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Katie Couric in Dallas: A woman's touch pays off

Katie Couric and Karen James on Thursday's CBS Evening News

The CBS Evening News indeed is a different animal with Katie Couric in charge. Her in-and-out visit to Dallas Thursday underscored what the program never was or could be under traditionalists Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Bob Schieffer.

Couric devoted the entire second half of the program to her exclusive interview with Karen James, widow of Mt. Hood climber Kelly James. They sat before a fireplace in her Dallas home, with the family Christmas tree very much in evidence whenever the camera caught Karen in extreme closeup. She constantly fought back tears in talking about her husband's love of life and untimely death. They last talked on his cell phone from the snow cave that became his tomb.

"It's the kind of call that you would never want to receive," she told Couric. "And so we both were acting, and it was like there was nothing wrong. And I could tell by his voice that he was in trouble. And I told him I just decorated the Christmas tree and that he needed to come home and see it. He said he would. And I told him I loved him. He told me he loved me. And I told him to stay warm and stay awake."

Woman to woman it was, with an empathetic Couric slowly, surely and gently getting the goods. (You can see her in action and read a transcript of the interview here.)

Competing anchors Brian Williams of NBC's Nightly News and Charles Gibson of ABC's World News couldn't have managed this very well. Nor would they have given half of their newscasts over to what in blunt terms is a sob story. Harrumph, that's not their style.

But Couric pulled it off because it's in her blood and, in no small part, her gender. That's not meant to be chauvinistic. A history-making woman flying solo on a network newscast should bring something more to the dinner table than remarked-upon wardrobe changes.

Couric's playing to what she deems her strengths. On camera she appears to be a good listener and/or confidante. So tell her more. It's not pure coincidence that most of TV's "Big Get" interviews are gotten by women. Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer and for a while, Connie Chung, have had the market all but cornered. Couric can play in their league, even if her playing field is still a cathedral compared to the likes of 20/20, Prime Time Live and Dateline, where confronting child predators is still a man's job.

What Couric did with Karen James can't be done every night on the Evening News, or probably even every week. But it's OK to pick your spots and air them out, as Couric also did with Michael J. Fox after he drew fire for his campaign spots in support of stem cell research.

Unfortunately, Couric wasn't available to be interviewed about any of this. She hastily flew back to New York, making time only for CBS11's Doug Dunbar, who dutifully promoted the Karen James interview on the station's 5 p.m. newscast.

That's the way the game's usually played. So nothing's changed there.