Katie Couric on Asking Tough Questions—and the Burden of Being So Likable
It’s hard to imagine Katie Couric as anything other than a journalistic icon. But growing up in Arlington, Va., she had her mind on other things. “Well, I wanted to be a ballerina, and then, a princess,” she says, laughing. “And when I was 8, I wanted to be a model. But clearly that didn’t work out!”
While she didn’t exactly end up on the runway, it seems that Couric was indeed destined for a life in the spotlight. It wasn’t until her teen years that she caught the writing bug. “The feminist movement was really taking off when I was in high school in the early ‘70s and I went through an evolution,” she says. “My parents always emphasized education. As the youngest of four kids, and someone who had two older sisters, I knew I wanted to go to a good college and have a career.”
And so she began, as many reporters do, writing for the school newspaper and interning at radio stations at college in Washington D.C. Her father, John Couric, a writer and editor at publications like The Atlanta Journal-Constitutional and the United Press, was her biggest cheerleader. “Early on, I think he saw in me an ability to write, and to write quickly,” she says. “I always say I was a master procrastinator, so that served me well. It helped me learn how to work under a deadline, which, of course, is great training if you want to go into journalism. I think the combination of being super outgoing and having a real love of words made this profession a natural fit.”
Decades later, Couric has become one of the most trusted faces in the industry. Whether we were waking up with her on The Today Show or watching her deliver the day’s headlines on CBS Evening News (she was the first woman to assume a solo role on a nightly news desk), she keeps us informed and entertained. Most recently, Couric has been developing new ways to tell stories through her own company, Katie Couric Media. This year alone, she launched America Inside Out with Katie Couric, a documentary series where she traveled the world to explore cultural issues like political correctness and gender inequality, as well as The Katie Couric Podcast, where she interviews everyone from Ava DuVernay to Cecile Richards. And just last week, Couric announced her latest project, Getting There, a short-form video series with theSkimm, in which she'll interview other inspiring and successful women like Issa Rae and Ina Garten.
Her goal? “I want to continue telling great stories and doing what I can to help people understand the world around them,” says Couric. “What excites me most is that there have never been more ways to reach an audience. You can create what you want, on your terms, and deliver it the way you want it to be delivered. To me, that's incredibly exciting."
So how does she do it all? Read on for more from our chat.
Badass mantra: “I think a badass woman stands up for herself, is confident, and is not afraid to challenge the hierarchy, or the patriarchy, or conventional thinking,” says Couric. “She is also somebody who believes in something and sticks with it and who strives for excellence and demands the same level of excellence from others.”
Overcoming obstacles: Couric admits that her road to success wasn’t always easy, but nevertheless, she persisted. “I think that in journalism, as in many other fields, people tend to put you into a box, but we're all multi-dimensional. I've had to work hard to ensure that people understand that I can be warm and friendly but also thoughtful and intelligent. Sometimes those things can seem incongruous and that has always been challenging for me, but I've overcome it.”
The likability factor: “Being liked was more important to my career when I was anchoring The Today Show,” she says. “It’s a very tricky, fine line to navigate, because I think they want someone who's a strong journalist, who asks the right questions, and can challenge someone when necessary. But it’s hard because sometimes people who see that feel uncomfortable with confrontation.”
One interview in particular stands out as an example. “I remember I did a very challenging interview with David Duke, the white supremacist. It was almost impossible to find a redeeming quality in him and I read a lot of his own quotes back to him. I think it was uncomfortable for viewers who saw me as this all-American girl next door to suddenly see me taking David Duke to task, even if they found his views repugnant. All I could do was be my authentic self and hope that people could see that there are many sides to me, like everyone else.”
Breaking stereotypes: “I think women are often worried about being tough in the workplace because they'll be labeled a bitch,” she says. “Of course, it's an old trope at this point, where a man who's tough will be called decisive. But when a woman is demanding, or says what she thinks, she is labeled as a prima donna. You very rarely hear a man being called a diva or prima donna—probably because they're gendered expressions. I think we should all take a look at some of those expressions and try not to use them.”
Keeping an open mind: Couric says that she learned a lot about herself while filming her show, America Inside Out with Katie Couric, which aired earlier this year on the National Geographic Channel. In it, she traveled around the globe interviewing everyone from experts to everyday people about hot button cultural issues like the treatment of Muslims in America and how technology is changing our behavior. Her biggest takeaway? “I learned the importance of humility and recognizing that we all have a lot to learn,” she says. “Until you have a deep understanding of an issue, a situation, and other people's experiences, it can be dangerous in some cases to have a strong opinion. Everything is not as black and white as it may seem. Some things are, clearly. But when you're armed with knowledge and a better understanding of any topic, you can have an informed opinion. My view on many of these topics changed.”
Making a difference: What keeps Couric going after all these years? “When your work has impact,” she says. “I love creating content. I love telling stories. I love talking to people. I love breaking down complicated topics. I love arming people with information. But when you see that information lead to transformation, that's when it's incredibly gratifying.”
She has witnessed that transformation in a variety of ways already. “It can mean opening people's hearts and minds to say, ‘I now understand another point of view.' Or, ‘My position has changed because now I have a better, deeper understanding of a particular topic.’ Or, 'That influenced the way I voted,’ like in the case of the interview I did with Sarah Palin. And then, of course, it could mean saving a life. With Stand Up To Cancer and my colon cancer work, I can't think of anything that's had as much of an impact because it translated to people taking proactive measures and lives being saved.”
For more stories like this, pick up the August issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download July 6.