Katie Couric, Ghost in the Machine


As Katie Couric leaves the anchor's chair at CBS, Jack Shafer argues that we've entered the post-anchor world:

CBS News and Katie Couric would like to acknowledge the Nashville music establishment and country radio for your support.
Full Frontal

The explosion of news choices on cable and the Web have made the evening news an anachronism enjoyed mostly by an audience of older and less highly educated viewers, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism. If there is little prestige, honor, and future being the anchor of the No. 1 show chasing an audience that is becoming smaller, older, and is less-educated, imagine how the No. 3 anchor must have felt….

The diminution of audience size is one reason today's anchors are post-anchors. But the more important reason is that the programs they host aren't really news programs anymore. "The journalistic value of these programs is marginal at this point," George Washington University media professor Mark Feldstein told me in 2009. Indeed, the erosion of the evening show's journalistic value may have been part of the calculation in giving Couric the job. She was so expert at serving infotainment in her previous incarnation on NBC's Today program–she really was!–that the CBS News bosses must have figured that she'd be better at attracting the infotainment audience than a hard-news broadcaster.

So perhaps when CBS News signed Couric it understood that we had reached the end of the anchor-era better than I give it credit for. Indeed, when ABC News gave Diane Sawyer the keys to its World News telecast in 2009, they were overtly endorsing the CBS News strategy of hiring a middle-aged bottle blond from morning TV to chaperone all the unschooled geezers turning on their sets at night. Putting Couric and Sawyer in the anchor chairs was admitting that the programs had no future, only a past that could continue to be harvested for profits (yes, the evening shows are still profitable, thanks to pharmaceutical ads) until their audiences finally die off.

I have vague memories of watching Walter Cronkite with my parents when I was a preteen, but I gave up the evening-news habit with the arrival of CNN in the '80s. By the beginning of the W. years I was consuming most of my news online; TV's main role in keeping me informed came during the late-night comedy shows. (If the host made a joke I didn't get, I Googled it.) These days, of course, I consume the late-night shows online too, chopped up into brief bites and embedded in blogs, tweets, and status updates. And I'm not exactly on the leading edge when it comes to adopting new technologies.

All of which is my roundabout way of suggesting that for a good deal of the country, the post-anchor period is old hat; we're well into the post-cable period. Katie Couric is just another ghost in our laptops, popping up at irregular intervals when our peers see fit to link to her. Her rivals aren't just Brian Williams and Diane Sawyer; they're Rebecca Black and the Star Wars kid. Couric never was an anchor for us, because it's been a long time since the person who happens to read the news at 6:30 was keeping us moored.