'Evening News' anchor sets Mideast trip

Get ready for Katie Couric — Phase II.

One year after Couric jumped from NBC’s “Today” to CBS in a big-money talent deal, the “Evening News” anchor is embarking on a high-risk tour of Iraq and Syria to revive the broadcast.

Announcement comes just days after an Iraqi translator working for CBS was killed in Baghdad. CBS said Monday the translator had been found dead following his abduction just hours after leaving work at CBS News’ Baghdad bureau.

Couric has never been to Iraq, and she will be the second of the big three anchors, following NBC’s Brian Williams last spring, to venture to the region since ABC News’ Bob Woodruff was nearly killed by an IED attack on his convoy outside Baghdad in early 2006.

While CBS execs say the 12-day trip isn’t a relaunch of the newscast, it comes the week after Labor Day, when the TV season begins and evening viewership increases.

The Pentagon has advised CBS News to keep details of Couric’s itinerary vague, but she will co-anchor “Evening News” live from both Iraq and Syria next week after several days spent reporting in the field.

Anchor travel is expensive and in this case dangerous. News orgs do it to goose ratings, draw attention to the story or the newscaster, or secure higher-profile interviews than a correspondent could.

But Couric herself was critical of the notion of traveling for the sake of travel before she started the CBS job last summer. Couric said in August ’06 that she would only undertake such trips, “if I feel strongly that my presence will advance a story, that I’m not just window dressing to show that I’m at a particular story, which I think does happen quite frankly in certain situations.”

CBS News has an able correspondent in Iraq, Lara Logan, whom it has worked to elevate in stature over the past few years, raising the question of why take the risk of sending a high-value target such as Couric, a single mother of two.

But exec producer Rick Kaplan said Couric’s presence has helped secure high-level interviews with reclusive politicians and alleged terror leaders. “She has gotten us access to certain areas and people,” Kaplan said. “It’s good to have Katie on your side.”

CBS is sending Couric with a skeleton contingent including Kaplan, D.C. bureau chief Christopher Isham and editor Jerry Cipriano to keep their profile as low as possible when moving outside the Green Zone. They leave today and will spend several days reporting before going live from the Middle East starting Sept. 4. Anchor duties in New York will be shared between “Early Show” news anchor Russ Mitchell and co-anchor Harry Smith.

The journalistic purpose of the trip is to gauge the situation in Iraq in advance of the Sept. 15 release of Gen. David Petraeus’ status report on Iraq, considered a make-or-break assessment of President Bush’s war policy, as well as Syria’s role in the region.

“The future of our involvement in Iraq will be decided when the Petreaus report is released; if you’re going to go to the Middle East at all, this is the time,” Kaplan said.

The situation in Iraq and the 2008 elections are two stories on which CBS News is attempting to build Couric’s credentials as a traditional news anchor, a role in which critics contend that she is woefully miscast.

Couric’s jump to CBS last September was designed to elevate CBS from worst to first in the news ratings. But after an initial surge, ratings have fallen to below the previous year when Bob Schieffer was acting as interim anchor, dashing hopes that her substantial “Today” following would follow her to the Eye. Along the way, ABC’s Charles Gibson has been the beneficiary, moving ahead of NBC’s Brian Williams in the ratings.

In March, CBS News jettisoned exec producer and “60 Minutes” vet Rome Hartman, who is now developing a U.S. newscast for the BBC, and added Kaplan, who has headed MSNBC and CNN as well as produced “World News Tonight With Peter Jennings.”

Since then, Kaplan has fashioned a more traditional broadcast with faster pacing and shorter, newsier segments — a sharp contrast to last September, when Hartman attempted to play to Couric’s strengths with lengthier interviews and more studio banter.

As of last week, “Evening News” was averaging 6.1 million viewers a night, compared with ABC’s Gibson in first place with just over 8 million viewers. NBC’s Williams was close behind Gibson averaging 7.9 million viewers.

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