It is now 15 months since Katie Couric took over as anchor of CBS Evening News. The success of the project to translate her renowned talents as morning anchor into the straitened format of a half-hour evening newscasts has been patchy to say the least. Couric's interviewing skills consist of a blend of forthrightness and empathy that have little chance to flourish in the rigid formality of a tightly edited newscast, a form that prizes concision over curiosity. So far Couric's ventures into human interest and feature reporting during her tenure as anchor have failed to find a formula to capitalize on those assets.
So I am pleased to report how successful I found the premiere of her ten-part series of Presidential candidate interviews. Each report in the Primary Questions series is designed to edit together the soundbites of the ten leading contenders, each answering the same Couric question. If the first example is representative--"What is the biggest mistake you have ever made? How did you recognize it? And what did you do to change course?"--the interview topics are closer to a Today style morning show than to Meet the Press' Sunday morning wonkishness.
Couric puts her imprint on the encounters by having the clout to persuade all ten to cooperate, having the moxie to ask for potentially embarrassing details, and having the empathy to pay respectful attention. What was impressive was, having laid down the rules of the game, how little she intruded thereafter. This feature was not all about her--she gave these politicians air to reveal themselves, not only in the way they spoke, but also in how they were edited, how one answer was intercut with the next.
Thus two candidates construed the question as touching on moral failings in their personal past…two selected policy errors they had made in their public positions…one confessed to ethical shortcomings while in office…one acknowledged a snafu in personnel management…two regretted failures in implementing programs…and two reflected on the temperamental misjudgments of youth. These different answers made Mitt Romney seem like John Edwards, Barack Obama like Fred Thompson, Hillary Rodham Clinton like Rudolph Giuliani. Check out the answers and see if you agree with these pairings.
The upshot was the sort of insight into contrasting personalities that viewers find in the best of reality gameshows. Hats off to Couric for getting these proud politicians to sit still for her experiment. The type of questions she chose makes her a legitimate heir to the pre-celebrity role of Barbara Walters, asking earnest good government questions yet treating political leaders as human beings not position papers. For the first time since she took over the CBS anchor chair, I found myself actively curious about what the next in the series would reveal.
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