Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

“Superb” journalism

Posted by metaphorical on 10 March 2007

“I love Katie. She is a superb journalist,” Kaplan, a former president of CNN and MSNBC and onetime executive producer of ABC’s “World News Tonight” and “Nightline,” said yesterday. “For me, this whole deal is a no-brainer.”

Kaplan is Rick Kaplan, who will be taking over as executive producer of the CBS Evening News, according to the real journalists at The Washington Post.

Kaplan has worked with real journalists before, having been executive producer at ABC for both World News Tonight and Nightline. So you would have thought he knew what one was. His boss, though, CBS News President Sean McManus, may not know at all. And the pressure will be on to produce ratings, not news.

McManus, the CBS Sports president who also took over the news division last year, has repeatedly said it would take a long time for the “Evening News” to climb out of the cellar. But, he said yesterday, “I’m a little less patient in wanting to see some improvement in the ratings.”

Do these guys really see Katie Couric as a journalist? Does she find or figure out stories? Does she do her own reporting? Does she write her own stories? Does she work with editors to get them just right? These are the things that a journalist does.

Turning to the dictionary, it turns out that Kaplan is relying on the butt end of the definition of “journalism.” Random House, for example, says

1. the occupation of reporting, writing, editing, photographing, or broadcasting news or of conducting any news organization as a business.

If we’re not careful to respect the front end of the definition, though, it’ll turn out that everyone working for a journalistic enterprise, even the cleaning crew, are a journalists.

The Post did a good job of getting some reaction shots from people who have worked with Kaplan.

“He’s very inventive, very dynamic, got a million ideas a day, or 10. Three are brilliant, three are terrible, and he needed someone to figure out which are which,” said ABC correspondent Sam Donaldson. “He sometimes goes on rampages — thunders and screams and hollers. He’s a big guy, and he intimidates people. I’ve seen him terrorize people, and later he comes back and apologizes, and he means it.”

Tucker Carlson, an MSNBC host who worked for Kaplan at that network and CNN, said that “he thought big. He is a natural showman. He’s a guy who understands drama. If he wasn’t in television, he’d be a great Broadway producer.”

So there you have it. The guy calling Couric “a superb journalist” should be producing plays on Broadway. Hopefully he, the sports producer, and the perky good-morning “journalist” will work out. Meanwhile, they’re putting together the “show” that, for about 7.5 million of us, constitutes much of their daily picture of the world.


22 Responses to ““Superb” journalism”

  1. Blue Athena said

    I know very little about Katie Couric. I’m not a viewer and rely on other sources for my news. But I’m just questioning your wording here, which has left me a little confused as to exactly what you are saying about her journalistic credentials:

    “Do these guys really see Katie Couric as a journalist? Does she find or figure out stories? Does she do her own reporting? Does she write her own stories? Does she work with editors to get them just right? These are the things that a journalist does.”

    Are you saying she doesn’t do those things? Again, don’t know myself…but some anchors do so it’s not really obvious to those of us uninitiated in the details of Couric’s work habits whether or not she is finding her own stories or working with editors or whatever.

    Sorry to be kind of picky here, but if your making the point that she doesn’t do these things I think you should say that. It just seems a little like you’re playing it safe to use this kind of phrasing which lets you off the hook a bit if it turns out she does in fact do some of these things. Not to mention not answering the question clearly for those of us who haven’t actually observed her in the office.

  2. My understanding is she didn’t do hard reporting even at her early reporting jobs, which were at CNN and ABC. If you consider interviewing on-camera a politician or celebrity to be journalism, then I suppose she did a bunch of it at Today and in her current gig, but I don’t.

    She has the title of managing editor as well as anchor at CBS Evening News. It’s pretty common to have a second title, but the one she has isn’t associated with actual journalism. If she’s surreptitiously doing a lot of what a journalist does, then I’m happy to stand corrected; I wasn’t trying to create a weasel-way out.

    She’s said that as a single mother, she’s not going to travel to parts of the world that are dangerous, even surrounded by whatever a news anchor is surrounded by when an evening news show moves onto a location. I don’t fault her for that, but then, I don’t fault her for not being a journalist. I did intend to mock Kaplan for saying she was. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough about that.

  3. Blue Athena said

    By “didn’t do hard reporting” are you specifically saying she did none of the things listed in your original question list?

    “Does she find or figure out stories? Does she do her own reporting? Does she write her own stories? Does she work with editors to get them just right? These are the things that a journalist does.”

    Whether or not you consider this a mocking of Couric, I would assume she is bright enough to realize that it doesn’t flatter her. I just want to know if you are specifically saying she doesn’t do this entire list of things, since it is on this argument that your point rests.

  4. Again, this is just what I’ve read, but by “didn’t do hard reporting” I meant she was a reporter (and did the things journalists do) but not for the type of stories that reporters prize.

    For example, this Washington Post article says,

    After a 15-year run at “Today” in which Couric has interviewed everyone from President Bush, Tony Blair and Colin Powell to Bill Gates, Donald Trump and O.J. Simpson, her hard-news background is hardly in doubt, despite the breakfast-show requirements of cooking and fashion segments.

    In other words, the interviews were on the topics considered hard news, but she was doing any reporting. (I don’t mean to suggest she didn’t research her interviews, though I’m sure she had a lot of help, just that the interviews were the end, and not a means to an actual story.

    The articles also has this:

    Television analyst Andrew Tyndall said the anchor job has two parts: reading the teleprompter and “sitting behind the desk when there’s a crisis.” Couric, he said, “is very good at doing live television” and “competent” as a news reader, although not as good as Schieffer.

    I’m glad you’re pressing on this, Athena, because these details are interesting.

  5. Blue Athena said

    It seems like your criticism is now of the type of material covered, and not of whether she actually did the things you initially stated are fundamental to being a journalist:

    You state:
    “Again, this is just what I’ve read, but by “didn’t do hard reporting” I meant she was a reporter (and did the things journalists do) but not for the type of stories that reporters prize.”

    But previously I believe what you wrote fairly clearly implied she did *not* do the things journalists do:

    “Do these guys really see Katie Couric as a journalist? Does she find or figure out stories? Does she do her own reporting? Does she write her own stories? Does she work with editors to get them just right? These are the things that a journalist does.”

    From this I take it that the things required to be a journalist are:

    1. find or figure out stories
    2. do one’s own reporting
    3. ork with editors to get them just right

    And the same paragraph, and what follows, implies she does not do these things.

    Are you adding a 4th requirement?

    4. Doing “the type of stories that reporters prize”


    Because if so, it’s kind of odd not to list this, but to list 3 other criteria that you now seem to be saying she does do.

  6. Swanny said

    Not only that, she was a Girl Scout!

    Plus she’s not nearly ugly enough to be considered a serious journalist.

    And she’s a girl!

  7. Now I think things are being pulled out of context. What I said was that she as an anchor wasn’t a journalist. My post discussed her activities in the present tense and your first comment concerned the present. I may have confused things by mentioning something about her past in my first response.

    I never said she wasn’t ever a journalist and I explicitly said she did reporting early on, just not what’s considered hard reporting. That’s not a fourth requirement, it’s in the context of noting that even when she was a journalist, she wasn’t doing the major stories that garner the greatest respect.

    I don’t think having been a reporter at all, hard or soft, is needed to be a good news anchor, by the way. And to the extent that there may seem to be an implied contrast with Dan Rather, who did have a reputation as a hard reporter, I think that reputation was overblown and I think he wasn’t by any means a great anchor. Cronkite was, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard a word said about his early reporting career, which suggests it was pretty undistinguished.

    In the UK they’re not even called anchors, they’re “newsreaders” and it’s a tough and honorable profession of its own. The movie Broadcast News, even as it gently ridicules the role of the anchor, shows how tough a job it is. My only point is that it’s distinct from that of journalist, and that Kaplan was being grandiloquent.

  8. Swanny said

    All Hail Lord Meta! Arbiter of all. Thou who wouldst defile the sainted profession of journalism with the inclusion of Kute Katie will suffer the same consequences as those whores to commercialism without conscience, the Girls Scouts. Cower before him and accede to his precepts or suffer his wrath!

  9. Blue Athena said

    OK, I think I can see the “was a journalist but isn’t now” position. It wasn’t clear to me, but maybe I just wasn’t reading right.

    So you think she did do those things before on the journalist list, but doesn’t now, right?

    Thanks for clarifying.

  10. Athena, yes, that’s my impression, and it’s the norm for tv reporters, same as any other. I don’t think the sad state of tv network news is the fault of the reporters, who are trying to break the same stories in the same way as any other journalists. The problems have mainly to do with the unfortunate economic realities of commercial television.

  11. Swanny, we can joke about it, but the fact is the sainted profession of journalism is reeling at the moment, and it’s the only thing standing between us and totalitarianism. That’s neither a good nor stable combination of circumstances.

  12. Blue Athena said

    I guess what’s still getting me a bit is the idea that anchors in general don’t do any of those journalistic things. In Couric’s case you have a quote describing her anchor job, and I certainly have nothing to contest that. The reason I am a bit surprised is because the only anchors I know anything about (those at my local TV station) spend about 4-5 hours a day in the 3 activities you list as journalistic (yes, I’ve watched them do it). I guess you do less work as you go up in the world in that field to national anchors?

    My local anchors do this not only because the station isn’t going to pay them just to read text and hour or two a day, but because they don’t want their skills or reputations to slide. (Don’t get me wrong…I’m not a fan of TV news, but I still think the research and writing involved meet your requirements for journalism).

    So can they be great journalists doing “journalistic” work 4-5 hours a day? Probably not, but not impossible. People who paint 4 hours a day may be great artists. Who knows.

    But are they journalists *at all*? This is the other part of the question you raised wrt Couric. I would say a half time doctor is still a doctor and a half time teacher is still a teacher. So on your definition of journalists, the local folks are journalists, if only part time.

    But getting back to Couric, does she still do the half time work even? Or quarter time? OK, I guess I can see that perhaps she doesn’t. I would want to have a lot of my own information to make that claim myself, but I don’t disagree it could be true.

    Another aspect here (much more terminological) is whether you consider a retired X still an X. Do we call someone to task for saying “He is a great astronomer” if the person hasn’t worked for 10 years? I don’t know…I don’t think it would set off any alarms with me.

    I guess the statement “Katie Couric isn’t a journalist” (paraphrased) just seemed a little extreme to me. “Katie Couric isn’t a great journalist”, on the other hand, is a statement that wouldn’t have even made my radar screen. Not because I have reason to believe her bad, just because it takes a lot to make anyone great and I can’t imagine her role is one that is conducive to “great” work.

  13. Points well taken, all of them, but it’s one thing to ask whether a retired doctor is a doctor—we might well say yes. If someone says, on the other hand, “Mary is a great doctor!” it’s an appropriate response to be surprised and say, “I thought she retired years ago!” The sentence implies, at least to my ear, that she’s still practicing.

  14. “it’s the only thing standing between us and totalitarianism.”

    Drunk on your own power at only 7pm?

  15. Blue Athena said

    “Drunk on your own power at only 7pm?”

    Huh? I admit I found the “sainted profession” label a bit much in that one comment, but I don’t think Metaphorical’s fear is misplaced. Yes, journalism is maybe not technically “the only thing” protecting us, but good journalism is a damned important component of what is keeping us from the worst.

  16. Sorry, I don’t find much nobility in journalism.

  17. digglahhh said

    So, we can debate the technical requirements of what it means to be a journalist and whether or not Katie Couric as a journalist. But that debate is “bread and circus.” Who really cares?…

    One thing we know for sure is that if we have to debate whether or not you are a journalist at all, you are certainly not a “superb” one. I would argue that even if she was the greatest soft journalist of all time, she’s probably still excluded from the pantheon of “superb” journalists. You know, in the same way that the greatest bowler of all time has no real case for being in the top say, 30 or 40 thousand athletes of all time.

    The executive producer of one of our major news sources is calling Katie Couric a superb journalist and that claim is moronic at best and disingenuous at worst(or vice versa, depending your perspective). Let’s not lose sight of that.

    Does title of journalist has an implied emeritus status? Well, can we say that Willie Mays is a great ballplayer, or do we have to say that he was a great ballplayer? I don’t know. But, this isn’t about a GM sparking a semantic debate- this is like a GM signing Mays to play centerfield right now!

  18. Sorry, I don’t find much nobility in journalism.

    Neither do I. I also don’t find much nobility in farming, trash collection, or mechanical engineering, yet they’re all needed for our society to function well too.

  19. Are they also the only thing standing between us and totalitarianism? Or is that still just the journalists with their fingers in the dykes?

  20. I suppose it’s possible that I might have engaged in a bit of hyperbole. Just maybe. But without good journalism democracy would be slipping away even more quickly than it is. To pick just one current example, would we know about the way the Bush administration was hollowing out the Justice department by replacing competent U.S. Attorneys with political hacks? My point is that a strong and free press is a necessary (of course not sufficient) condition of democracy.

  21. Yeah, he probably should have purged the prosecutors upon entering office like Clinton did.

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