Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

You Don't Have to Like Katie Couric

The "perky" anchor reckons with reality in her new memoir.
You Don't Have to Like Katie Couric
Image: Rachel Murray (Getty Images)
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A few months after a devastating breakup, Today show co-host and America’s sweetheart Katie Couric sat in a therapist’s office, lamenting the injustice of her former paramour’s rejection. “Have you ever considered that maybe not everyone is going to like you?” the therapist asked, unlocking a revelation for Couric.

“I found it strangely liberating, this radical idea that not everyone was going to like me,” Couric writes in Going There, her bridge-burning memoir of a life changed by monumental fame. “It was an epiphany that would come in handy.”

Clearly, the woman who was once the most famously perky person in America is no longer interested in playing that role. The press cycle that preceded her memoir’s publication has been focused solely on Couric’s supposed takedowns of various people she encountered over the course of her long career—an anonymous source told The Daily Mail, for instance, that the book should be called “Burning Bridges by Catty Couric.” But it’s not simply a burn book; it’s a Couric’s attempt to take a stand against her public perception. Couric’s smile made her career, but in Going There, a 500-page doorstopper of a memoir, Couric calls it her “resting bitch face.” She’s seizing the narrative of her life’s work to correct the record and sparing no one in her path—not even herself.

Going There was making waves even before its official publication day of October 25, thanks to a string of salacious early stories about its content. “Katie Couric is banned from promoting her toxic memoir on CBS,” screamed the Daily Mail; “Katie Couric eviscerates Diane Saywer in memoir: ‘That woman must be stopped’,” the New York Post cried. The Post has in fact been especially vicious: “Katie’s cruelty hit hard,” screamed a headline from October, some weeks before the book was published, detailing the barbs lobbed at competitors Deborah Norville and Jane Pauley. “Katie Couric reveals herself to be a misogynistic idiot—don’t buy this book!” went the headline for a scathing review by Maura Callahan, based on the limp argument that women supporting other women is inherently feminist.

But what Callahan’s review—and much of the other criticism around Couric’s book, so much of it written by the Post—truly outlines is not that Couric is a misogynist, but rather, she’s a bit of a pill. Going There purports to describe how and why she became the way she is, but doesn’t seem to care whether or not you like it or not.

Partly, the memoir is a flex, with an index that reads like a guest list for an extremely exclusive party packed with bold-faced names. It’s also a sort of workplace drama, a specific story that highlights the ways corporate culture failed women. (It’s also the story behind the story loosely depicted in The Morning Show.) Unsurprisingly, the ‘90s were a terrible time to be a woman in broadcast news, and Couric battled a fair amount of difficulty in her climb up the ladder, enduring repeated and unnecessary comments about her physical appearance. Memorably, she recalls the time Ed Tuner, an executive vice president at CNN, told a 26-year-old Couric that her success was predicated on her breast size. Another media executive told her that he never wanted to see her on camera without any makeup, after Couric had done live coverage from a riot, battling tear gas.

Couric also acknowledges various professional mistakes she’s made and shows contrition. A notable misstep involved a television segment that found Couric pretending to be an unhoused person, in a gross bit of stunt journalism that was perhaps the inspiration for Tyra Banks’s own foray into the field, when she put on a fat suit in 2006 to better understand obesity. She laments the relentless coverage of murdered white women in the press, understanding now from some distance, the role that she played in the media’s bias in prioritizing these stories.

But when it comes to thornier personal issues, Couric is a little more evasive. In a chapter titled “Gone With the Wind,” Couric details her deceased husband Jay Monahan’s passion for historical reenactments, specifically the Civil War. In his spare time, Monahan played Corporal Monahan, bugler in Company H, Fourth Virginia Cavalry. “I treated Jay’s passion for the Confederacy with amused tolerance, seeing it as a benign hobby,” she writes, before detailing an “Old South” themed surprise 40th birthday party she threw for her husband, which included a Christmas tree topped with a Scarlett O’Hara Barbie doll. Her daughter’s research for her thesis at Stanford uncovered a particularly damning speech written by her father. In 1993, the United Daughters of the Confederacy were denied a renewal of their patent for their logo, which prominently featured the Confederate flag; Senator Carol Moseley Braun called the logo both an “outrage” and an “insult.” Monahan wrote a speech delivered to the Daughters of the Confederacy condemning Braun’s comments said that the press was “obsessed with appearing politically correct.” Couric simply has this to say: “I know it sounds like an excuse to say, ‘It was a different time,’” she writes. “But—it was a different time. And Jay never got the chance to live in this one.” The anecdote is presented as just another thread in the vast tapestry of Couric’s life and is given a treatment that feels a bit too casual for the subject matter at hand.

Another incident from her recent past gets closer consideration: her professional relationship with Matt Lauer and his ultimate firing, which extends across seven chapters of the book. She recounts how when she hears the news of Lauer’s firing in the face of multiple allegations of sexual misconduct, she is genuinely confused and thrown by the idea that a man who she considers both a great friend and a valued colleague could actually be the sort of monster as in the press. As Couric learns of the depths of Lauer’s abuse of his own power and his treatment of women subordinates, her inner conflict intensifies. She grapples with reconciling the man she thought she knew—a respected colleague and literal sidekick for years—with the man he actually is. Eventually, as more of Lauer’s indiscretions come to light in all their grisly detail, she concludes: “I’ve come to realize that Matt could be an excellent professional partner, a good friend, and a predator,” she writes.

But what Couric most clearly grapples with is the concept of her own likability. In her early years as a host on TODAY, Couric wanted to be seen as a serious journalist, not knowing then that her future with the show would eventually find her reporting on serious matters as well as dressing up like Peter Pan and sprinkling confetti on a crowd of admirers for Halloween, as she did in 2014. When Bryant Gumbel called her “Katie” during one of her first broadcasts, noting that she had replaced Deborah Norville as a “member” of the TODAY show family, Katie writes: “I can hardly believe what a prescient comment it was: Katherine or Katie, the serious journalist or the smiley cutup... the tension between those two sides of my nature would run like a fault line through my career.” Throughout the memoir, it becomes clear that Couric was torn between wanting a career that felt serious, like that of her idol Edward R. Murrow, and the career she eventually had, which allowed her to use her natural congeniality to make difficult topics like school shootings and war palatable for the morning show news audience.

The scrutiny around Couric’s personal life and how it intersected with her professional one was omnipresent throughout her career; Couric writes of her return to the show after the death of her husband, Jay Monahan, saying that while a critic in Time praised her for the way she handled her return to work after loss, others called her out for attempting to earn sympathy by wearing her dead husband’s wedding ring around her neck in tribute. Couric is able to take a step back from her past and situate these reactions to her behavior as part and parcel of the entrenched sexism she faced in her career—but at times, she also acknowledges her own discomfort with her public persona, providing plentiful examples of how she really was, behind the scenes. When Diane Sawyer scored an interview with a woman who gave birth to twins at 57, Couric said “I wonder who she had to blow to get that.” She says she meant it as a joke, but it didn’t come across that way when the anecdote made it to the tabloids. Likability is a trap that many professional women fall into—a direct result of the aforementioned sexism. But what Couric really struggles with is dealing with her own definition of the term and how difficult it was to maintain the facade.

Above all, Couric’s memoir is unsparing, but she is as hard on herself at times as she is on other people. Couric doesn’t come across as likable anymore, but she’ll now be the first to admit it. At this stage in the game, she has aged out of “perky.” And as a seasoned veteran of the news media industry at 65, leaning into dismantling her own past perception now, she is essentially torching a building that’s already been condemned. (She’s also the co-owner of Katie Couric Media, along with her husband John Molner, where she helps brands package and sell inspirational content. She signs her own paycheck now.) It’s an understandable impulse, after decades spent in the public eye, where every decision one makes, good or bad, is conflated with their actual personality. Above all, Couric comes across as more than willing to play ball with her critics in a way that feels like a savvy PR move: getting in front of the bad press by saying it herself.

The experience of reading the book it in one full sitting, as I attempted to do, is similar to being at a cocktail party, trapped in a corner by the garrulous host who simply wants to tell you everything she’s ever thought about anyone she’s met and won’t let you leave until you’ve heard her out. It’s the tone of the book that specifically stands out: Couric isn’t abrasive, but in Going There, she is true to her word. In 2021, Katie Couric is tired of smiling, and clearly, she doesn’t care what anyone thinks.