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Katie Couric goes behind the scenes in the cutthroat world of morning TV news

Originally published on October 24, 2021 8:23 am

Updated October 23, 2021 at 7:24 PM ET

At the height of her journalism career, Katie Couric's success at the Today show rested on balancing a girl-next-door likability with getting the story.

It was the cutthroat heyday of morning news shows, when ratings often trumped ethics.

In her new memoir, Going There, Couric dishes on what audiences couldn't always see during the years she worked for ABC, CBS, NBC and Yahoo. She also details what was happening in her personal life at the time.

She recounts the heartbreak as she lost her husband, Jay Monahan, and her sister, Emily Couric, to cancer. And what it was like to see the allegations about her friend and former co-host, Matt Lauer, who was fired from NBC for sexual misconduct.

Couric reflected on that time in broadcast television, during the 1990s and the 2000s, in an interview with NPR's Weekend Edition.

Interview highlights

On the "catfight" narrative used to describe the morning TV news climate

It was so — it was actually so insane. That period of time was sort of — sensational stories seemed to dominate the headlines. It was left to the women who were involved in a lot of primetime shows to try to get these gets. And honestly, it was so intense and — especially in the morning where somebody would be in a hotel room and someone would call up and say, "We're here to pick you up. The Today show said it was OK if you come to Good Morning America first."

The catfight narrative was really born out of that level of competition. And so, I think it became a real trope to talk about women in that way.

On working with Matt Lauer

I think the culture back then was kind of "don't ask, don't tell." Like, you didn't really want to get involved in people's — what was considered their personal life. You know, there were extramarital relationships going on that were pretty much out in the open. There were relationships going on with bosses and their subordinates that you heard about. You never knew kind of what was true and what wasn't. So, I just kind of focused on my work.

I think our understanding of what is a consensual relationship — I mean, I think that's really the nub of it — has changed so dramatically. That if there is a power differential, the notion of something being consensual doesn't necessarily hold.

On why she excluded some of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's response to her interview question about Colin Kaepernick in 2016

I was asking her about Colin Kaepernick, and her response surprised me. She said kneeling during the national anthem was dumb and disrespectful. And people who do that — you know, they have a right to do it, but [she thought it was] stupid and arrogant. And later, I think, she said, it's contempt for a government that has helped them lead a better life than where they came from.

Afterwards, her clerks called and said she misunderstood the question, she misspoke. So, I was like, is that true? She sounded pretty emphatic about that. Or are there aspects of the story she didn't understand? I admired her personally, but I also knew I had a professional obligation to share her views. And so, I thought, I'll use where she directly responded to it. And then this other part, I didn't use.

Journalists are, contrary to popular belief, we are humans, too. And I really struggled with that decision, and I think I included it [in the book] because I do think it deserves criticism. And I welcome that.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Katie Couric's new memoir "Going There" recollects her decades in television news, also what audiences couldn't always see during those years when she worked for ABC, CBS, NBC and Yahoo. There was the heartbreak as she lost her husband, Jay Monahan, and her sister, Emily Couric, to cancer, the rumors and allegations about her friend and colleague, Matt Lauer, who was fired for sexual misconduct, and the cutthroat heyday of morning TV shows in the '90s and 2000s. Katie and I sat down in New York earlier this week. We asked about those days when ratings were sometimes ranked over what we'll call ethical practices.

Take us back to the times that you and Diane Sawyer and Connie Chung and Jane Pauley and Barbara Walters - how do I say this nicely? - tooth and nail.

KATIE COURIC: It was so - it was actually so insane. That period of time was sort of - sensational stories seemed to dominate the headlines. It was left to the women who were involved in a lot of primetime shows to try to get these gets. And honestly, it was so intense and - especially in the morning where somebody would be in a hotel room and someone would call up and say, we're here to pick you up. The "Today" show said it was OK if you come to "Good Morning America" first.

SIMON: (Laughter).

COURIC: And then we'll take you there later. It was so insane. The catfight narrative was really born out of that level of competition. And so I think it became a real trope to talk about women in that way.

SIMON: You know, I got to ask about Matt Lauer.

COURIC: Mmm hmm.

SIMON: You had reason to believe he was a cad, but it wasn't any of your business.

COURIC: Yeah. I think the culture back then was kind of don't ask, don't tell. Like, you didn't really want to get involved in people's - what was considered their personal life. You know, there were extramarital relationships going on that were pretty much out in the open. There were relationships going on with bosses and their subordinates that you heard about. You never knew kind of what was true and what wasn't. So I just kind of focused on my work.

SIMON: And everything you heard was that it was consensual.

COURIC: Yes, yes. But I think our understanding of what is a consensual relationship...

SIMON: Yeah.

COURIC: I mean, I think that's really the nub of it - has changed so dramatically that if there is a power differential, the notion of something being consensual doesn't necessarily hold.

SIMON: I've got to ask about Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

COURIC: Mmm hmm.

SIMON: You interviewed Justice Ginsburg, and she said something you didn't use.

COURIC: Yeah. I was asking her about Colin Kaepernick, and her response surprised me. She said kneeling during the national anthem was dumb and disrespectful. And people who do that - you know, they have a right to do it, but I think it's stupid and arrogant. And later, I think, she said, it's contempt for a government that has helped them lead a better life than where they came from. I don't have the exact words memorized.

SIMON: Yeah.

COURIC: So afterwards, her clerks called and said she misunderstood the question. She misspoke. So I was like, is that true? She sounded pretty emphatic about that. Or are there aspects of the story she didn't understand? I admired her personally, but I also knew I had a professional obligation to share her views. And so I thought I'll use where she directly responded to it. And then this other part, I didn't use. And I think I raise it in the book because journalists are - contrary to popular belief, we are humans, too. And I really struggled with that decision, and I think I included it because I do think it deserves criticism. And I welcome that.

SIMON: Mmm hmm. Some of the criticism that's come has been premised on the idea that you were trying to protect a liberal icon from enunciating views that would upset a lot of people on the left.

COURIC: I think if I had not used any of that...

SIMON: Yeah.

COURIC: ...That might be a valid argument. But I certainly, I think, used her comments that were very on point.

SIMON: You have known the costs of cancer directly and personally. And there's a particularly affecting section in the book when you talk about how busy you were doing important things, and here the person you loved in this world was getting weaker in front of your eyes.

COURIC: I approached it with this I've-got-to-fix-it attitude.

SIMON: Yeah.

COURIC: Cancer wasn't having that - and trying to be positive and optimistic. And I think my focus on that didn't leave room for Jay and me to have a real conversation about what would happen if he died.

SIMON: I think it's particularly difficult to be the one to look like they're giving up hope.

COURIC: I think it's impossible to manage the fear and desperation you feel when, as you said, someone you love most in the world, someone you envisioned growing old with is dying. It's just too hard to accept our own mortality. You know, I always wish that Jay had left a letter to Ellie and Carrie.

SIMON: Your daughters, yeah.

COURIC: Yeah. And I remember looking around and thinking, maybe it's in his desk, you know? So - you know, he didn't. And, you know, I wish we had talked about that.

SIMON: How do you think that whole experience - which didn't end with Jay's death. I mean, as you suggested, it also goes on to, in a sense, growing up all over again with your daughters. How do you think that's changed, sharpened your view of life?

COURIC: Well, you know, I think it's made me realize we're all terminal. I just feel that my sister and Jay and so many people - I mean, so many people out there listening, you know, they get ripped off. It isn't fair. But I always think of the Thomas Jefferson quote, which I think had nothing to do with death. But he said, the earth belongs to the living.

SIMON: Katie Couric's book, "Going There." Thanks so much for being with us.

COURIC: Love talking to you as always, Scott.

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