NEW YORK - After months of whispers that she was too soft for the evening news, now Katie Couric is being criticized for being too tough on John and Elizabeth Edwards during a "60 Minutes" interview.
Can Couric ever win?
It's a stunning turnabout for Couric, once America's sweetheart on NBC's "Today" show and now going through hard times as anchor for an evening newscast last in the ratings. Couric's high-profile assignment on CBS' "60 Minutes" Sunday suddenly turned into a referendum on her.
In questioning Edwards' decision to continue his presidential campaign despite the recurrence of his wife's cancer, Couric pointed out that some people believe that's a courageous stance, while others think it's callous, a case of insatiable ambition. What did they think?
"Some people watching this would say, `I would put my family first always, and my job second.' And you're doing the exact opposite. You're putting your work first, and your family second," she said, asking for their response.
Those questions provoked dozens of people to write to the CBS Web site, complaining that Couric was being insensitive. Some even questioned her right to ask them, given that Couric kept doing her "Today" show job, with breaks, when her husband Jay Monahan was diagnosed with colon cancer and died in 1998.
One of the most-viewed clips on YouTube Tuesday, with more than 126,000 plays, shows a part of the interview with the title, "Katie Couric second-guesses the Edwards family."
MSNBC host Joe Scarborough said that while he believes in tough questions for presidential candidates, he found Couric's interview troubling.
"I can't believe most people watching that with children wouldn't ask, `Why is Katie Couric passing judgment on these people?'" Scarborough said on his show Monday.
Jeff Fager, "60 Minutes" executive producer, said Couric was asking about things that many people were talking about. By agreeing to appear on "60 Minutes" so quickly after the diagnosis, John and Elizabeth Edwards were clearly eager to discuss the issues, he said.
Any other "60 Minutes" correspondent would have handled the interview the same way, he said.
"You've got to be good to do that well, and I thought she did it exceptionally well," Fager said. "It's what we do here at `60 Minutes.' It's why after all these years the broadcast does so well. You know you're going to hear tough questions asked of people, direct questions. I thought she did it in a very tasteful manner."
It's likely Couric would have faced another set of critics had she failed to ask some of the tough questions.
The Edwardses had no complaints. Elizabeth Edwards called Couric Monday to thank her for the interview, the campaign said. During an appearance in San Francisco, John Edwards said he thought the questions were "tough, but they were fair."
Despite the outpouring of anonymous postings to the CBS News Web site, the American Cancer Society said they had received only a handful of phone calls about the issue.
Almost since Couric announced a year ago that she would be the first woman to solely take over a network evening news anchor job, there were critics who questioned whether years of cooking segments and costume parties on "Today" had eroded her hard news credibility.
Others have found those arguments semantic, even sexist.
She's had a hard time convincing people to watch her: the newscast has run far behind ABC and NBC in the ratings and she frequently has fewer viewers than Bob Schieffer did last year at CBS.
"She cannot win," said Matthew Felling, spokesman for the Center for Media and Public Affairs. He wrote articles for the CBS Public Eye Web site questioning Couric's news credentials around the time she started as anchor last September.
"Katie's biggest obstacle is that everybody already has a fairly concrete opinion of her," he said. "The naysayers clearly have one more example of her ineptitude through this interview, despite the fact that she's proving them wrong, that she can ask probing questions. For some reason when Katie Couric does it, it comes across as mean."
ABC's Charles Gibson or NBC's Brian Williams would have undoubtedly asked the same questions of the Edwardses, said Jeff Alan, author of "Anchoring America," which profiles some of Couric's network predecessors.
Alan, news director of the CBS affiliate KOIN in Portland, Ore., had also publicly wondered last fall whether Couric was right for the job.
"I didn't think she was wrong at all" in the interview, he said. "At the same time, she may be trying too hard. It comes across in her tone and in the way she is presenting herself."
He freely acknowledges the difficult situation Couric is in.
"It's a vicious circle, of sorts," he said. "I wouldn't want to be her, I can tell you that."