Katie Couric's CBS Evening News debut.

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Sept. 6 2006 1:20 PM

Katie Couric Faces the Nation

Katie Couric's CBS Evening News debut.

Katie Couric. Click image to expand.
Katie Couric

Last night, ABC's World News led with a report on a border-province peace deal between Pakistan's government and Islamic militants. On NBC, Brian Williams kicked off his broadcast with news of Chevron's tapping an oil reserve in the Gulf of Mexico. And let the record reflect that Anderson Cooper 360° began with a segment on the life and death of Steve Irwin, crocodile hunter, and that it lasted a full 14 minutes. While Katie Couric offered only a brief Irwin piece about 10 minutes into her first night sitting behind (and perching beside, and sitting leggily in front of) the anchor desk at CBS, she did direct us to the network's Web site, where we might click on something demurely titled "CROC HUNTER'S LAST MOMENTS FILMED." That's how flashy Couric's debut was: A snuff film got fourth billing.

The CBS Evening News is making a serious commitment to quality entertainment. After beginning cozily ("Hi, everyone!"), Couric led last night's show with some tape of Lara Logan, who had interviewed members of a resurgent Taliban and sent back a report that was both hefty and stylish—a fair bit of context, a lotta scary guns, the steady insinuation of the glamorous correspondent's sense of peril. The anchor segued to a piece on the president's war-on-terror speech of the day and then, to make sense of it all, went to a pre-taped bit she'd done with New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman, with whom I suppose she's buddies, as she initially identified him as "Tom."

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The longer version of the Friedman interview posted at CBS's Web site is impressively substantive; C-SPAN wouldn't be ashamed of it. The consumer who merely tuned in at cocktail hour, however, watched something edited down to an expert pantomime of a Serious Discussion. When Couric asked if we Americans were safer now than we were five years ago, Friedman replied, "In some ways, yes. In some ways, no." He let the details of these ways remain mysterious but did volunteer that America needs to start "exporting hope and not fear." When Katie then bounced Tom a follow-up ("Well, how do we do that?"), he said something so handsomely vague that it just had to be meaningful. Thus was the viewer able to achieve the feeling of having gained a deeper understanding of current events without taxing a single synapse.

Couric went on to do the crocodile tease and a bit on what "the folks at Chevron" had found and then made way for a new guest-commentary feature called "freeSpeech." Here, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock expressed dismay about the sorry state of social commentary in America and inveighed against the braying of political extremists. Seeking to impart some freshness to this idea, Spurlock borrowed his metaphors from professional wrestling, and CBS helpfully supplied some slow-motion footage of Hulk Hogan maniacally flexing his oiled pythons in the squared circle. It would be wrong to carp about this choice of visual—not because it was merely stupid, nor because Hogan is far less relevant than the Rock, but because the clips at least allowed us to look at something other than Spurlock's necktie.

Couric wrapped up her maiden newscast by dabbling in memorable trash—relaying Vanity Fair's photographic proof that Tom Cruise and his young fiancee have procreated, warming hearts with a segment about some jolly occurrences at a Nicaraguan orphanage, and then taking her leave in a most peculiar fashion. Having not yet settled on a signoff that feels right, Katie had CBS show us the trademark farewells of her real and fictional forebears—Will Ferrell's "Ron Burgundy," Dan Rather's "Dan Rather," etc.—and invited us to pitch our own ideas via the Internet for a properly Courician signoff. I'm trying to iron out the wrinkles in a line combining Walter Cronkite and Peggy Lee: That's all there is. Let's keep dancing.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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