Katie Couric built her reputation at the “Today” show as an interviewer who could be both tough and tender. Couric could just as easily pepper Pres. George H.W. Bush with hard-hitting questions during a White House Christmas tour or, two days after the Columbine massacre, in the falling snow interview a grieving survivor and a father in mourning.
But we haven’t seen much of that Katie Couric recently. Anchoring a half hour evening news program for 5 years will do that. But today that other Katie was on full display during an hour-long interview with Manti Te’o one of college football’s best, who says he was duped into believing he’d been in a long distance relationship with a woman who never existed.
Couric probed Te’o to prove skeptics wrong. That he was not in on it.
“Either you’re the most naive person on the planet or this is the saddest story ever written,” said Couric after Te’o talked about learning that ‘Lennay Kekua’ had been diagnosed with leukemia, after surviving a car accident. “At this point did you think to yourself ‘What? Are you kidding!? Now she has leukemia?’”
Couric pressed the football star about why he lied, keeping the story alive even after learning the dead ‘Lennay’ had resurfaced, before eventually learning she wasn’t real at all.
“You stuck to the script. Why?” Te’o responded with a question, “What would you do?”
So Couric answered for him: “I think I would have gone to my coaches or gone to someone and said ‘this situation is so messed up. I have been, I think, the victim of a cruel prank.’”
Couric asked Te’o about “the many theories making the rounds;” that he made up the scenario as a cover. “Are you gay?” she asked.
“No, far from it. Far from that,” was the response.
In an interview on WABC following the show, Couric said she didn’t think Te’o “was complicit in the hoax,” adding, “I think he didn’t make enough of an effort to refute the things being said.”
“Can you see that people would view this as, at worst, an incredible lie and at best, as incredibly misleading?” Couric asked.
In the end, after all the twists and turns: a car accident, a cancer diagnosis, a death, a resurrection, Te’o wanted everyone to believe: “I was just scared. That’s the truth.”
For Couric, it was the biggest ‘get’ yet for her 4-month-old syndicated talker and it showed an invaluable side that’s been in the shadows: great depth, genuine intrigue, sincerity. It’s not everyday a story like this comes along, but today Couric got the ball and ran with it.