9/2/2007 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper
In the rough-and-tumble news business, personal safety and family considerations routinely take a backseat to the need to capture the competitive edge that can make your career. Reporting from war zones has special appeal for many ambitious journalists.
Since the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, 112 journalists have been killed in Iraq, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. An additional 41 media support personnel, such as sound technicians and photographers, have been killed. The latest death was that of CBS News translator Anwar Abbas Lafta, whose body was found last weekend in Sadr City.
Closer to home, ABC News anchor Bob Woodruff was nearly killed last year, and his cameraman, Doug Vogt, was seriously injured. CBS News correspondent Kimberly Dozier was nearly killed four months later, and her cameraman, Paul Douglas, and her soundman, James Brolan, were killed.
With such lethal dangers, why did CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric, a widow and 50-year-old mother of two daughters, 11 and 16, decide to travel to Iraq and Syria? This will be her first trip to the war zone.
Why at this time? Many viewers, friends and colleagues are asking if Couric made a smart or irresponsible decision.
First, let’s consider the Nielsen ratings: As of last week, Evening News was averaging 6.1-million viewers a night, while NBC’s Nightly News, with Brian Williams, was pulling in 7.9-million. ABC’s Charles Gibson of World News was winning the ratings war with an impressive 8-million viewers. Put in perspective, Gibson is up 3 percent since January, and Williams and Couric are both down 7 percent.
The Nielsen ratings mean almost everything. In addition to raw prestige, millions of advertising bucks can be won or lost. Many news analysts say that because Evening News is in the cellar, having gone from second to last place since Couric’s arrival, the anchor needs to do something to turn things around.
And so here Couric is – her first anniversary on the job – reporting from the most dangerous place on Earth. Executive producer Rick Kaplan, who will accompany his anchor to the war zone, said Couric isn’t making the trip to boost ratings. CBS News appreciates the gravity of the Iraq war and its dangers, Kaplan said, and the trip is journalistic public service.
“The future of our involvement in Iraq will be decided when the Petraeus report is released,” Kaplan told the Los Angeles Times. “If you’re going to the Middle East at all, this is the time. … We thought that as the American public is going to start hearing what the politicians and the generals start talking about, that wouldn’t it be good if we could give them some sort of grounding.”
When Couric first came to CBS, she scoffed at the suggestion that, as anchor, she should go to the war zone. She cited concern for her daughters as the main reason for not going.
But, as expressed to the Associated Press, she has had a change of heart: “You can’t help but get a very detached perspective when you’re not there and you’re witnessing things firsthand. I’m curious about very basic questions regarding living conditions, about how much fear there is in the street, about how the soldiers really are doing. …
“I felt it would be really important for the American people to get a big picture of what is going on, in terms of northern Iraq, in terms of Sadr City (and) Anbar province. People hear all these things and I think it’s really hard as some people get Iraq fatigue to keep a healthy and understandable perspective of what is going on. My goal is to provide that.”
As to the dangers that await her, Couric said: “Obviously, it’s a concern. I’m not being cavalier about it. I think I feel comfortable with the measures that are being taken.”
Before leaving for Iraq, Couric and Kaplan were fitted with 30-pound body armor vests, with extra protection to the sides.
Remember, CBS already has the capable correspondent Lara Logan doing the kind of reporting from Iraq that Couric intends to do.
As a journalist, I understand Couric’s desire to report from this dangerous place, if that is her desire. If, however, she is going to Iraq to increase Evening News ratings and to enhance her personal stature – at the risk of being killed, or seriously injured, and leaving her young daughters parentless – I believe her adventure is selfish and foolish.
Anyway, for her own well-being and for the sake of her daughters, I hope Couric has a safe return.