She’s Making News got off to a powerful start Thursday afternoon, as Katie Couric took The Paley Center stage with Pat Mitchell. As the two extraordinary interviewers sat side by side, Pat asked the questions and Katie answered.
When a person reaches the height of professional achievement, as has Katie Couric, it’s sometimes hard to believe there was ever a time when her ability was questioned. And yet Couric started off the afternoon by sharing how standing on the White House lawn at the start of career, she overheard a veteran anchor say: “Who is that girl? She looks like she’s about sixteen-years-old.”
Another horrifying moment: the head of CNN saying he never wanted to see her on the air again. We found her candor about these early days reassuring and inspiring; rather than letting these judgements define her, she kept going, determined to trust in her own talents.
Pat asked how she managed to do that, and Katie responded that early on, she “Looked at the people who were successful and I thought, you know, they don’t necessarily have anything on me except for more experience. And I thought the harder I worked, that the better I would get.”
Couric has certainly worked hard: co-anchor of The Today Show at NBC, sole anchor and managing editor of CBS Evening News, and soon to have her own afternoon talk show, Katie, in national syndication.
Serving as the first woman anchor of a major network, Couric had to deal with “a lot of doubters.” And again, she drew on her work ethic and worldview to guide her: “I said, you know I’m a capable person. I know I can do this job. I realized I can’t control everything. You know, I think for a can-do person who really likes to be in charge/be bossy, that you know, you have to kind of accept at some points in your life there’s nothing I can do about this. I can’t control how people view me. All I can control is how hard I work, the work I do, and the way I treat other people. And so that’s what I focused on.”
One major challenge Couric’s faced is the “blatant sexism” in our culture. Insidiously, this sexism takes many forms: the way Hillary Clinton was talked about on the 2008 campaign trail, the increased objectification of women, the backlash against women in power, and an immense pressure on young girls to focus on their appearance. Not to mention, when lead anchor at CBS, Couric was criticized for things like how she held her hands, or for wearing a white jacket after Labor Day (and for the record, it was winter white Armani, so take that fashion police). Women must deal with, as Katie put it, people who find it “hard to square our sexuality with our intelligence.”
And that’s been true since that day on the White House lawn till now: “As a woman, as you know, as a young woman, as for my whole look, it was hard to get people to take me seriously. And actually I’ve had that problem throughout my career, when it comes to covering serious news. I think there’s still a lot of sexism out there. I think because I haven’t been afraid to show all different sides of my personality – to have fun, to laugh and to also be serious and professional and really get to the heart of the matter – that people have had a hard time, kind of accepting someone who feels comfortable in her own skin and doesn’t need to be really put in a box or compartmentalized.”
One area of life Couric takes very seriously is her advocacy for cancer research. Following the diagnosis of her husband, Jay Monahan, with colon cancer, and then his death in 1998, Couric felt a need to do all she could to increase awareness and funds for research. Couric’s a co-founder of Stand Up To Cancer, an organization that has raised $180 million for cancer research. Her advocacy for cancer research and cancer patients, she relayed, is what she wants printed in the first line of her obituary: “Because other than raising my girls, that’s really the most gratifying thing I’ve ever done.”
We were struck by Couric’s intelligence, poise and humor–same in life as on TV! We look forward to the fall debut of Katie on September 10th. The hour-long afternoon format will allow for more in-depth interviews, something needed in an era of soundbites. In the meantime, check out her book, Best Advice I Ever Got: Lessons From Extraordinary Lives, a collection of advice from voices ranging from Jimmy Kimmel to Madeleine Albright to Thomas Jefferson.
She’s Making News is an on-going series at The Paley Center, and come this fall Katie and Pat’s conversation will be airing on PBS. We’ll keep you posted. Who are your favorite women role models in media? What was the best advice you’ve ever given or received?