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Katie Couric's ethics are questioned for concealing Justice Ginsburg's comments


Katie Couric is "Going There." That's the name of her new memoir coming out later this month. She dishes on a life in television news - the public glamor, the behind-the-scenes strife, the personal struggles. Early accounts of the book have sparked controversy, not least of all regarding Couric's ethics for shielding a Supreme Court justice from the consequences of her own remarks. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik joins us now to talk about all of this.

Hi there, David.


MCCAMMON: So you have covered Couric for years, and you've read the book. What have we learned from it?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, of course, let's remember Katie Couric - perhaps the reigning star of morning news for a lot of years, seen and presented as America's sweetheart, as co-host at NBC's "Today" show, later, the chief anchor for CBS News. She writes in "Going There" of coming up in an exciting and quite sexist culture - television news in the '80s and '90s in particular, often portrayed as her ambitions pitted against other women as some sort of - not my quote, hers - "catfight" in a way that wasn't done to her male colleagues. And she wrote also about her personal grief - the deaths, for example, of her husband and her sister against the backdrop of an extraordinarily public life.

MCCAMMON: And Couric has sparked criticism because of some recent reports ahead of this book's release for trying to protect the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. What happened there?

FOLKENFLIK: Right. This goes back to October 2016 in an interview for Yahoo News, where she later worked. She was interviewing Justice Ginsburg, who spoke dismissively of former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick and some other NFL players who took a knee, if you recall, during the playing of the national anthem as a stand against racial inequities of American life. Ginsburg expresses this, and then we can hear this - kind of Couric pushing back.


KATIE COURIC: You may find their actions offensive.


COURIC: But what you're saying is, it's within their rights to exercise those actions.

GINSBURG: If they want to be stupid, there's no law that should be preventative. If they want to be arrogant, there's no law that prevents them from that.

FOLKENFLIK: So this is part of a broader interview - some real back-and-forth for a few minutes about this, some pushback there. But Couric writes that she left out a part where Ginsburg says the players were showing contempt for their government, one which has made it possible for them and their families to live a far better life than they could have enjoyed in the places their ancestors came from. Couric writes she thought that was unworthy of a great fighter for equality. Some subsequently have suggested perhaps Couric feared Ginsburg might have misunderstood the question. That's not what she wrote.

MCCAMMON: And David, many observers, including Ginsburg conservative critics and other journalists, say that decision was unethical. What do you make of it?

FOLKENFLIK: I think it's wrong. I think it does - it's fair for conservatives to raise question about whether people in corner offices at New York-based networks are somehow indulging their fandom for somebody like Justice Ginsburg or their liberal ideological leanings, perhaps, in private. And this gives some heft to that. It's a mistake to let your own beliefs or personal feelings shade, I think, your coverage there. I do think that we've got to acknowledge we only know this because Couric wrote about it, and she wrote about it in a memoir in which she revisits a number of such episodes in which she says, you know, I wish I had done it differently. In this case, she says, would I have done it differently if it had been a conservative justice? And I think the answer is obviously yes.

MCCAMMON: Now, Couric was also paired for years with Matt Lauer at the "Today" show. He, of course, was fired from NBC and accused of sexual assault and harassment. What does she say about him?

FOLKENFLIK: She writes that he was a great on-air colleague to her, though a flirt and a philanderer, and that she was shocked by the accusations that emerged of him being a sexual predator. To be clear, he denies that. In the book, she documents how she distanced herself over time as the accusations accrued and that she ultimately came to conclude that his behavior was an extreme embodiment of the sexist culture she first encountered in TV news decades earlier.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik.

David, thanks so much.


(SOUNDBITE OF KORDAN'S "MIRROR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.