CBS: Wait for Couric Success But Don't Wait for Iraq

May 14th, 2007 12:10 PM

Katie Couric and Jack MurthaIf television news were covered the same way the media covered Iraq, Katie Couric would surely be out of a job by now. I can imagine the New York Times lede:

The news just keeps getting worse for the administration. After spending millions of dollars and manpower to sell a leadership transition, the situation continues to deteriorate. External critics are stepping up their attacks and cracks within the administration's iron-clad discipline are beginning to show as dissenters leak secrets, express discontent and demand an exit strategy to an eager press.

That, of course is not a lede you'll ever see in any American newspaper but it is dead-on accurate as far as the facts go. The "CBS Evening News" continues to sink in the ratings despite the fact that former "Today" star Katie Couric was brought in to save the show from oblivion. Here's the actual New York Times:

The numbers are stark. Eight months into Katie Couric’s job as the first woman to anchor a network newscast on her own, her “CBS Evening News” has not only settled back into its long-held position of last among the evening news broadcasts, but also regularly falls short of the newscast that Ms. Couric replaced.

In the latest week’s ratings, “CBS Evening News” had its worst performance since the Nielsen company installed its “people meter” ratings system 20 years ago.

Ms. Couric professed to be unfazed. “Honestly, I think we’re going to see ebbs and flows,” she said in a telephone interview the day after receiving the ratings news. “I don’t think it’s a doom-and-gloom scenario.”

But it certainly is not a buoyant scenario either, as Sean McManus, the president of CBS News, acknowledged. “We are a distant third,” he said. “There is no way to sugarcoat that fact.”

CBS executives say their research had predicted that the newscast would continue to struggle in the ratings, even after the network’s enormous investment in Ms. Couric — an estimated $15 million in annual salary — as well as millions more to build a new set and promote her and her newscast.

Internal critics are legion and many of them have been speaking to the press. Yet, the same CBS who has been eager to pronounce the Iraq war a failure is taking a decidedly different tone when it comes to its own attempts to do something big:

Despite the low ratings and the reports of sniping from colleagues, the mood inside CBS News remains unshakably upbeat. In an interview in her office overlooking the set, Ms. Couric sought to convey the message, backed up by CBS management, that she was not going anywhere. Not now, not after the 2008 election, not anytime encompassed by her initial five-year contract.

Nor does she want to go anywhere, she insists. “I have no regrets,” she said.

The network’s executives, including Leslie Moonves, the CBS chairman, say they knew that they were acquiring probably the most avidly followed personality in television news, and so they did expect a media spotlight. But some of the other reactions caught them off guard. [...]

With those early expectations gone and signaling perhaps that CBS has no Plan B in the works, Mr. McManus said that the network is looking for long-term gains.

“Our ratings will improve because of the quality of our newscast and the quality of our anchor,” he said. “That’s the only plan that makes sense right now.”

As to when that might happen, Mr. McManus said, “Three years, four years, five years; that is the time frame that I think, realistically, you need to use to evaluate where the broadcast is and where CBS News is.”

Five years down the road. The hypocrisy is staggering.

CBS thinks that everyone should reserve judgment for up to five years for it to grow the ratings for a television show while expecting the creation of democracy in a region which is infamous for religious intolerance and despotism to have been completed within one year.

CBS which was calling for an "exit strategy" in 2003,* the first year of the war, and has been eager to compare Iraq to Vietnam. This is also the same CBS which referred to low poll numbers for President Bush as proof that the administration's attempts to convince the public on Iraq were like a "mission impossible" scenario, and asked explicitly "is there any way out of this nightmare?"

The fact is, CBS is right to say that it's been too short of a timeframe to pronounce the Couric regime a success or failure. Too bad the network's ideological blinders keep it from thinking similarly on Iraq.

* Steve Kroft on the May 23, 2004 edition of "60 Minutes" asked former general Anthony Zinni the following question: "There was a point during the Vietnam War where we had opportunities to say, 'No, no, we're not going to go any farther.' Has the time come to sit down and say, 'Look, this is not going well, and there is a potential for it to go much worse. Maybe the time has come to develop an exit strategy.'"