By Miriam R. Kramer
If you are not craving a stately overview of a serious rise to the pinnacle of helming television journalism, but instead want a dishy tell-all from Katie Couric, America’s former “Girl Next Door,” her new memoir, Going There will satisfy your needs. You may find some of the former mixed in as well. Couric has written a bright, conversational overview of her career that will definitely pull in anyone who watched her for years as the co-anchor of the Today Show, first with Bryant Gumbel, and then with Matt Lauer, and her star turn as the first solo evening female news anchor at CBS.
Couric starts off discussing her idyllic childhood in Arlington, VA in the 1950s through 1970s as the baby in a family of four. Her father, a reporter turned PR specialist, was a strong influence on her future career in communications. He would request that she learn a new word every day to present at the dinner table. As she notes, “It’s not an overstatement to say I pursued journalism for my father.”
If you find early family dynamics one of your favorite parts of a memoir, you are in luck here. Couric’s steady family life, with parents who valued education and getting into a great college, put pressure on her family of achievers, including the oldest, her sister Emily, and her sister Kiki, who were both accepted to Smith when it was one of the Seven Sisters and the Ivy League was single sex. As she points out, she got into the venerable yet academic University of Virginia, whose social scene was a much better fit for someone whose likability, emotional intelligence, and tenacity allowed her to open so many doors in the future.
Couric tackles her own struggles with institutionalized pressure for women to present a perfect image in discussing her bulimia, resulting mostly from her mother’s pressure for her to watch her weight. She and her sisters felt it strongly, and Katie felt the need to “strive, cheat, binge, and purge” until her twenties. Interestingly, while she notes sexism throughout her career in TV journalism, she does not point this pressure out as a feminist issue. Later in her career, her image was photoshopped once to make her look thinner, although she never had weight issues.
After serving as a journalist on the school paper at UVA, Couric took the initiative and talked her way into a meeting at ABC News, who passed her on to PR. Upon such meetings a future depends, and she passed that test to find her way first to ABC News and then a brand-new network called CNN, underwritten by a wild billionaire named Ted Turner. Carl Bernstein, who had just become bureau chief for ABC News, asked her, “Why are you going to the minor leagues?” She replied, “Because I need to learn how to play baseball.”
From her time at the CNN bureau in DC until her time at the mothership in Atlanta, Couric was making her reputation. She became friends with mentors who would help push her to the right place at the right time. She encountered inevitable sexism along the way, such as someone who commented on her breast size in the middle of a big meeting. Unusually for that time, however, she made a stink with her informal support team and got an apology. It is testimony to her sense of self that she was able to do that even as a woman in her early twenties during the early Eighties.
Eventually Couric hopscotched to WTVJ in Miami. Covering the bright lights and alternatively glamorous and sordid stories of national interest in Miami gave her the experience to find her way back to the major market of Washington, DC, where she became a general assignment news reporter at NBC’s WRC TV. As she notes, it is unusual that WRC was fairly well integrated at that point in terms of race and gender, with strong local media personalities like Jim Vance, Susan Kidd, and Barbara Harrison.
In meeting her future husband, Jay Monahan, Couric had decided that although her own first priority was her career, she wanted marriage and children too. When her sparkling on-air personality was noticed by higher ups at NBC, she was invited to discussions in New York regarding the Today Show, which was in flux.
At that point there was a sense of tumult with the temperamental Bryant Gumbel going after Willard Scott, while news executives looked at Jane Pauley as yesterday’s news and today’s fish wrap. In pushing her out, they brought in Deborah Norville, who did not click with Gumbel as co-anchor.
Couric had then been asked to be newsreader at the Today Show. As an intensely competitive and ambitious journalist, she scented blood and notes that at that point, the mostly female demographic watching did not want someone who presented them with “relentless perfection” as they scrambled to get out the door in the morning. She was eventually offered the position of co-anchor with Bryant Gumbel, asking for an equal share of top interviews as part of her contract. With her brand of moxie and single-mindedness, she had reached her long-term goal of becoming an anchor, hitting the vertiginous heights of morning TV at the top-rated morning show in her early thirties, starting on April 5, 1991.
As a writer, Katie Couric gossips her way forward, like a bubbly girl who has her locker next to you in high school and gives you the skinny on everything. She talks about her commuter marriage with Jay Monahan before his move to New York from Washington, DC; the birth of her two daughters, and the devastating end to her short marriage when Monahan got colon cancer. When Gumbel retired and Matt Lauer arrived, she continued her fifteen-year reign with a new “brother” as part of America’s morning family at NBC. Her private live was lived publicly through the prism of the Today Show, where her audience felt like they knew her personally.
Couric suffered another devastating loss from cancer when her sister died from pancreatic cancer soon after her husband. In the wake of these deaths, she helped establish the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance and the Jay Monahan Center for Gastrointestinal Health. She had a colonoscopy on TV to help people become more comfortable with the idea so they could catch the disease on time.
In the meantime, Couric covered all the important stories of the nineties into the aughts, including 9/11 and lightning rod issues such as school shootings (Columbine and Sandy Hook), racial relations (Rodney King and O.J. Simpson), abortion, religion, homophobia (the Matthew Shepard killing). She looks back with regret on insensitivities she felt she unwittingly supported or enabled in covering stories within the context of those times. She certainly does not back off from self-criticism in looking for ways to forward a better dialogue without institutionalized biases about sensitive issues. Even in interviews on transgenderism that took place in the past decade or so on her syndicated show, Katie, she learned from her mistakes and tried to create a dialogue, however clumsy, that would lead to her audience having a better understanding of such topics.
One more humorous aspect to this book is her inadvertently funny battle for interview scoops with Diane Sawyer once Sawyer started at ABC’s Good Morning America in the late 1990s. In bagging guests, bookers from each network might try to find guests at hotels, tell them that their interviews at NBC or ABC was canceled, and steal them for themselves. Some would cry on the phone to manipulate guests trying to turn down requests. As huge money makers for the networks, the morning shows were cutthroat in their pursuits.
After fifteen successful years at the Today Show, Couric’s stint as evening news anchor at CBS News proved ill-fated. She talks about coming into a network where she had negotiated a high salary while other employees and even anchors had to take pay cuts. In addition, CBS had a venerable vibe. Couric believes that she came in wanting to make too many changes at an institution that fundamentally did not want her, although CEO and Chairman Les Moonves originally did. She was unable to make headway in doing many stories at Sixty Minutes, the apex of respected hard news stories.
As time went on, she and her team of producers became increasingly sidelined for various stories, with little support from Les Moonves once her ratings slipped, and active antagonism from Jeff Fager, veteran executive producer at Sixty Minutes. After five years at CBS, she decided to leave.
In going on to a two-year stint at a daily talk show called Katie, followed by a period as Global News Anchor at Yahoo! News, Katie tried various broadcast experiments. None lived up to the success she had had at the Today Show. One taught her about what did not work in mixing entertainment and news, and the other about working in a tech industry that valued tech developments at the expense of news distribution.
The most highly anticipated section of this book is the one covering her long-term relationship with Matt Lauer, whom she considered a good work friend, someone generous and decent. She offers her view on the way Ann Curry was pushed out of the Today Show, possibly with the help of Lauer, and compares it to the debacle when Jane Pauley was pushed out shortly before she arrived at the Today Show. When Lauer was summarily fired in November 2017, she both reached out to him via text, saying “I am crushed. I love you and care about you deeply” while remaining in a state of ambivalence.
She also notes that she worried about her own reputation in contacting him. As she met up with some of his conquests, both forced and consensual, she heard more details about his negative effects on these women and their lives. She and Matt texted back and forth, but she never picked up the phone to connect. Eventually their strong professional friendship died on the vine. She also notes that while she had not heard specific rumors about her former boss Les Moonves, who was felled by the MeToo movement, she was unsurprised that the sexist, unprofessional atmosphere at Sixty Minutes that Jeff Fager created got him fired.
As in other cases, Couric discusses having a more enlightened perspective now in looking back at the way in which older, more experienced men could be predatorial towards young, bright women trying to make their way as journalists. Yet if there is any part of this book I found disingenuous, it may be Couric’s comments on the overt sexism and pressure on women she both saw and did not see as a woman at the top of her field. Is she excusing herself? Was she too caught up in her life to analyze what was going on around her? I do not know if it is just her writing style, but I found her discussion of powerful predators she knew more closely, along with others such as Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, and Harvey Weinstein, curiously detached.
If you are interested in looking at the topic of sexual politics and the MeToo movement in a more complex, provocative, and fictional context, I highly recommend at least the first season of The Morning Show on Apple Plus, set at that moment in the MeToo movement. Alex Levy, the character played by Jennifer Aniston, faces her own culpability regarding her co-host, Mitch Kessler, played by Steve Carell. A thinly disguised version of Matt Lauer, he has recently been fired for sexual misdeeds.
Eventually Couric, after sixteen years and a number of relationships, got remarried to her second real love, a financier named John Molner. It sounds as if she has come to a very fruitful place in her life with little left to prove.
I have several takeaways from this tell-all. Couric muses about her life and work with multiple periods of introspection, but she handles them with a light touch, which reflects her personality.
If you are looking for excellent writing, this may not be the book for you. Young adult language prevails. For example, when invited to see Les Moonves after some tumultuous months at CBS News, Couric writes “I couldn’t imagine what it was about, but I doubted it was something awesome.” In describing a married woman Matt approached, she said the woman “found it bizarre and so not cool.” And the kicker? She actually points out that even if some women threw themselves at Matt, he should not have taken that as a reason to go ahead. Couric quotes “As Peter Parker in Spider-Man reminds us, ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’” Her memoir is only gently edited. Luckily, this voice at least feels very authentic.
It seems as if Katie Couric has always had a certain internal battle, as she puts it, between “Katie” and “Katherine,” both tenacious personalities who propelled her through her career. Katie is the sunshine girl who lit up morning news and reached a mass audience with her bubbly presence, and Katherine the one who wanted to do hard news, and worked hard to research meaty assignments, eventually going to CBS News to prove herself as the nightly news anchor. I remember watching her first broadcasts on CBS, wanting her to succeed as the first female nightly news anchor, and yet thinking that she was projecting the news in a laborious fashion that felt inauthentic. She did not find a good rhythm as time went on, and Katie and Katherine did not mesh well at CBS.
Couric writes sincerely that she would want in her obituary that she was a tireless advocate for cancer research and awareness, and that she is most proud of the two girls she raised as a single mom, albeit with help, to be intelligent, conscientious women with values. Here is the public’s friend and role model, a tireless woman who shaped the news presented to millions of viewers, whose down-to-earth values helped her rise to become one of the top media personalities in the country.
Over her career in morning TV Couric made a career sneaking up on people with her well-honed interviewing skills because of her superficially shiny image, one that propelled her to huge fame and an equally large salary. It seems that in retrospect, the Today Show was really the perfect fit for reconciling her hard and soft news abilities, because Katie’s image in this book, for better or worse, supersedes Katherine’s almost every time. Perhaps that is both her greatest strength and to a lesser extent, her Achilles’ heel.