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Live From Baghdad

The virtues of sending a multi-million dollar anchor into a war zone are again being debated in the wake of CBS News’ announcement last week to send Katie Couric to Iraq and Syria.

The news peg for the trip: Gen. David Patraeus’ forthcoming status report on the U.S. performance in Iraq, which could have a major impact on the administration’s war efforts. (President Bush is expected to ask Congress for an additional $50 billion for the war in Iraq.)

But the trip, which sent Couric’s critics crying “publicity stunt,” offers a suitable hook for CBS News, a different angle on the first solo female anchor of a nightly newscast and comes at a time (post-Labor Day) when many viewers will be predisposed to pay attention to their TV sets again. The evening news broadcasts, whose audience share has eroded, continues to struggle in a 24-hour news cycle that has made live and immediate stories mandatory.

“Is this a self-serving move? The answer is yes,” says Elizabeth Mehren, who recently joined the Boston University journalism faculty after a long career with the Los Angeles Times. “But is that a bad thing? Not necessarily, if she can advance the story.”

Critics point out that CBS already has an able reporter in the region in chief foreign correspondent Lara Logan. But Rick Kaplan, executive producer of the CBS Evening News, says Couric brought something more to the analysis: “You don’t do stunts [in Iraq]. We got a lot of access to areas, to people, because [of] Katie that I don’t think we would have gotten even though we have a superstar correspondent there [in Logan].” Logan will contribute major pieces in each of the night’s broadcasts.

During Couric’s year at the CBS Evening News, the broadcast has lost about 6% of its audience. NBC’s Nightly News with Brian Williams is also down about 6%. ABC’s World News with anchor Charles Gibson is up 3%, despite being passed over for the job previously. He’s never been to Iraq.

Williams staged the Nightly News from inside Baghdad’s Green Zone in March. Before that, the last evening news anchor to make the trip to Iraq was ABC’s Bob Woodruff, who went there in January 2006, mere weeks after being named co-anchor (with Elizabeth Vargas) of World News. Of course, his anchor career was cut short when he suffered severe brain trauma during an IED attack.

ABC’s Diane Sawyer was in the region in February when she interviewed Syrian president Bashar al-Asad and polarizing Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Couric will anchor the CBS Evening News from Baghdad on Sept. 4-5 and Damascus on Sept. 6-7, after 5 days of reporting in the region. Rick Kaplan, executive producer of the CBS Evening News, says that Couric will have interviews with key figures, but he declines to be specific. “We’ve been told that talking about [the trip] can lose us things,” he says.

But unlike Sawyer, whose gravitas is rarely questioned as she traverses the TV news gamut from celebrity interviews to sit-downs with heads of state, Couric’s news chops have been a constant point of debate since she took the anchor job a year ago.

CBS News and Couric are certainly banking that the Iraq sojourn will quell some of that criticism.

“It’s a matter of trying to make her look more credible, more solid and, I hate to say it, one of the boys,” says Mehren. “It’s an understandable effort to beef up her portfolio and at the same time to try to elevate and solidify CBS as a serious contender.”

Kaplan spent his formative years at ABC News where he worked with the late Peter Jennings, who was recognized for his Middle East reporting.

Kaplan took over Couric’s broadcast in March and is hoping that viewers who sampled the Evening News when it premiered will take a second look.

“We want people to get used to the fact that the CBS Evening News is going to do what it needs to do to report the news,” he says, adding that war coverage will take up about 75% of each of this week’s newscasts.