IN THE WEEKS before the publication of her memoir, Going There, Katie Couric and I would play a dark little game called Funny or Fucked Up? Over coffee, lunch, and Zoom calls, I would bring up an anecdote from the book— like, say, the first sentence, which is about the time she ate so many carrots in the summer after college that her skin turned orange—and ask her what, exactly, her reader was supposed to make of it. The carrots were on account of the Scarsdale Diet, the deprivational fad to which the 22-year old Couric had committed because her plan “was to look as good as possible for my wet hot American summer” before “finding a job—may be even a career—in TV news.”
That career would wind up being a blockbuster. At the peak of her fame at the turn of the millennium, which coincided with the heyday of the Today show and the primacy of the morning network-news program, she enjoyed near-unrivaled power. Along with a handful of other women—Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Connie Chung, Oprah Winfrey— Couric was one of the people who determined how American television audiences understood the world.
Nowadays, acknowledgment of Couric’s influence may prompt bafflement. She writes in the book about what it’s like, having once been prey to telephoto lenses and tabloid headlines about her boyfriends, her bitchiness, and her (alleged) brow-lifts, to go unrecognized. The monolithic media landscape over which she presided has been splintered by cable news and social media; her former co-anchor Matt Lauer was fired because of a sexual abuse scandal. The Today show, which she helmed for 15 years before embarking on a notoriously ill-fated stint as the anchor for CBS Evening News, has only a fraction of the audience it once commanded. The notion that any morning show could be a bona fide celebrity-maker is now mostly available via overheated fiction, especially the Apple TV+ drama The Morning Show, on which Jennifer Aniston plays a mercenary version of Couric.
But if you know, you know. During an early-September lunch in an outdoor covered booth on the Upper East Side, I noticed two middle-aged women walking past us six or seven times, staring at Couric, who had just come from the hospital where her 25-year-old daughter, Carrie, was being treated for an infection. Earlier in the week, Couric had shown up for a coffee date downtown wearing heels so tall and strappy that they’d drawn the compliments of a man on the street, but today she was makeup-free, in sweats, wolfing down a plate of tuna tartare, having eaten nothing at the hospital. At one point, discussing the lurid stories that had been printed about her during her time in fame’s barrel, she leaned over our table, pointing to the softly wrinkled skin around her eyes. “I mean, does this look like a face that had plastic surgery?”—and honestly, in a good way, it didn’t. After she left to return to the hospital, I realized that the rubbernecking women had taken the booth neighboring ours. They stopped me as I got up: Was it her? Was it really her? They started phoning family members in excitement. Not so long ago, Katie Couric was really famous.
Then, in mid-September, the New York Post began a prepublication campaign against Couric, leaking context-free excerpts of Going There suggesting that the book is a catalogue of her mean-girl exploits undermining other women and defending bad men. “Katie Couric Eviscerates Diane Sawyer,” read one headline; “Katie Couric Reveals Herself to Be a Misogynistic Idiot—Don’t Buy This Book,” went another. The coverage, of course, only amped up interest in the memoir, and for the first time in a long time, at 64, she was once again being photographed with a long lens walking by herself on the beach near her Hamptons home. Couric told me she wasn’t reading the wave of negative coverage as it spread from the newspapers to Twitter, but the rendering of her as cackling score-settler and cat fighter clearly bothered her.
The book is a lot of things: a very juicy autobiography, full of sex and gossip and bizarre celebrity encounters and familial revelation, as well as an account of the rampant misogyny within the industry in which Couric rose. Like Couric herself, it is surprisingly spiky and weird and seemingly committed to absolute chaos. It is the work of someone who is, if not ready to fully analyze her place in often-abusive hierarchies, curious enough about those hierarchies to lay out her experiences in ways that are not flattering, either to the news business or to herself. Going There’s near-compulsive accounting of journalistic sin hit its news apex in mid-October with the leak of her confession that in 2016, she chose not to air racist comments made by the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg in their entirety in part out of an impulse to protect the Supreme Court justice.
A celebrity tell-all that by its nature should have been interesting only to Couric’s longtime fans turns out to be a startling and capacious historic document. Because while the problems of an exceptionally wealthy white woman may not amount to a hill of beans in 2021, the problems that do matter can be understood better via examination of the monstrously influential systems with which Couric is intimately familiar—the institutions that constrained this chipper embodiment of white femininity, while rewarding her with the ability to shape American perspectives on politics, race, gender, war, fame, culture, and money. Couric was, for two decades, at the center of this knot, which she is now trying to untangle in the most public fashion: figuring out, on the printed page, the harm these institutions did to her and the harm she did as a well-remunerated instrument of them.
And it starts with all those carrots. Funny or fucked up?
“Oh, fucked up,” she told me without pause, emphasizing that it wasn’t just her face but “my body, my skin, everything” that turned orange during that postcollege, pre-television summer of caloric self-denial. It was an iteration of the disordered eating, including bulimia, that would plague her through her 20s. A week after our Upper East Side lunch, she reflexively apologized to me for having eaten all the tuna tartare.
“YOU WRITE ABOUT how your inspiration for being a journalist came from watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” I said to Couric in early October, “how you watched ‘the ambitious, independent heroine setting out for a career in TV news’ and thought, while listening to the opening sequence: ‘Gee … I want to turn the world on with my smile too!’ I also remember Mary Tyler Moore, and I know you’re being funny here, but when I read that line, it struck me hard how fucked up that particular evocation of ambition was.”
“Maybe we’re treating this a little too seriously,” Couric responded with a familiar, come-on-girlfriend tone. Her cadence bounces regularly between light and serious, high- and low-pitched, surely the habit of a woman who for years had to handle transitions between segments on global famine and easy Halloween-decorating tips. “I just liked the theme song. It opened my eyes to know there was more for me out there than becoming Samantha Stephens,” from Bewitched. “Mary Tyler Moore and Julia, with Diahann Carroll, told me you can have a career.”
“Right, it told you that you could become a journalist. And you become the highest-paid journalist in the world. And the theme song for your ambition was about turning the world on. With your smile.”
“Yeah. I guess that is kind of fucked up,” she conceded. “Now that you’re pointing that out.”
Part of Couric’s theory of her own case is borrowed from Freud: that anatomy is destiny. She really did turn the world on with her smile, reminding me at one point that that smile “is a very pleasant and palatable packaging for burning ambition.” One of the questions that seems to plague her is: Pleasant for whom?
The book can read like a grim reflection on the impact of the male gaze, as when Couric recollects that her glamorous grandmother would walk on the balls of her feet even while barefoot to mimic the calf-flattering shape of high heels. In her childhood home in suburban Virginia, “dieting was a way of life,” Couric writes. “My mom and sisters subsisted on cottage cheese and Tab.” When she was at the University of Virginia, her mother would write to tell her to stay away from fried and starchy foods, what Couric calls “generational body shaming.”
But Going There also subverts that gaze. Couric is fascinated by the visceral realities of female bodies. Her pages brim with descriptions of her self-induced vomiting, her daughter’s explosive diarrhea, the surgery to reduce her fibrocystic breasts (the surgeon said that “it was like cutting through concrete”). When she was breastfeeding her children, she writes, her areolae were “yarmulke-size” (funny!); in her version of a “stupid human trick,” she would sometimes give herself “a squeeze and squirt milk across the room.” And when as a young reporter she drove from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta for a job at a brand-new cable-news network (CNN) in an un-air-conditioned Corolla, she writes that by the time she hit the Georgia state line, “I had a serious case of swamp ass.”
But it was that smile—all gums and small teeth—that helped determine her trajectory in the male-dominated world of television. Couric started, right after that beta-carotene-tinged summer, as a peon at ABC News in Washington, where on her first-day senior correspondent Sam Donaldson took one look at her, serenaded her in front of the whole office, then whisked her with him to a White House press briefing. Was she being anointed? Or something else? “I mean, why me, right?” she later recalled. “He could have grabbed any desk assistant. I guess I was new. He enjoyed shock value. Maybe he did it for show. Maybe it was like an animal who found his catch. I think it was sort of … performative. I don’t know, a little preening and like a power play.”
Then came that sweaty drive to Atlanta and her job at the fledgling CNN, where she was told by one executive that he “never wanted to see her on the air again” and by another that she was only successful because of her “breast size.” She recounts Ted Turner assembling his troops and proclaiming that “we are going to beam this shit all over the world … because Russia is gonna bomb our ass.” (When I laughingly told her that I’d tried to imagine a non-white-guy version of that speech, she replied, “Or a sober version of that speech … I’m kidding. I don’t know if he was sober or not.”)
After a stint as a Pentagon correspondent for NBC News, Couric became a national news correspondent at Today in 1989, just as it was going through a tricky transition: Its longtime host Jane Pauley was being replaced by the younger Deborah Norville, and its ratings had been slipping. Asked to fill in as a temporary co-host alongside Bryant Gumbel when Norville went on maternity leave in 1991, Couric didn’t leave the chair, and Norville never came back.
RATINGS SURGED IN Couric’s 15 years at Today, and she earned praise especially for some of the moments that complicated her famously “perky” image. After Couric’s 1992 “ambush” of George H.W. Bush during what was supposed to be an interior-design tour with First Lady Barbara, Washington Post critic Tom Shales wrote that she had “proved again that she is worth her weight in gold. Actually, more. She doesn’t weigh all that much.” Couric writes that “in a piece overflowing with praise, that last sentence might have been my favorite part.” (“Is your reaction there funny or fucked up, Katie?” “Fucked up.”)
The smile was her trademark, her winning, telegenic draw. When she first took over at Today, her reputation for buoyancy was so vast that The New Yorker ran a cartoon of morose Eeyore in a full grin, with the caption “Katie Couric will do that to you.” It helped her connect to people but also put her in a kind of box—the literal television box, yes, and a box of one-dimensional expectations. The smile conveyed her relatability and girl-next-door-ness, her vulnerability and good cheer, which was how Americans liked their news delivered over their cup of coffee, warm and cozy.
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