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At Swank Pundit Gig, Betting On Katie Couric

Last night I went to a fancy-pants awards dinner at the Mellon Auditorium, sponsored by The Week magazine and the Aspen Institute. It was a pleasant event, but I could never quite figure out why it was happening in the first place. It was as though someone felt a need to give out prizes, and people came running. In Washington, the pundits can sometimes accumulate spontaneously, like woody debris and plastic soda bottles clumping in a river eddy. Half the parties in this town are a demonstration of the unalterable physics of flotsam.

Nick Kristof got an award for best opinion column (I was glad to see Gene Robinson as a finalist), Mike Luckovich won for best cartoonist and the best blogger award went to Ed Morrissey. Then came a panel discussion on stage that purported to answer the question, "Are White House Correspondents Real Journalists?" Arianna Huffington didn't seem to think so, saying that they're slaves to access, and citing a pre-war press conference where "there wasn't a single probing question." Michael Massing (who has covered this topic extensively in The New York Review of Books) said, "I think fear is a big factor -- fear of a president with powerful backing taking a nation to war." John Dickerson of Slate (formerly of Time) was the only person on the panel who had actually been a W.H. correspondent, and he confirmed that reporters who get too obstreperous and confrontational won't get called on at press conferences and won't have their phone calls returned by senior White House staffers. "We do move in a pack. We are superficial on a lot of issues," he said. (At one point moderator Sir Harold Evans asked Dickerson, "Did you just sit there on your fat ass listening to the president?" Dickerson replied, "Harry, I have a very narrow ass.")

Mike McCurry had an interesting insight: "The problem is, the White House is a place without a lot of real news." He described an operation where one must feed the beast. It would be better for the country, he said, if news organizations sent reporters to the various federal agencies where the work of national government is really done -- including the intelligence agencies, where mid-level employees might have helped steer the press in the right direction on WMD. But of course news organizations are cutting budgets these days, and it's those outlying agencies that will get less and less coverage.

Before the panel discussion, the folks at my table spent a lot of time discussing whether Katie Couric will succeed as the CBS Evening News anchor (a move she made official this morning). I went all-in for Katie. Bet the ranch. There seemed to be some skepticism about whether Katie belongs in Walter Cronkite's chair. I had the courage of my convictions and my cabernet and said that Katie has been a success at every level and will continue to be so. I'm a Katie believer, and won't make the same mistake I made with the Gators, when my bracket had them losing in the Final Four to U-Conn.

My argument is data-free and subject to renunciation at any moment, but I do think Katie's ascendancy will take CBS to number 1 in the ratings for at least 6 months. Even though Alessandra Stanley thinks she's a meanie, Katie has such a connection with millions of viewers that they consider themselves to be on a first-name basis with her (who do you know, for example, who refers to "Brian" or "Bob"?). ABC has had a tragic year, the iconic anchor died, another got horribly injured. They'll bring in Charlie Gibson to supplement Elizabeth Vargas, and he'll do great, but Charlie will never be the star that Katie is. Brian Williams does a great job and is everything you'd want an anchor to be, and no doubt he'll retain his already sizeable audience. I just think Katie will bring in people who haven't been watching the nightly broadcast.

I got shot down when I tried to bolster my argument by mentioning that I was acquainted with Katie back when she was a reporter in Miami. (Did I ever mention that I know David Duchovny?) After listening to me go on and on about this tenuous connection, a woman across the table mentioned that she used to be Katie's roommate. That's the problem with name-dropping in this town: Invariably someone else will say, "I was Katie's high school boyfriend" or "I am currently dating Katie now, and later tonight we are going clubbing." What I hate the most is when someone says, "Actually, I am Katie Couric."

It's best to hush up in these situations and feign intellectual modesty.

By Joel Achenbach  |  April 5, 2006; 9:34 AM ET
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