With her new six-part NatGeo docuseries “America Inside Out,” Katie Couric tackles head-on some of the issues that have been making headlines around the country — from the march in Charlottesville to anti-Muslim sentiment to the #MeToo movement that is spurring sweeping change across workplaces.
“It’s been a tremendous amount of work but really gratifying to get out of my bubble and travel around the country, to talk to people and encourage conversation rather than an instantaneous reaction,” she tells Variety. “To be able to examine these issues deeply is a real privilege.”
Couric has been working on the project since last summer, calling them “behemoths.” “They’re big thorny difficult to wrangle and put in an hour topics,” she says. “That’s why I think we need to have some of these deep dives to help people navigate and understand them better.”
Here, Couric tells Variety what she hopes to accomplish, what she herself learned along the way — and why she’s not afraid to poke fun at herself in the process.
How did you decide which issues you wanted to tackle in the series?
I read constantly. I always look for trends and overarching themes to news stories. I like to connect the dots, and take a more kind of birds eye look at all of these things that are happening on the ground and try to understand why they’re happening. I saw a lot of news stories about certain issues and I realized this is something that is bubbling up. This is percolating. A lot of the things that I was curious about were very prescient and started to really explode to a point where I was like, “Oh no, all my topics are going to be covered by the time the series is done!”
But I started being interested in the memorial landscape when I heard about the controversy over Calhoun College and renaming it at Yale. And of course at the University of Virginia, I knew what was going on with the Robert E. Lee statue because I went to school there. When it came to the [episode] “The Muslim Next Door,” what it’s like to be a muslim in America, every day there’s a new story about this disparaging Islam or people who are Muslim but at the same time, a real renaissance of Muslims in pop culture. I was kind of fascinated by this juxtaposition of negative rhetoric against Muslims and yet this grass roots movement of young Muslims embracing their faith. I thought that would be a really interesting thing to examine. And obviously gender inequality in Hollywood and Silicon Valley. I kept hearing the statistics and I thought, “Well, why is this so? What are the obstacles that are keeping women from achieving more and reaching more parity in Hollywood and Silicon Valley?”
And lot of people have been thinking about white working class voters. I read the book “The White Working Class” by Joan Williams about cultural condescension and class cluelessness. I lived in New York City for many years, so I want to understand people who are really seeing their way of life and their hopes and dreams crumble before their eyes. There’s a lot of anger and divisiveness in the country. Maybe if we got to know people and understand their struggles we would have more empathy… I always ask the question why and want to go a step further.
How much do you think the current political climate has exacerbated these issues?
The current political climate has brought a lot of these issues to a head in a way that they were simmering beneath the surface before. I think it somehow opened up Pandora’s box in way that’s been quite disturbing and quite ugly. Political correctness is one of the other hours I’m doing and is that sensitivity or censorship. The term “political correctness” has been weaponized by the administration but meanwhile women have been galvanized by Donald Trump. And so I think that a lot of these issues have reached a boiling point in many ways because of the political climate.
What’s the message you want people to take away from the series?
I’m hoping it will give people something to think about and they’ll be able to have a considered, measured opinion. For so many people I think our tendency is to have an immediate knee jerk reaction to things, and then to move on to the next controversy. I hope that it will just enable people to have a more measured view of these very thorny and polarizing issues. When I did my transgender documentary, Dr. Oz said it’s hard to hate up close. So I’m hoping that maybe the personal will trump the political and that we will once again appreciate each other on another level. That may be unrealistic but I think it’s a worthy effort.
What did you learn from the experience?
I learned so much. I went to a mosque in North Carolina and met a young woman who was running for city council. I learned a lot about Islam. I learned a lot about the media and how we cover terrorist events by Muslims vs. non-Muslims. It was like writing a thesis on six different topics, honestly. I also learned to appreciate other kinds of people who I wouldn’t otherwise meet. Bryan Stevenson, who’s the head of the Equal Justice Initiative, often talks about the need to proximate. I think it’s no news flash that we’re living in silos, spending time with people who are like us, getting our news and info from people who agree with us. We’ve become increasingly tribalistic and we’ve lost the opportunity and the desire to really mix and mingle with people who have different backgrounds and aren’t like us. This is a way for me to help people do that at least virtually, if not in actuality. That’s what I’m hoping.
You also put yourself in the story, using your own experiences and even your own mistakes to tell the story.
I think that it’s very effective — as when I did “Gender Revolution” — for me to go on a journey of learning and enlightenment, and to not present myself as a know it all. I’m endlessly curious. I really search for understanding in all aspects of my life. And if I can bring people along on the journey, and I can be a proxy for their confusion and lack of understanding and they can learn from me, it’s a very effective device. It’s a very natural thing for me.
One of the subjects you tackle is sexual harassment in the workplace. Is that something you experienced in your own career?
Not very much. I’ve been very, very fortunate. I’ve been regaled by stories from so many friends who grew up with me in the business or other arenas who I never imagined had to deal with some of the things they had to deal with. It’s been an opportunity for people to share their experience that they simply accepted as something that was part of the territory. I’ve been very fortunate throughout my career in terms of harassment. I have been in environments that I’ve found sexist and that marginalize women and don’t take them as seriously as they should, but I think for the most part I’ve been very fortunate.
How can we move forward?
I think clearly this is a watershed moment. I think that we need to continue to have the conversation. I think publicly these kinds of big social movements happen in chapters. We need to transition into policy changes and steps that can be taken to ensure a better work environment for everyone. I think companies certainly are in the midst of a lot of soul-searching and reexamining how the culture that exists in their workplaces. I think that we need to continue to have conversations and everyone needs to feel comfortable talking about these things. And I think that we’re moving into that stage of the movement right now. I think that’s really important.
You were in Charlottesville when the march happened. Was that just luck of timing?
We had heard that there was going to be this protest. I was there to interview the 16 year old high school student who had started the petition to remove the Robert E. Lee statue. And try to understand the genesis of what was happening in Charlottesville and use it as a microcosm for what was happening across the country. When we heard about that we said clearly we need to stick around and see what’s happening. We arrived on Thursday, and there was something in the air. The tension was building ever since we got there. And we realized this was going to be the huge explosive moment. We had no idea just how explosive. But I was there smack in the middle of it. it was illustrative of how this has become such a flashpoint in our culture and statues are a proxy for where we stand on race in America and the kind of history we choose to commemorate.