Katie Couric’s interview with Manti Te’o—which aired yesterday on her daytime talk show on ABC, “Katie”—made for a queasy spectacle. Te’o sat stiffly in a pale cardigan, looking bug-eyed and stricken. “I was just scared, and I didn’t know what to do,” Te’o said, when asked why he did not tell his parents and coaches the moment he discovered that the girlfriend he’d thought was dead might have been an elaborate hoax. His parents were trotted out as tearful character witnesses. “He’s not a liar,” his father told Couric. “He’s a kid.” This was the impression that lingered throughout the interview: Te’o seemed sweet and sheepish and thoroughly incapable of guile, a clueless manboy thrust into the spotlight to apologize for a mistake he still wasn’t sure how he had made. But Couric pressed on, squinting warily through her thick-framed black glasses. “Aren’t you splitting hairs a little bit here, Manti?” she said. “Didn’t you say things that weren’t true, and isn’t that in essence lying?”
It was a strange performance for Couric, whose daytime show has thus far been entirely toothless and tame. The Te’o intervew was a significant get for her: She beat out a number of other prospective interviewers, most notably Oprah, who drew some 28 million viewers with her two-part Lance Armstrong special last week. And Couric needed it. “Katie” has seen erratic ratings since its 2012 premiere, and critics have called it “lackluster” and “cheesy.” The program has had trouble finding a hook—it lacks the feverishness of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” with its devout atmosphere of spiritual uplift; the folksy approachability of Dr. Phil; the adrenaline of Maury and Jerry Springer; the edgy wit of Ellen. On “Katie,” Couric has seemed at times like a peppy lifestyle reporter and at times like a defanged news anchor, sitting primly on the edge of her sofa and trying to have fun.
Couric’s wavering between hard and soft news has long caused her a bit of identity confusion in the public eye. She earned her chops as a Pentagon reporter for NBC News, was dubbed “America’s sweetheart” during her fifteen years on “The Today Show,” then joined CBS and became the first female solo evening news anchor in the history of network news. Many attributed her bumpy, low-rated run on CBS News to her relatively lightweight onscreen persona; the network tried to boost ratings by making her broadcasts more somber and traditional, to no avail. Asked by The Hollywood Reporter about her decision to migrate to daytime TV, Couric said, “I think I have a wealth of experience that I hope will be brought to bear to help enlighten people about a number of issues.”
“Katie,” though, feels more like an airy tribute to daytime talk show conventions than a safari through Couric’s particular worldview. The Couric who grilled Sarah Palin so effectively in 2008 has been a distant echo in this new format. In its place is a Couric who says things like “J. Lo is in the house! This is gonna be so much fun today!” While promoting “Katie” before it premiered, Couric told Leno that her aim was to make the program a cross between “Oprah” and “The Today Show.” But Couric is very a different kind of interviewer than Oprah—perky where Oprah is exuberant, pleasant and mild where Oprah is bursting at the seams. If her image was suffering from a perceived lack of gravitas at CBS, on “Katie” it has been dulled into something cheerfully nondescript. And so Couric needed Manti Te’o to help redefine her brand at least as much as he needed her to redeem his.
That is not exactly new: The TV confessional has long been an exercise in mutual image-building for both host and subject. The interviewer—adjudicating on behalf of the public, probing the extent of guilt, granting absolution—plays as significant a role in the theater of public apology as the celebrity does. Take Oprah’s tightly engineered redemption narrative for James Frey, which stretched over five years and three separate interviews. The exultant praise in her first interview, then her outraged condemnation of him in a second interview, and finally the reconciliation on her show half a decade later: it was, of course, just as much about rescuing her own tarnished credibility as a tastemaker as it was about Frey’s rehabilitation. Diane Sawyer has used the confessional format to showcase a gentler side of her journalistic persona, whether interviewing Whitney Houston on “Primetime” in 2002 about her drug addiction or Mel Gibson on “Good Morning America” in 2006 about his anti-Semitic rant. “Where does this anger come from?” she asked Gibson softly, sounding almost like Oprah herself. And the late night talk show confessional vindicates the celebrity even while turning his transgression into a punch line for the host: “Let me start with question number one: what the hell were you thinking?” Leno asked Hugh Grant post-sex-scandal in 1995, drawing huge laughs and an appreciative cymbal clash from the band.
But as TV confessionals go, Te’o made for pretty tepid drama. It had none of the moral sting of Armstrong’s interview, which was so fantastically unconvincing as a performance of contrition that you could see his facial muscles working to display the appropriate sentiments: shame, guilt, humility, remorse. And Oprah—whose own brand has taken a hit as her new network has struggled to gain traction—capitalized fully on the opportunity to boost her image. “You and I both know that fame just magnifies whoever you really are,” she told him. She appeared firm but maternal, wary but encouraging, a no-nonsense counterweight to Armstrong’s weasely evasions.
Without such a loathsome antagonist, Couric’s toughness felt like a kind of overcompensation. She seemed committed to the rubric of the TV confessional—reciting the litany of sins, difficult reckoning, followed by redemption—in the face of mounting evidence that the person on her couch did not really have a grave moral lapse to apologize for. It is surely possible that Te’o is hiding information about his role in the hoax, but on “Katie” he looked like a sad, dim college kid being disproportionately shamed. Couric could have taken the opportunity to unpack his psyche a bit more, to dig for answers about why a campus football star would resort to a virtual girlfriend. But instead she appeared determined to catch him in a lie long after it appeared that he had laid his cards on the table. She repeated his name so many times that it began to sound like a catechism: “Didn’t you have something to gain, Manti, by keeping this story alive?” “Was this intoxicating in a way for you, Manti?” “Manti, that just really doesn’t make sense to me.”
In the end, instead of clarifying Couric’s brand, the Te’o interview left it even more confused. Is this next chapter in Couric’s career an attempt to bring the news to a new timeslot, or just a daily dose of casual fun? Is she in it for the journalism, or for the feel-good bath of inspiration and encouragement? Couric may not be sure herself: This afternoon will bring yet another appearance from Jennifer Lopez, who has a movie to promote and a perfume to hawk, but—based on the sunny, smiling promos—no public sins to confess.