Katie and the Canes
What television is for (and what it isn't).


Still, bland as the sports have been, everything else on the tube has been worse. The head of the FCC during the Kennedy years, Newton Minnow (great name, huh?), famously described television as being a “vast wasteland.” And that was during what a lot of people think of as the good old days of television. But, then, a wasteland has it all over a waste dump.

Last week, television was panting hysterically after the “story” of the Jon Benet Ramsey killer. Just clicking past some of those broadcasts was enough to make you feel green slime growing on the backs of your hands. All one wanted to know, while furiously manipulating the remote, was: “Is he the guy?” And: “If he is the guy, how soon are they going to hang him?” Beyond that, any interest was prurient.

But television soldiered on with the tenacity it mastered during the O.J. wars.

The one thing, other than Jon Benet, that non-sports television seems interested in is Katie Couric. Seems she is about to sit down in front of the cameras at CBS and do what Walter Cronkite once did — read from a script called “News.” The big day is September 5; the waiting for this moment has been made to seem nigh-on unbearable, though nobody has explained why this should be.

“Big deal. New pretty face reading the news. How’d it come out between the ’Noles and ’Canes?”

That would be the FSU Seminoles and the Miami University Hurricanes, who will play their annual grudge match on Monday night. There is an unpredictability about this fracas that is entirely missing from the CBS Evening News. Fans still talk about some of the great FSU/Miami games — say “wide right” and they know what you are talking about — while it is doubtful anyone remembers anything from network news in the last ten years. Maybe longer. It is a big story when they change quarterbacks (i.e. anchors), but otherwise…who cares?

Couric seems to get this. She has been doing promos where she makes the usual noises about giving the audience something more than just the headlines and “getting them to understand why they should care.” When somebody is trying to make you “care,” or, worse, make you understand why you should, most likely you are being hustled. Ultimately, probably even Couric won’t be able to make that sale.

Besides, this is probably the wrong way for anyone in the traditional, smokestack news industry to be going these days. The compulsion to do “more” than simply report the news has recently caused a lot of grief in the nation’s newsrooms and cost people like Dan Rather and Howell Raines their jobs. When people did care about network news and watch it (back, that is, before cable and the internet), it was strictly for the headlines and the pictures. Cronkite was there to provide caption copy. This is what TV does best, and maybe CBS should just go with it (being careful not to doctor up the pictures, the way Reuters did) and take whatever audience it can get. Bill the soap and deodorant companies accordingly and keep on keeping on.

Not to say that Couric isn’t a good pick for the job; to be sure, she’s as right for the job she’s been hired to do as Edward R. Murrow was for the task of describing, by radio, the London Blitz. His voice was the right blend of doom and defiance and the air raid sirens made perfect background music. (Someone I know, who was there, told me that there was “no sound like it on earth and none so exactly right.”) Cronkite was the right “greatest-generation” voice — sober, humorless, and confident — just as Rather had a kind of baby-boomer cockiness, edge, and inflated sense of his own intelligence and importance that was right for his time. And now comes Couric with her transcendently insincere sincerity and profound faith in the sacredness of emotion. She, too, is perfect for the times. There is a reason they pay the suits at the networks the big bucks to make these kind of hiring decisions.

But that is all show biz, and the whole act is old and tired and predictable. Unless there is real news — in which case everyone goes immediately to cable or, more likely, the internet — most people don’t care, even when Couric tells them, ever so earnestly, that they really, really should.

But football…now that is a different deal. For one thing, nobody knows how the game is going to turn out. Could be “wide right” all over again. And with football, television really can show you why something happened — do it again and again, for that matter, in slo-mo and stop action. When it zooms in close on of those hard hits — the kind that a coach from Texas once called “snot-knocking in the okra” — couch potatoes from sea to sea feel the crunch in their own bones. It isn’t “caring,” but it will do.

Football is something television can really cover, as opposed to just packaging, which it does with the news. To television, the news is just another kind of soap. And the sell has gone beyond boring.

’Canes vs. ’Noles. Monday night. One of the great college rivalries. Katie Couric will not be doing the play-by-play.

Geoffrey Norman writes for NRO and other publications.