Katie Couric plans to leave Wednesday for an ambitious reporting trip to Iraq and Syria -- the CBS anchor's first time in the war zone -- in anticipation of a crucial military report on progress of the American effort.
Couric will anchor the "CBS Evening News" from Baghdad next Tuesday and Wednesday, then from Damascus on Thursday and Friday.
Couric will travel throughout Iraq to talk to military and civilian leaders, soldiers and average Iraqis, spending most of her time outside of Baghdad. CBS News would not reveal many specifics of her plans in advance because of competitive and safety concerns. The trip, in the works for six weeks, anticipates the surge progress report by Gen. David Petraeus that is expected the second week of September.
"You can't help but get a very detached perspective when you're not there and you're not witnessing things firsthand," Couric told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "I'm curious about very basic questions regarding living conditions, about how much fear there is in the street, about how the soldiers really are doing."
Couric and her traveling partner, evening news executive producer Rick Kaplan, were fitted with 30-pound body armor vests in Kaplan's office on Tuesday. Both needed to send theirs back to add extra protection to the sides.
To break the tension as Couric's armor was pulled tightly around her, Kaplan smacked her on the shoulder.
Safety is a sobering concern for all reporters in Iraq. The Committee to Protect Journalists said 112 journalists have been killed in Iraq since March 2003. An additional 41 media workers have been killed, the latest being CBS News Iraqi translator Anwar Abbas Lafta, whose body was found over the weekend in Sadr City.
Couric is the second major network anchor to travel to Iraq since ABC News' Bob Woodruff was nearly killed by a roadside bomb. NBC's Brian Williams went to Iraq in March; Woodruff's successor Charles Gibson has not been there.
CBS News cameraman Paul Douglas and sound-man James Brolan were both killed by a bomb while on assignment in Iraq in May 2006. Correspondent Kimberly Dozier, who was with them, survived but has endured 25 operations in her recovery; Couric anchored a special this spring on the bombing's aftermath.
"Obviously, it's a concern," said Couric, 50, who had suggested last year that being a widowed mother of two might make her think twice about such trips. "I'm not being cavalier about it. I think I feel comfortable with the measures that are being taken."
As they map out stories, Kaplan said they've been relying on safety advice from the military and CBS' bureau in Iraq.
Kaplan and Couric were talking earlier this summer about how to prepare for the Petraeus report when Kaplan said, "Why don't we go to the region," Couric said. She's spent the past several weeks interviewing experts about what is happening there -- getting a different perspective from just about everybody.
"I felt it would be really important for the American people to get a big picture of what is going on, in terms of northern Iraq, in terms of Sadr City (and) the Anbar province," she said. "People hear all these things and I think it's really hard -- as some people get Iraq fatigue -- to keep a healthy and understandable perspective of what is going on. My goal is to provide that."
Done well, a series of reports from the war zone could serve as a second launch for Couric's "CBS Evening News." The broadcast has taken a more traditional, hard-news approach since Kaplan began last spring, although it hasn't budged from third place in the ratings behind ABC's Gibson and NBC's Williams.
Couric said the trip is about important journalism. "Obviously, if people are interested in what we are doing, that's great, too," she said.
The trip also takes Couric out of the country for her first anniversary as "CBS Evening News" anchor -- not a milestone CBS is eager to mark given the poor ratings. Kaplan said that had nothing to do with planning for the trip, which was timed to precede Petraeus' report.
"I don't do anniversaries," he said.