ILLUSTRATION BY HANOCH PIVEN
For most of the 1990s and 2000s, Katie Couric was such a fixture on NBC’s Today that her name practically became synonymous with the word morning. But the Arlington, Virginia, native’s cheerful grin and quick laugh belied her standing as a groundbreaking journalist. In her 30-plus years in front of the camera, Couric has interviewed six presidents, covered the Pentagon, reported from Iraq after Baghdad fell to American forces, and impacted the 2008 election with her famous interview of Sarah Palin. In 2001, she earned a $65 million deal with NBC that made her the world’s highest-paid TV personality, and in 2006 she became the first woman to anchor a national evening news broadcast solo, as the host of the CBS Evening News (a post she held through 2011).
Since then, Couric has hosted her own daytime talk show, worked as a global news anchor for Yahoo!, and pursued passion projects including philanthropic efforts (she’s a cofounder of Stand Up To Cancer) and a best-selling book. The latest of these projects is America Inside Out With Katie Couric, a six-part documentary series currently airing on the National Geographic Channel that explores complex issues facing our society today, including gender inequality, technology addiction, and the struggles of the working class. Hemispheres sat down with the 61-year-old at her New York City office, where, dressed in a black sweater and knit pants and sporting glasses and her trademark grin, she shared her thoughts on the series, today’s fractured media landscape, and more.
America Inside Out covers many controversial topics, among them the rise of white supremacy. How did the idea for this series come about?
I’m trying to take disparate events and tie them together to give people greater context and perspective. I had been interested in the debate over [Confederate] statues before Charlottesville happened, because my daughter went to Yale, and there was a big debate going on about Calhoun College. [The University ultimately rechristened the residential college, which had been named for a slavery advocate.] I also went to New Orleans and interviewed Wynton Marsalis, who was very influential in talking to Mitch Landrieu about the statues. I interviewed people in Charlottesville prior to the rally, and then I went to the Whitney Plantation, in Louisiana, which takes people on a tour from an enslaved person’s perspective. We finished at the Equal Justice Initiative [in Montgomery, Alabama] with Bryan Stevenson. [That episode] is an examination of how we remember the past and, in terms of our memorial landscape, the parts of the past that we’ve failed to acknowledge.
You were filming in Virginia in August when the Unite the Right rally happened. Was that timing intentional?
We got to Charlottesville on August 10 to interview several people, including Don Gathers and then-mayor Mike Signer. Our trip was planned well in advance. When I got to Charlottesville, I got this ominous sense that something was going to happen. While we were getting ready, we started hearing chatter about this Unite the Right rally. I had intended to leave on Saturday; much to my surprise, Friday night, we’re all getting equipped with helmets and flak jackets—which we ultimately didn’t wear. We went to the interfaith service at St. Paul’s, and that’s when the torch rally happened. It was a real coincidence that we were there when all of this happened.
How did you choose which topics to cover in this series?
They were things that I thought deserved more attention. We live in such a fast-paced media environment, and everything is in snippets. Especially given what’s going on with this administration, it’s hard to take a step back and connect the dots to say, “There’s something deeper going on here. What is it, and how can we try to understand it better? And how can we perhaps try to understand someone else’s perspective?”
You filmed all over the U.S.
It required a lot of traveling, but I’m really happy that I’ve been able to get to parts of the country that I’d probably never visit. One of the episodes focuses on the white working class. In Fremont, Nebraska, and Storm Lake, Iowa, we have two different towns and views on immigration. I went to Erie and Johnstown, Pennsylvania, to talk about what happens when these Rust Belt towns lose their biggest employer or the workforce gets cut dramatically. It’s a serious problem, because the older population is dying, young people are leaving, immigrants are coming in, and the dynamic that creates is really an important thing to explore.
Were people receptive in these small—and I’m guessing pretty conservative—towns?
Yes. I think people really appreciated having an opportunity to talk about these things and be heard. We often generalize and stereotype people. One of the things that Dr. Oz said about my documentary on gender was, “It’s hard to hate up close.” I think we have become so tribalistic; we tend to stick with people who think, feel, and live like us. I hope that by getting to know some of these folks who are different from the people watching, they’ll have a little more humanity and empathy for people navigating these seismic shifts happening in our country.
Speaking of big changes, one episode focuses on advances in technology, right?
Yes, I’m doing something on technology because I think it’s almost like the frog in the boiling water. We’re so used to it that we don’t realize that the whole world is really going to change in monumental ways: the workforce, relationships, our children. One expert told me that all this screen time and lack of sleep for kids is reducing melatonin and increasing cortisol and may be doing real physiological damage to developing brains. He said that young kids may face very dire consequences in the future.
One episode that I imagine will elicit strong opinions is “The Muslim Next Door.”
Muslims are so under siege right now, and I wanted to understand what that was like. I went to Raleigh, North Carolina, and talked to the parents of the two girls who were murdered [in 2015]. It’s so sad, so horrible; they were such outstanding young kids. I [once] suggested—much to Bill O’Reilly’s chagrin—that there should be a Muslim version of The Cosby Show. People mocked me, but what I meant was we see so few images of Muslims going about their daily lives; what we see on TV, movies, and the news is such a misrepresentation of the Muslim community as a whole.
What about the #MeToo movement? Do you cover any of those issues?
Yes. I came up with the idea of [covering] gender and equality last spring, before any of this had exploded. I kept reading these statistics about the low number of female CEOs, women on boards, female directors, female screenwriters, the stories of terrible treatment, and I was like, “What is going on?” It felt so out of step with so many other things—for example, women earning more college degrees than men, more women going to law school. I wanted to really understand the root causes of this inequality. I went to the set of The Handmaid’s Tale, and I interviewed Elisabeth Moss, who’s brilliant on the show. I interviewed Viola Davis, which was really important, because I think sometimes people forget women of color in this conversation. I wanted to talk about intersectionality, a word that my college-age daughter taught me, and I went to Silicon Valley and talked to women there. And I interviewed James Damore, who famously said that women just aren’t wired to be engineers.
What do you think about the harassment that women in media and entertainment have experienced?
I was pretty fortunate in that I didn’t experience very much of it. I was sort of scrappy, that don’t-mess-with-me attitude, but I think what I experienced was more subtle—more feeling marginalized or [women] not getting credit for being as smart as we are. I think that manifests itself for people in leadership positions, that somehow we’re less intelligent or less capable. It’s also hard for people to see you as a multifaceted person—that you can be funny, fun, outgoing, and friendly, but that doesn’t mean you’re vapid. That’s why I hated the word perky, because I thought the connotation was that you were an airhead, that there wasn’t a serious side to you. But people have a lot of different sides, and people often make judgments based on the wrong things. And that ties back to this series—we’re trying to show all these sides of such a diverse population.
How did you choose your interview subjects?
I had a producer on every episode, and I had definite ideas of what I wanted to do, so I’d say, “I’m really interested in this. Who can we talk to, and how can we illustrate it?” I’m trying not to come down with my point of view but instead to illustrate these issues and let people form their own opinions, which is kind of an anomaly in this current media landscape. We’ve been so programmed to have affirmation instead of information.
I hope that by getting to know folks who are different, the people watching will have a little more empathy.
In terms of the overall media landscape, where do you feel things are heading?
It’s really hard. I don’t have a crystal ball, but I have been incredibly heartened by the fantastic work that’s being done, particularly by newspapers. The Washington Post—Marty Baron is just doing a spectacular job. The New York Times is putting out great work. I love The Atlantic for really deep, thoughtful, provocative journalism. I still love The Economist; NPR is doing great work, and a lot of podcasts are doing great work. I think that we’re still in that moment where broadcast and digital haven’t really intersected. The digital properties produced by broadcast still feel like a bit of an afterthought, and the digital content produced on its own feels generally pretty shallow—we need to iterate the content.
Speaking of podcasts, you have one on which you interview people across politics and pop culture. It’s great!
Oh, thanks! I’m lucky because I’ve been doing this for so long that I have a lot of contacts, and people have been really generous about doing it. Brian [Goldsmith, Couric’s cohost] is a real policy wonk, so we try to do some of that, too. We try to make it topical, but not so topical that it feels dated if you don’t listen to it for a couple of months. Honestly, we talk to people who we think are interesting and have something to say. I’m endlessly curious about so many things.
It seems as if everyone has a podcast these days.
I think the big problem is that there aren’t enough hours in the day to consume all the great content out there! You can have a 45-minute
conversation—that’s fantastic, right? You can have a lot of fun or interplay, and you can be funny or serious. It really allows your personality to come out, which is fun for me. And I don’t have to wear makeup [laughs].
How do you feel about social media?
I love Instagram. It’s a community. It doesn’t feel like Twitter, where people are yelling at you or being mean. I posted something on Instagram yesterday about my husband [Couric’s first husband, Jay Monahan, died of colon cancer on January 24, 1998]. I just wanted to let people know that that was a hard day for me. If you read the comments, they’re so sweet. People were really supportive, and they also share very personal things about themselves. I found it very moving.
What else are you working on right now?
This is it for now. I’ll continue to do my podcast and figure out other projects that I’m interested in. I like having the flexibility. I miss being on TV every day, but when you do that, that’s your whole life. It’s nice because it gives your life a certain cadence, but it prohibits you from doing deep dives.