I am frequently asked to describe the tone and story selection of the CBS Evening News in the six months since Couric became anchor. Is it softer? More like a magazine program than a newscast? Does it carry the traces of Couric's morning pedigree?
Couric deploys a raft of journalistic techniques that create a more anecdotal, more personal tone, less concerned with the abstractions of public policy and the wide view. None of these techniques are innovations. All are used by ABC and NBC, but more sparingly. CBS sets itself apart by its frequency. Today's newscast offered a trio of striking examples of the CBS style:
1.An anecdote stands for a social phenomenon: Armen Keteyian conveyed the plight of active duty military suffering from Traumatic Brain Injury by following the story of a single soldier, Sgt Eric Edmundson. His father "made hundreds of calls and wrote thousands of e-mails" to persuade the army not to discharge him to veterans' care so that he could qualify for superior private healthcare at a rehabilitation clinic in Chicago, which will now treat 100 of his comrades too.
2.Pop culture references illustrate hard news events: Gloria Borger's round-up of potential candidates waiting in the wings to enter Campaign 2008 characterized the contest with a clip from CBS' own reality show The Amazing Race; she anticipated the entry of actor and former senator Fred Thompson by showing a clip from NBC's Law & Order; she showed the YouTube clip of Giuliani in drag with real estate mogul Donald Trump; and she added that Al Gore might get in the race by identifying him as "Oscar winner and former Vice President."
3.The responsibility of community leaders to be role models: Couric's experience in using her own celebrity in the cause of public health--advocating universal colonoscopies--seems to inform the worldview of The American Spirit series. It isolates a general social problem--today's example is the high cancer death rate suffered by the uninsured poor--and profiles an admirable individual's leadership and sacrifice in response. Couric presented oncologist Harold Freeman, who gave up a prestigious career at Sloan Kettering to run the not-for-profit Patient Navigation Program in Harlem NY, helped by funds from Ralph Lauren.
Peppered throughout the newscast Couric found opportunities to abandon the norms of journalistic objectivity to become an emotional partisan for participants in the stories. She found it "very moving" to see the tearful father of the brain injured soldier; she nodded in agreement with the oncologist when he insisted on a "basic level of care for all people, irrespective of their ability to pay;" and when Sharyn Alfonsi filed a story illustrated by movie clips from Almost Famous and The Breakfast Club about the neurology of adolescents, Couric shared a mother's exasperation--"I hear ya!"--with the pouty mood swings of teenage girls.
These examples demonstrate that soft-v-hard is not the interesting question when trying to characterize Couric's approach to the news. More relevant dimensions include personal-v-societal, anecdotal-v-abstract, emotional-v-dispassionate, engagement-v-context, inspiration-v-irony. In each pairing Couric's style favors the former over the latter.
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