Edward M. Joyce, CBS News president in the 1980s, dies at 81


Edward M. Joyce, president of CBS News from 1983 to 1985, in the network’s control room in New York. (Los Angeles Times)
August 7

Edward M. Joyce, who was president of CBS News during a turbulent period in the 1980s and who later wrote a juicy memoir describing an atmosphere of palace intrigue at the network, died Aug. 2 at his home in Redding, Conn. He was 81.

He had throat cancer, said his son, Randall Joyce.

Mr. Joyce, who began his career as a radio announcer and reporter, spent more than 20 years moving up the CBS ladder, leading local radio and TV affiliates in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York before becoming vice president of CBS News in 1981.

That was the year that Walter Cronkite, the longtime anchor of the network’s evening news broadcast, was replaced by Dan Rather. CBS still had the nation’s top-ranked evening newscast, but the so-called “Tiffany Network,” which had been the home of Edward R. Murrow and other broadcasting giants, was beginning a long slide into turmoil.

Mr. Joyce assumed the presidency of CBS News in 1983, when his boss, Van Gordon Sauter, took another job in the corporate hierarchy. Almost from the start, he was beset by a series of unprecedented problems.

The news department had long been immune to financial pressures, but under increasing demands to turn a profit, Mr. Joyce had to cut 125 positions. Many people had just 48 hours to clear out their desks.

Perhaps more threatening to the network’s reputation, CBS News was sued for $120 million by retired Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland over a 1982 documentary that alleged that he took part in a “conspiracy” to understate the number of enemy forces in the Vietnam War.

After a four-month trial that sapped the network’s morale, Westmoreland withdrew his lawsuit in February 1985, before the jury reached a decision. But the trial “convinced the far right,” Mr. Joyce told the Chicago Tribune, “that CBS was the Great Satan.”

Asserting that the network harbored an irremediable liberal bias, Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and other commentators called for conservative investors to buy up the company’s stock and “become Dan Rather’s boss.”

“There is abroad in the land,” Mr. Joyce told The Washington Post in 1985, “this new mindset that the mechanisms exist to bring an ‘errant’ press under control. These things represent a collective pattern that I find worrisome.”

Meanwhile, CBS was fending off outside bids from broadcasting mogul Ted Turner and others. Inside the network, several CBS stalwarts, including Rather, Mike Wallace, Morley Safer and “60 Minutes” producer Don Hewitt, launched a plan to purchase the news department and restore its glory. In the end, financier Laurence Tisch bought a substantial portion of CBS stock, preventing a hostile takeover.

Mr. Joyce sought to restore a measure of journalistic stability by airing more prime-time documentaries. But he also introduced a number of ideas, apparently endorsed by Sauter, that had the network’s old guard reeling.

The “CBS Evening News” adopted a more populist approach, with greater reliance on pictures, flashy graphics and stories about popular culture. The network’s faltering morning show loosened its focus on hard news in favor of features on cooking and celebrities.

Mr. Joyce approved the appointment of Phyllis George, a onetime Miss America and football pregame-show host, as co-anchor of the “CBS Morning News.”

When George said she would like to interview “that Gandhi woman,” Mr. Joyce recalled in his dishy memoir, “Prime Times, Bad Times,” she was told that Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been assassinated.

“Oh,” George cheerily replied, according to Mr. Joyce, “well, somebody like her.”

Mr. Joyce never found his stride as CBS News president and was “isolated and unpopular almost from the start,” Peter J. Boyer wrote in his 1988 book, “Who Killed CBS?”

He was caught in a power struggle with Sauter, his boss and onetime friend, and became openly critical of Rather, whom he considered an overpaid egotist.

“You know, I was a CBS lifer, a loyalist,” Mr. Joyce told the Chicago Tribune in 1988. “What was I being loyal to? A gravy train for rich on-air superstars who feel the train must go on at any cost?”

In December 1985, Mr. Joyce was replaced as CBS News president by Sauter.

Edward Matthew Joyce was born Dec. 13, 1932, in Phoenix. His family moved often, mostly in the West, before Mr. Joyce completed high school in New York City.

He dropped out of the University of Wyoming to become a radio disc jockey in Cody, Wyo., and began working for CBS in Chicago in 1954. As news director of New York’s WCBS radio in the 1960s, he helped create the station’s all-news format.

In 1969, Mr. Joyce was on vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., when Mary Jo Kopechne, a passenger in a car driven by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), died after the car plunged off a bridge on the Massachusetts island of Chappaquiddick. Mr. Joyce was one of the first journalists to cover the incident and received the Sigma Delta Chi award for his reporting.

After leaving CBS, Mr. Joyce moved to California, where he participated in competitive horsemanship events. He returned to Connecticut several years ago.

Survivors include his wife of 64 years, Maureen Jarry Joyce of Redding; two children, Brenda Hauser of Redding and Randall Joyce, a CBS News producer, of Belgrade, Serbia; and five grandchildren.

In 1988, Mr. Joyce published a tell-all memoir, “Prime Times, Bad Times,” which a Newsweek reviewer called “probably the juiciest, most revelatory dissection of broadcast journalism that we’re likely to get.”

Some of his CBS compatriots considered it self-serving, but the book exposed the network’s cutthroat internal politics and settled more than a few old scores, particularly with the temperamental Rather.

When he was fired as president of CBS News, Mr. Joyce recalled, the head of broadcasting told him, “There are lots of presidents. There’s only one Dan Rather.”

Matt Schudel has been an obituary writer at The Washington Post since 2004.
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