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Katie Couric goes to war

Katie Couric with Pres. Bush and Gen. David Petraeus. CBS photos

It's often not easy being Katie Couric. Sometimes it's almost as hard as writing about her.

CBS executives seldom miss a chance to contend that Couric has paid an unfair price in the media for being a woman in what long has been a man's world.

Her personal appearance is critiqued. Her initial softer approach to the CBS Evening News, undertaken with management's full approval and encouragement, is ridiculed as typical of her gender. Her motherhood is seen as a detriment to covering the news in dangerous locales. She's either too bubbly or not bubbly enough.

CBS News president Sean McManus put all of these eggs in one basket during an earlier interview with unclebarky.com.

"She has to worry about a lot of things the male anchor doesn't have to worry about," he said. "How she looks or what she's wearing or how her makeup is or how her hair is. She's under enormous, enormous scrutiny on the peripheral elements of what she does. And then there are the core elements -- her interviewing skills, her delivery. For someone who's been under that scrutiny, I think her performance has been outstanding."

And now she's in Iraq, marking her first anniversary as anchor by traveling to a war zone for the first time. It's the serious business of serious news, with Couric and CBS making an all-out effort to re-sod her broadcast.

Previous attempts to make the CBS Evening News breezier or more appealing to younger audiences have been scrapped in favor of attracting a larger percentage of those older, "core" audiences for dinner hour newscasts. They're the ones who will make or break you. CBS finally gets that.

Couric ostensibly went abroad with an eye toward "the much-anticipated release to Congress of Gen. David Petraeus' status report on the U.S. effort in Iraq." That's how the CBS press release put it, but clearly there's another mission in play. This is the very week that Couric took over the Evening News in September 2006. So it's important to reboot the conversation toward something other than her continued distant third-place ranking behind ABC's World News with Charles Gibson and the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams.

Going to Iraq is a pro-active statement by CBS News, underscoring its intent to somehow make this work. It certainly didn't hurt that President Bush made an unannounced Labor Day visit to Iraq, and that Couric and her producers arranged a one-on-one interview with him.

Then she followed up Tuesday with an escorted trip to Anbar Province for a walking, talking Q&A with a receptive Gen. Petraeus.

"Some people might be watching this and saying this is a nice dog and pony show," Couric ventured. "Yeah, there are some areas of calm, but if you look at the country as a whole, it's still a nightmare."

Petraeus said the violence is ebbing, although still "unacceptable" in the country at large.

Basically, she asked the right questions of both Bush and Petraeus. But this is an impossible situation for a reporter of any gender. The cbsnews.com comments sections are filled with amazingly blunt and sometimes vicious responses to both Couric's reporting and the war at hand. Says one:

"Can you believe this? Katie just happens to be in Iraq when the President shows up? This is nothing more than in-your-face corporate collusion with the NeoCon agenda . . . Katie, I am glad you are in Iraq to witness the death and destruction that you and CBS are in part RESPONSIBLE FOR."

That's one of the tamer reactions. In fact, TV critics as a whole are docile beasts in comparison.

It's yet to be seen if Couric's trip to Iraq nudges the ratings meter upward or builds a firmer foundation for her second year in the CBS Evening News anchor chair.

Skeptics can't be faulted for viewing all of this as a stunt. It would be progress, though, if Couric someday could go to the scene of a big story without anyone questioning whether she's in essence trying to prove her manhood. Gibson and Williams are free of such critiques. They're allowed to get in touch with their feminine sides at will -- even when reporting on the latest advances in "The Pill."