Neuharth: ‘Katie shattered the glass ceiling’

She's covered the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorism attacks at the World Trade Center live on national television.

She's reported on the Oklahoma City bombing, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, and the struggle of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But for Katie Couric, the most memorable story of her 30-year career as a television reporter was one of her first.

"When I was a local news reporter, one of the first stories I did in Washington was about these two young girls, both about 16 years old, who were driving and were killed when their car crashed into a dump truck carrying hot asphalt," she said. "I had to go to the home of these girls, and I was only about 26 years old.

"It was terrifying, and also not to mention maybe completely inappropriate, to knock on the door of a family who had just experienced such sudden and tremendous loss," Couric said.

She informed that family that she was doing a story about their daughter, who was one of the two girls killed in the crash. They gave her a photo that could be used in the newscast.

"I spent some time with her parents, and I said, 'I want to tell their story, and do it justice.' And the mom looked at me and said, 'You know, you've made this a little bit easier.'"

This early experience served to shape the way Couric has gathered news for three decades now.

"I always think about that story, and the importance of handling people with kindness and compassion and sensitivity, no matter what situation they are in, but especially if they are in a difficult situation," she said. "I've always been a very empathetic person, so stories of loss and tragedy always stay with me."

Couric shared this experience before an audience of 4,000 in the DakotaDome Thursday, shortly after USD alum and founder of USA TODAY, Al Neuharth, presented her with the 20th annual Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media.

For the last three years, Couric has served as anchor and managing editor of the "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric." She also serves as a correspondent on "60 Minutes, and has anchored CBS News primetime specials.

When "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric" debuted on Sept. 5, 2006, Couric became the first female solo anchor of a weekday network evening news broadcast. Previously, Couric served as co-anchor of NBC's "Today."

Shortly before presenting her with the excellence in media award, Neuharth admitted he made a mistake when he first learned that Couric was hired by CBS to take over the network's evening newscast.

"I've learned to 'fess up some of the many times I've messed up. And so I want to acknowledge tonight that I was skeptical and critical in a USA TODAY column three years ago when CBS lured Katie Couric away from NBC," Neuharth said.

"I wrote that she 'probably can't cut it on serious, prime-time evening news.' Well, I was wrong," he said. "CBS and Katie Couric proved to be right. Katie shattered the glass ceiling that up until she came along, was there, and she broke up the men's club at the networks and at the anchor desks, and that was certainly long overdue."

Neuharth said Thursday that he is proud that in East River South Dakota, Couric's evening broadcasts have the highest ratings of the three major television networks.

"On KELO, Katie has the highest rating of any television station that she appears on in the country," he said. "Katie, this demonstrates to me, and I hope to you, that my fellow South Dakotans are great judges of character, personality, professionalism and quality."

Couric told her DakotaDome audience that Thursday marked her first trip to South Dakota, and she wished she could stay longer. She was scheduled to fly home shortly after the award ceremony to spend the weekend with her daughter at her college.

"I really wanted to check out all that South Dakota has to offer," she said. "The Black Hills, Wounded Knee, Mount Rushmore, Carey's Bar."

The reference to one of Vermillion's most popular tavern garnered wild applause from the USD students in the DakotaDome.

"I know this weekend is Dakota Days," Couric said. "Even though I won't be here for homecoming, I feel that everyone has been so warm and welcoming, I really feel like I'm coming home, so thank you for being so gracious."

During the last three years, Couric has reported on and anchored newscasts and broadcasts for some of the biggest domestic and international stories. She has interviewed a diverse collection of newsmakers, from presidents and prime ministers to captains of industry and cultural icons.

She credits the support of her parents for giving her the drive that has led to such a successful career.

"My parents always made the four Couric kids," she said, speaking of herself, her brother and her two sisters, "feel like we could do anything and be anything. But this awakening made it seem like the three Couric girls actually could as well.

"Plus, a natural curiosity, outgoing nature and certain idealism made journalism a very attractive option," Couric said.

Stories containing tragedy aren't the only memorable experiences she has had in her time as a television journalist. The 2008 presidential election, Couric noted, was thrilling because for the first time, the nation had a viable woman candidate.

Hillary Clinton, she said, "made me so proud because she was so brilliant and I thought she cleaned everybody's clock in the debates. And of course, to have the first, serious African-American candidate was very exciting as well.

"I also really enjoyed Sen. McCain. I had covered him for a long time, and had a nice, personal relationship with him. And Gov. Palin was so fascinating. It was a really, really fun campaign to cover."

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