ILLUSTRATION BY HANOCH PIVEN
For most of the 1990s and 2000s, Katie Couric was such a fixture on NBCu2019s Today that her name practically became synonymous with the word morning. But the Arlington, Virginia, nativeu2019s 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 worldu2019s 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 (sheu2019s 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, todayu2019s 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?
Iu2019m 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 personu2019s 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 weu2019ve 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, weu2019re all getting equipped with helmets and flak jacketsu2014which we ultimately didnu2019t wear. We went to the interfaith service at St. Paulu2019s, and thatu2019s 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 whatu2019s going on with this administration, itu2019s hard to take a step back and connect the dots to say, u201cThereu2019s 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 elseu2019s perspective?u201d
You filmed all over the U.S.
It required a lot of traveling, but Iu2019m really happy that Iu2019ve been able to get to parts of the country that Iu2019d 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. Itu2019s 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 smallu2014and Iu2019m guessing pretty conservativeu2014towns?
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, u201cItu2019s hard to hate up close.u201d 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, theyu2019ll 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, Iu2019m doing something on technology because I think itu2019s almost like the frog in the boiling water. Weu2019re so used to it that we donu2019t 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 u201cThe Muslim Next Door.u201d
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]. Itu2019s so sad, so horrible; they were such outstanding young kids. I [once] suggestedu2014much to Bill Ou2019Reillyu2019s chagrinu2014that 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, u201cWhat is going on?u201d It felt so out of step with so many other thingsu2014for 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 Handmaidu2019s Tale, and I interviewed Elisabeth Moss, whou2019s 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 arenu2019t 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 didnu2019t experience very much of it. I was sort of scrappy, that donu2019t-mess-with-me attitude, but I think what I experienced was more subtleu2014more 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 weu2019re less intelligent or less capable. Itu2019s also hard for people to see you as a multifaceted personu2014that you can be funny, fun, outgoing, and friendly, but that doesnu2019t mean youu2019re vapid. Thatu2019s why I hated the word perky, because I thought the connotation was that you were an airhead, that there wasnu2019t 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 seriesu2014weu2019re 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 Iu2019d say, u201cIu2019m really interested in this. Who can we talk to, and how can we illustrate it?u201d Iu2019m 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. Weu2019ve been so programmed to have affirmation instead of information.
In terms of the overall media landscape, where do you feel things are heading?
Itu2019s really hard. I donu2019t have a crystal ball, but I have been incredibly heartened by the fantastic work thatu2019s being done, particularly by newspapers. The Washington Postu2014Marty 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 weu2019re still in that moment where broadcast and digital havenu2019t 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 shallowu2014we need to iterate the content.
Speaking of podcasts, you have one on which you interview people across politics and pop culture. Itu2019s great!
Oh, thanks! Iu2019m lucky because Iu2019ve been doing this for so long that I have a lot of contacts, and people have been really generous about doing it. Brian [Goldsmith, Couricu2019s 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 donu2019t listen to it for a couple of months. Honestly, we talk to people who we think are interesting and have something to say. Iu2019m endlessly curious about so many things.
It seems as if everyone has a podcast these days.
I think the big problem is that there arenu2019t enough hours in the day to consume all the great content out there! You can have a 45-minute
conversationu2014thatu2019s 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 donu2019t have to wear makeup [laughs].
How do you feel about social media?
I love Instagram. Itu2019s a community. It doesnu2019t feel like Twitter, where people are yelling at you or being mean. I posted something on Instagram yesterday about my husband [Couricu2019s 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, theyu2019re 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. Iu2019ll continue to do my podcast and figure out other projects that Iu2019m interested in. I like having the flexibility. I miss being on TV every day, but when you do that, thatu2019s your whole life. Itu2019s nice because it gives your life a certain cadence, but it prohibits you from doing deep dives.