' is a platform for some of the finest journalism you will see today on a weekly basis," she said.

Couric also cited predecessors such as Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Bob Schieffer. "CBS has a lot to be proud of. I try to uphold the standards that they produced," she said.

Today's advocacy journalism contrasts with objective, old-fashioned reporting, Couric said. Audiences tend to seek out news they agree with, which creates a "myopic" view, she said.

"If you hear your own view reflected back to you, it's not exactly helpful to understanding the world," she said.

Networks should educate and create awareness, Couric said. Today's broadcasts include those blurring news and views, she said.

"As Walter Cronkite said, the difference between news and commentary is like the difference between the Bible and Playboy magazine," she said.

Couric said she has sought to embrace the Web, social networking and other sites as a way to reach audiences.

"You can't really go back and change things. There have been seismic shifts in the media the last five years," she said. "I try to embrace new media. There is such a revolution going on."

Couric said she views her USD visit as an important way to learn about the rest of the nation.

"I don't believe the world ends at the Hudson River," she said. "It's important to get out. I like to talk to students and hear what they have to say. It's an exciting opportunity to be here (in Vermillion)."

Couric advised college students to never give up.

"My advice is to be persistent and not let the turkeys get you down. They have their insecurities and don't want you to do well," she said. "Be persistent and achieve your goals. Do something that you're passionate about, and it won't be work. It will be gratification."

Above all, give your best effort, she said.

"The importance of hard work is often misunderstood," she said. "Be a self-starter. Work weekends, and offer to work hard. It's appreciated, and it will help you rise to the top."

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