Public Salaries Hurt Journalists' Credibility

I decided to write a column this week about reports that Katie Couric, co-anchor of NBC's "Today" show, will soon sign a contract that pays her $13 million a year for five years.

I've made this decision even though I have some negative things to say about the contract and that means people reading this piece will analyze my motives and send me e-mails that accuse me of being jealous of Katie Couric.

So let me address that issue right off the top.

Of course I'm jealous. Every person on the planet who does not make $13 million a year is jealous of every person who does, at least to some degree.

So don't write to tell me I wish I were in the latter category. I do and so do you. Case closed and on with the column.

First, the obvious stuff: Does Katie Couric have a right to make as much money as she can? Of course.

Is she worth thirteen-mil a year? Of course — at least if NBC thinks she is; it's NBC's money.

Should there be a salary cap for TV news readers and talkers? Of course not.

But neither should there be a cap on the reactions of viewers to such conspicuous remuneration. The news readers are allowed to earn; we're allowed to form opinions of them based on those earnings.

This has always amazed me about journalists: They know so much about so many things — they have to; the job requires it — but know so little about themselves, or more accurately, about how they are perceived by viewers and readers. And if there is anything that troubles those viewers and readers more than the political biases they perceive in journalists, it is their social elitism.

Look at it this way: In the public perception, journalists are like politicians. Both are representatives of the people. Politicians supply the legislation we need, journalists the information. If the former don't satisfy us, we kick them out of office with the vote; if the latter don't, we kick them out of office with the remote.

But we can trust them only if they are the same kinds of people that we are.

It's okay if they're a little smarter; just so we can understand them. It's okay if they're a little prettier; just so we can relate to them. It's okay if they're a little richer, but not so much richer that they cannot understand our concerns.

Even the top politicians are paid comprehensible sums of money. The top journalists? They can buy multiple homes, multiple cars, small nations.

And look at it this way: When there's a story to cover about tax cuts or tax increases or unemployment rates or inflation figures or the perils of recession or corporate lay-offs or bonuses for corporate heads, do people want a limo-riding, Tiffany-bejeweled, Hamptons-weekending, multimillionaire anchor doing the report, interviewing those affected? Or do they want someone who frets about tax increases, worries about losing his job, receives an umbrella as a bonus from his boss at the end of the year?

The truth is that it doesn't matter. A wealthy journalist is as capable as a middle-classer. The problem is that people are more likely to suspect the former than the latter, to wonder about his motives, his particular choice of details. The reality of the report, in other words, might well be affected by the image of the reporter.

So what should poor Katie Couric, who, by the way, is already making upwards of seven mil a year, do? Should she turn down the contract that will make her the highest-paid journalist in the history of the field, the Alex Rodriguez of TV news?

No. But she should conduct her negotiations with NBC in secrecy, and as a condition of signing the deal she should insist that neither side reveal the amount. That, perhaps, is the truly offensive thing about the current Couric stories — NBC's seeming to be bragging about how much it can afford, Couric's seeming to be bragging about how much she can make.

The very rich are different from you and me, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote. He might have added: The greater the difference, the less we trust them to represent our informational needs.

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .