Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Katie Couric: This Time, Gender Means Everything

Over at CBS.com, viewers are making their voices heard over their displeasure at Katie Couric's interview with John and Elizabeth Edwards on this past Sunday's 60 Minutes. I missed the first airing of the show, so to get myself up to speed I took the time to watch it on the site itself. Granted, I went into my viewing experience knowing, thanks to my Daily News Feed from MediaBistro, that people were already ripping Couric to shreds over her callousness, and so, given that I can be somewhat contrarian, may have been predisposed to rebuttal. But if you've read this blog for any period of time, you know that I'm not exactly what you call a huge fan of Couric's show. So all in, I figured, I was walking into it pretty balanced--if I had come away feeling she was terrible to the poor people I would have been no more surprised than if I took out my earphones and thought, "What a fantastic interview."

In the actual event, neither of those things were what first came to mind upon shutting down my video window. What came to mind instead was how clear it is that
so many of these complaints have everything to do with Katie Couric being a woman--offering but one more irritating example of the lingering gender imbalance that colors our entire world. It's not that I believe that viewers don't have the right to complain about the media--indeed, I wish that happened more. But too much about both the tone and the terms of these particular complaints--which refer to her as "arrogant", "cocky" and "insensitive" to name a few--rings too close to an adage that was repeated to me just the other night by one of the pioneers of the feminist movement: "In order to be considered ruthless a man has to rape and pillage an entire country. All a woman has to do is say no."

Watch the interview for yourself and then let's get real, people, and start acknowledging the truth: Katie Couric did not ask a single, solitary question that any other respectable journalist, male or female, wouldn't also have asked. The questions were utterly predictable: tell us about your cancer, tell us about your kids, tell us about what you told your kids. And then the various versions of "How do you explain why you're staying in the race?" What else should she have--could she have--asked??

John and Elizabeth Edwards are not Joe and Milly Beecroft from Podunk, Michigan, hauled out as sympathetic, unwitting victims to give CBS's rating a boost. Edwards is running, for the second time, to be President of the United States. He has a campaign team that numbers in the hundreds, by my guess, and communications consultants up the wazoo. There is simply no way he and Elizabeth walked into that interview unprepared to face the "hard" questions, and if by some freak chance they did, then it's time for them to invest in better staff. You do the interview, if you are the Edwardses, precisely to answer questions like these, and to give the American people a chance to hear your rationale for staying in the game. Because the questions Couric asked are exactly the same questions we are all asking each other; better to control the flow of information by offering definitive answers than by allowing ordinary people to speculate and, given our too-often twisted media culture, pundits to wag their tongues in the wrong direction.

So why the sustained hew and cry over Couric's line of questioning? Well, without being too simplistic about it, it clearly has lots (too much) to do with both who Katie is (a woman) and what we expect from her because of that. Spend some time reading the rather mean spirited comments on the CBS site (there are currently 94 pages of posts--if you scroll to the bottom of this page, you'll see where the comments begin), and you begin to wonder if people were expecting Katie to wrap Elizabeth and John up in a blanket and rock them (and us) to sleep rather than conduct an interview. Because that's what women are "supposed" to do, you see: take care, coddle, patronize. Watching Couric ask for real answers to important questions about Edwards' candidacy seems to feel to too many people like having their own mother slap them on the hand; somehow, these viewers appear to be taking it as a personal affront that Couric had the chutzpah to actually do her job and demand answers to the questions we don't have the guts, or access, to ask the Edwardses ourselves.

But isn't that what the media are there for, after all? To ask the questions the average viewer would not dare? (Once upon a time, I hear, that was actually the case.) Is it that we've lost our sense overall of what "journalism" actually means, or is it simply that we're still (still!) unable to evaluate a woman's work on its merits alone? Because really: if Dan Rather had asked the same questions, would we even be having this debate?

It's time for the viewing public to realize that women journalists, just like their male counterparts, have every right to ask tough questions of the folks looking to serve in highest office--in fact, it is their responsibility to do so. All these complaints about how much Katie did or didn't smile, why she didn't bring her own personal experiences into the discussion (one poster calls her a "hypocrite" because she worked when her own husband was dying), and on and on, only make it more depressingly evident that women remain "women" first, and that, no matter how much folks talk about a post-feminist age, gendered expectations continue to put real limits on the ways that we are all allowed to behave, and, in this case, the questions we are permitted to ask. In a way I've never quite experienced before, I truly feel for Katie Couric today--probably more than anything because it reminds me of the proscriptions that exist for all of us women, whether we choose to pay attention to them or not. I hope she--and CBS--will remain brave enough to keep weathering these storms. All of our futures depend on it.


Juls said...

Congratulations, you just became my new favorite blog.

You speak so truly it hurts.

Anonymous said...

About your our blog on Katie Couric (excerpted by AlterNet). The issue with the Edwards has absolutely nothing to do with gender.
It has nothing to do with "questions any reporter would ask". What many people clearly heard was her downright mean-spirited,caustic attitude, blaming the Edwards for their decision when she could have asked how they came to the decision or shared her own experience of doing almost the same thing with her own husband several years ago.