Katie Couric returned to Old Town earlier this month, basking in the warmth of friends she made during her nine years living here, from 1989 to 1998. Couric, 52, checked out some of her old haunts in the city, including the Fish Market, where she celebrated the birthday of an old friend. “It’s just so great to be back here,” she told The Alexandria Times. “A lot of fond memories were made here.”
Today the $15-million-per-year anchor of the CBS Evening News, Couric once lived in an old restored tobacco warehouse on Swift Alley. She was proud of the 18th century home, which was pillaged during the War of 1812 and inhabited by Union troops during the Civil War.
She moved into the house in 1989 after marrying lawyer Jay Monahan, raising both her daughters, Ellie and Caroline there before moving to New York in 1998 after her husband succumbed to colon cancer.
Three days later, Couric approached a podium on the patio of DC’s Sewall-Belmont House and Museum to accept the 2008 Alice Award, an honor given to distinguished women who have made strides in breaking barriers. Her friends and family, many of whom know her from her Old Town days, braved one of the hottest summer days so far to watch her receive the honor. Though confident, Couric said the heat was tough. “I picked a bad day to stop wearing deodorant,” she joked.
Couric boasts scores of achievements not only as a journalist but as a pioneer in the field, which was the focus of her packed reception in the District. The Alice Award is named after Alice Paul, a human rights activist, suffragist and founder of the National Women’s Party. Couric received the honor for being the first woman ever to become the sole anchor of a nationally-broadcast weekday evening news broadcast.
Couric shared with the audience her struggles during the challenging journey to the pinnacle of success for any TV journalist, that of anchoring a nightly network news broadcast. The Arlington native and Yorktown High school graduate got a degree in American Studies at the University of Virginia, then worked at three radio news departments while on summer break. She began working for ABC news in 1979 as a desk assistant.
“I entered this profession at a time when men were still trying to keep bras out of broadcasting,” Couric said.
She started at ABC doing what most interns can be found doing, making coffee, ordering lunch and making copies. At the time, she was encouraged to give a new network, CNN, a try because of the learning opportunity.
CNN allowed Couric to do more because as a non-union company it had more flexibility. The day she was finally given the chance to go on air, she was putting on her ear piece and heard the producers in Atlanta questioning who she was and commenting on how she looked like she 16. “I was a disaster,” Couric recalled.
After her broadcast was over, CNN President Reese Schoenfeld called the newsroom and said he never wanted to see her on air again.
Couric said she continuned to face adversity and sexism. While heading to a meeting one day, a CNN vice president told the group that she was successful because of her hard work, industriousness, writing skills and “breast size.”
“Can you believe that?!” Couric exclaimed incredulously. “This was 1984. I was so shocked. This was obviously before network executives realized that ‘harass’ was not two words.”
Though she felt direct attacks from old fashioned sexism at CNN, she believes that the fledgling network was the best four-year school she could have attended for journalism.
Couric went on to work for WRC TV, NBC’s Washington’s affiliate. After begging, she was given the chance to anchor a morning broadcast.
Not long after, NBC’s Washington Bureau Chief, the late Tim Russert, asked her to become the network’s deputy Pentagon correspondent. Russert has been impressed by her coverage of the trial of Mayor Marion Barry.
After proving herself at the Pentagon, she was asked to fill in temporarily as co-anchor of NBC’s vaunted “Today Show.” On April 4, 1991 she became co-anchor; she was four months pregnant at the time with her second daughter, Ellie. She continued to anchor the show for 15 years of ratings success. “After doing many interviews I find it’s the ordinary people that do extraordinary things that are the most rewarding,” Couric said.
She went on to work for CBS News as the first woman solo anchor of any news network. “I knew I would regret not taking the job,” she said.
Even though journalism is still a passion for her, she acknowledged that there’s a lack of “fair journalism” during the current presidential election. She said a reporter recently got under her skin when he claimed that he could not be objective when it came to his coverage of Sen. Barrack Obama’s campaign.
She advised him to get out of journalism, she said, adding that journalists need to roll up their sleeves to get to the bottom of the campaigns, instead of siding with one party.”
Along with the strides she has made in journalism Couric is also an advocate for cancer research and prevention. Having lost both her husband and sister to cancer, she has worked to raise public awareness of the devastating effects of cancer. She founded the National Colorectal Cancer Research Alliance which funds research and educates people in this field.
With ratings placing her squarely in third place at CBS, Couric admits she’s still overcoming obstacles head on. “Women are like tea bags,” she said. “You don’t know how strong they are until they’re in hot water.”