Katie Couric and Sarah Palin are under the same harsh lights


When Katie Couric took over the CBS Evening News in 2006, no one questioned her journalistic integrity, her skills as an interviewer or even her likeability. No, the question in 2006 was whether or not Americans were ready to get their real news from a woman. Oh, and people also wanted to know how much leg Couric would be able to show if she was forced to sit behind an anchor desk all the time.

Sexism and playground bullying go hand-in-hand, in that speaking out on your own behalf will only get you beaten up with greater frequency and ferocity. Knowing this, Couric never mentioned the unfair shake she was given by her fellow reporters. During this year’s primary election season, however, she finally found a platform to speak her mind.

In her Reporter’s Notebook segment after the primary elections, Couric said this:

Like [Hillary Clinton] or not, one of the great lessons of that campaign is the continued — and accepted — role of sexism in American life, particularly in the media. Many women have made the point that if Senator Obama had to confront the racist equivalent of an “iron my shirt” poster at campaign rallies, or a Hillary nutcracker sold at airports, or mainstream pundits saying they instinctively cross their legs at the mention of her name, the outrage would not be a footnote, it would be front-page news. It’s not just Hillary Clinton who needs to learn a lesson from this primary season, it’s all the people who cross the line, and all of the women and men who let them get away with it.

Plenty of people suggested Couric could have taken Clinton’s name out of her speech, and inserted her own, because the sad truth is that, under Couric, the CBS Evening News has consistently come in last in ratings among the three major networks.

Because of Couric’s inability to buoy CBS to the top, many in the media began writing her off — until this year’s Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

When the smoke cleared from Chris Matthews and Keith Olbermann‘s nightly fist-fights on NBC, there stood Katie Couric. First she stumped Cindy McCain on Roe v. Wade (McCain’s wife had no idea where her husband stood on the issue that is probably a big factor among most conservative voters); then Couric got Michael Dukakis to open up and apologize to America for letting George H.W. Bush win an election in the first place.

If nothing else, it reminded America that Couric knows her stuff, and that she’s actually really good at getting people to talk.

Next on Couric’s list of people to talk to is Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin. For a woman who is generating an imposing amount of buzz, Palin is oddly silent. Sure, she’s speaking, but unlike every other candidate in this American presidential race, she’s not answering a lot of questions. The Republican Party handpicked Charlie Gibson to interview her first, and Sean Hannityof Fox News (what you might call the Republican home team) questioned her next. And now it’s Couric’s turn.

How will Katie Couric’s interview with Sarah Palin be different from the rest?

First and, perhaps, most important, Couric will be able to ask Palin questions that male reporters might not be able to get away with asking. The McCain camp is holding the sexism card to their hearts like an amulet, but it will be useless against Couric. Because of that, she will be able to push where Gibson was forced to retreat. We can expect more complete, less rehearsed answers from Palin this time around. Or, we can expect a lot of awkward pauses. Each would be telling in its own right.

Additionally, Couric’s demeanor in interviews usually causes people to let down their guard. The result could be that Palin shows a genuine warmth the public can connect with (something Hillary Clinton never could fully manage to achieve). Or, it could cause Palin to open up to the point where she reveals worrisome things about her character.

Palin is a charismatic force, no doubt about it. But Couric didn’t become “America’s sweetheart” without an abundance of charm herself.

What will the interview mean for Couric? Well, it will thrust her into the middle of the political discourse, which can only be good for her career.

What will it mean for Palin and thus John McCain?

Honestly, probably nothing. History has proved that, regardless of what the pollsters say, when people step up to vote, they do it based on the presidential candidates. In 1984, Walter Mondale chose Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate. “Run with a woman, win with a woman!” was their campaign motto. Tom Brokaw reported the news like this: “Geralidne Ferraro, the first woman to be nominated for vice president, size 6!”

Mondale suffered the worst shellacking in American electoral history. Ronald Reagan won 49 of 50 states. Ferraro’s influence ultimately came to nothing, not because she was a woman, but because she was a vice-presidential candidate.

My biggest hope is that after the Palin-Couric interview, everyone continues to talk about real issues, and not to debate which woman’s calves look better in high heels.

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