Andrew Tyndall, publisher of the Tyndall Report, an industry newsletter which monitors television news, was online Wednesday, March 9, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss Dan Rather's broadcasting career, the future of network news and the role of the anchorman in broadcast journalism.
Read the storiesDan Rather, Leaving By the High Road (Post, March 9) and Who's the Next Dan? (Post, March 9)
The Tyndall Report has monitored the weekday evening newscasts of ABC, CBS and NBC since the summer of 1987.
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Andrew Tyndall, welcome to washingtonpost.com. Glad to have you with us.
Dan Rather. A controversial reporter and anchorman. He's been in the anchor chair for the CBS Evening News for 24 years. What can you tell us about his tenure as anchorman?
Andrew Tyndall: Dan Rather was the prominent reporter for CBS News for many years before he took over as anchor 24 years ago. He likes to look back on his entire career as a reporter, with evening anchor as his second job. The stories that made him famous--hurricane coverage, Tiananmen Square, Watergate, the Afghanistan War, interviewing Saddam Hussein--all saw him in the capacity as reporter. His reputation as newsreader is secondary.
San Francisco, Calif.:
Whenever I watch Dan Rather, I'm always amazed that he was chosen in the first place to replace Walter Cronkite. When he looks into the camera, he doesn't exactly exude confidence or competence. He's just peculiar. Who else was in the running to replace Cronkite?
Andrew Tyndall: Back in the early 1980s, there was no doubt that the peak of a TV journalist's career was to anchor the CBS Evening News (this was before the boom in morning programs, prime-time magazines, 24-hour bale and so on). Back then, to be #1 in your field you had to sit behind that desk, whether newsreading was your special skill or not. Nowadays, when Rather styles himself as a reporter rather than an anchor, he implicitly concedes that he was promoted into a job that was not his specialty. A dozen or so years ago, Rather did much of his anchoring from the field, acting as a reporter. He has only been relegated to newsreader only in the past half-a-dozen years or so
Why have the CBS Evening News ratings been so low? How long have they been number three? I remember when they were the premiere network newscast. What happened? And if it was because of Rather, why didn't they remove him?
Andrew Tyndall: It was a dark day for CBS News when they lost the rights to NFL football games to Fox. Several local stations with stong news operations defected from CBS to keep football. CBS' other enormous strength over the years has been in rural and small-town markets--the so-called red states--where Fox News Channel has its core appeal. You might say that CBS News' strength has been eroded by a one-two punch from Rupert Murdoch's Fox
Is network news dying? Is cable news the threat to their tumbling ratings?
Andrew Tyndall: Network television as a whole is a shrinking industry. It is not just news that is losing audience but network sports, network sitcoms, network soap operas and so on. Even though the nightly newscasts have a smaller share of the TV audience than they used to have, they are still watched by millions. In fact there are few newscasts as such on the cable TV news channels (which are mostly interview-opinion-commentary channels rather than reporting). Within the next ten years our TV-style news (an audio-visual medium with live footage and soundbites) will be available online via broadband. When that happens both network TV and cable TV will be replaced by a new medium.
New York, N.Y.:
Will CBS News regain their glory? What's happening with that multi-anchor format? Are they really considering that?
Andrew Tyndall: My personal recommendation to CBS News is to stop thinking of themselves as a news division for the broadcast network and recast themselves as the news division for Viacom. This is the way they can regain the mass audience they had in the Cronkite days before the TV landscape fragmented. If CBS News produced news for children on Nickelodeon, news for teenagers on MTV, news for men on Spike, news for African-Americans on BET they could cherry-pick the greatest hits each day and produce news for everyone on CBS Evening News and 60 Minutes. Relying just on a broadcast audience means a gradual decline into oblivion.
I'm actually glad to see Dan Rather go. He's quite annoying to the point I didn't watch his newscasts. He was like a stone statue when reading the teleprompter. And his snootiness was a bit much.
Andrew Tyndall: As I mentioned in a previous post, reading a Teleprompter is not Rather's strong suit. As far as the CBS Evening News is concerned that is really not so much of a problem, since 85 percent of the entire news hole for journalism is devoted to stories by correspondents not to the presence of the anchorman. I admire Kimberly Dozier's work out of Baghdad, David Hawkins out of Tel Aviv, David Martin out of the Pentagon, John Blackstone from San Francisco, Byron Pitts out of New York in particular.
I remember a night, only a few years ago, shortly after the attacks of 9/11, when Dan
Rather was Letterman's guest on one of those awkward nights for humor in
America, that sad September. I'll never forget Dan's voice breaking, and
informing Letterman and the audience that ... "I love this country" ... and
he went on to talk about what the country has meant to him. It was
dramatic, it was emotional and I will never forget him for it. Shouldn't he indeed be remembered as someone who deeply loves this country and worked a
lifetime to show that love?
Andrew Tyndall: And as someone whose emotions were always so close to the surface in all his reporting (one reason why so many feel uncomfortable watching him is that he does not have the calm polish of a Peter Jennings). I expect to see tears when he signs off tonight
Falls Church, Va.:
I always thought CBS News problems began with cost-cutting by Lawrence Tisch when there was a mass exodus of experienced reporters and really had little to do with Rather per se. Is that wrong?
Andrew Tyndall: Not only is CBS Evening News in third place in the ratings, but so is the Early Show in the mornings--all this at a time when CBS is #1 in prime-time ratings. It is rare for a network's overall prosperity not to help out the news division. Where NBC News has expanded with MSNBC and CNBC and ABC News has expanded just recently with ABC News Now, CBS seems to have decided to make money by cutting costs rather than by building audiences. I agree, this is a management decision not the anchorman's. However, over a decade or so of decline, not one of CBS News established stars--Rather or Mike Wallace or Morley Safer or Andy Rooney--resigned in protest against these cutbacks.
Is the single anchor concept, the "word from God," as Les Moonves called it, dead?
Andrew Tyndall: Moonves was misleading when he called the Evening News format the "Word of God." The times when anchorman acquire that Mount Olympus style authority are the live reactions to crisis or major news events (a Space Shuttle crash, an election, a war, a September 11th and so on). They do very little work during a nightly newscast when most of the reporting is done by correspondents. If you want to hear what a Voice of God format sounds like, tune into to Shepard Smith on Fox News Channel, in which most of the hour is spent hearing his baritone booming over videotape. Properly the Evening News should be called the Conversation of Correspondents not the Voice of God.
I do not understand the fast escalating rise in salaries of
anchors such as Rather. These anchors seem to feel they
are celebrities. (E.g., one sees them on late-night talk
shows.) The fact is some of them don't even seem that
worldly. How did Rather justify his salary at a time when
CBS News ratings were decreasing and the CBS News
bureau was being downsized? I just watch the news for
the news; I couldn't care less who is the anchor.
Andrew Tyndall: Your point is well taken. Paying celebrity salaries to working journalists means that they are automatically alienated from the audience on whose behalf they are supposed to be reporting. It is tough to single out TV news however. Every facet of television (and movies and sports and corporations) has this pyramid pay structure, where a few superstars are paid disproportionately more than those with almost identical talents just a few steps below them on the promotion ladder. Maybe an online world of news where we select our own stories by double-clicking (we are our own anchors) will redirect resources away from talent and towards news gathering.
San Diego, Calif.:
Why is Rather getting scapegoated? When
he didn't prepare the story in
Andrew Tyndall: To my mind the most outrageous -- and underreported -- piece of information in the Thornburgh Report on the Texas National Guard story was the fact that Rather had not even seen the 60 Minutes segment before it aired. Any conscientious journalist should not put his name on a story he had not even seen.
How can a news program that airs, essentially, on a fixed schedule, compete against real-time news mediums online?
Andrew Tyndall: Real-time is good for relaying a headline--like the ticker going round the building in Times Square. Headlines are just one facet of journalism, however. Reporting a story, rather than a headline, requires working sources, conducting research, collecting videotape, careful writing and editing. So many of the stories we read online are from one or two sources--AP or Reuters. So many of the stories we see on 24-hour cable are unproduced--live stand-ups by reporters, interviews, opinion pieces, voice-over unedited videotape. The nightly newscasts are unusual in television news in that they offer produced, carefully worked, multiple sourced journalism. They are more likely to have well-rounded reporting.
Dan Rather has been characterized as a left of the center reporter. Don't you feel that creates a more balanced view of the truth? Don't you feel that it elevates CBS?
Andrew Tyndall: In my opinion, Rather's reputation for political bias is a holdover from the days when the TV networks had a much more dominant position than they have now and they represented the East Coast Liberal Establishment. As I mentioned in a previous post, CBS' strength back then was in rural and small-town markets (as opposed to ABC and NBC which were more popular in what are now blue states). As such, the common ideology that all the networks shared was more likely to rub CBS' more conservative viewers the wrong way than ABC's or NBC's. Rather was the reporter who went head-to-head with Nixon at the time of Watergate and Bush senior over Iran-contra. At those times he was merely doing his job, but his combative style played into a pre-existing heartland prejudice against CBS.
Let's not forget that Cronkite's CBS Evening News also had Charles Kuralt as a regular, so the heartland audience was recognized at least in the end-of-the-half-hour features.
How do the big three network news shows stand up to one another. Do they have their own characteristics as far as show content, regardless of who's the anchor?
Andrew Tyndall: The remarkable thing about the three networks' nightly newscasts is how similar they are. At some periods in the past they have each developed a house-style. For example in the mid-90s, NBC aired lighter fare (O.J. Simpson, lifestyle features) and ABC was more cosmopolitan (leading the way on international coverage). Since the end of the Clinton era, all three have settled on a serious foreign-policy dominated format. Their big differences are between correspondents rather than anchors. My current favorites are as follows:
White House: David Gregory (NBC)
Congress: Linda Douglass (ABC)
State Department: Andrea Mitchell (NBC)
Pentagon: David Martin (CBS)
Justice: Pete Williams (NBC)
Baghdad: Richard Engel (NBC)
London: Mark Phillips (CBS)
Economy: Anthony Mason (CBS)
Health: Robert Bazell (NBC)
and so on ...
I prefer to watch the BBC news on PBS over any of the big three network news broadcasts. I get a 30-minute news summary, instead of 10-12 minutes of commercials interrupted by a few news stories.
Andrew Tyndall: I quite agree that there are too many commercials on the network nightly newscasts (2.5 minutes more than there were 12 years ago). What's worse, so many of them are for prescription drugs and stuff that old people use. No wonder so few young people watch the news. It is not the editorial content that alienates them but all the messages surrounding them. When they run ads for Depends or Pepsodent, they declare: Not for under-60s
Should Rather have been fired because of that inquiry report into the Bush National Guard service? Other people in the network were.
Andrew Tyndall: Let's compare the resignation of Rather at CBS with Tom Brokaw's departure at NBC. The remarkable thing about Rather (who is older than Brokaw) is how long he held onto the job and how little CBS News management did, even after Rather turned 70, to groom a successor a la Brian Williams. I do not know this as a fact by the impression I have received is this: however good a reporter Rather may be, he is an even better corporate infighter. He held onto his job because CBS could not find the chink in his armor to replace him. Seen in this light, the Texas National Guard story made him just vulnerable enough that CBS could ease him out, something that should have been done when he reached retirement age. The chaotic way this all happened does not make CBS News look good. It looks like an organization more interested in milking the last profits from former glories than in planning--and investing--for the future.
Ask Dan how it feels to have been a perennial third place in the news ratings his entire career. Or, how does it feel to step down in disgrace? No, you won't ask that, you'll lob softballs. That's okay. Everyone knows Rather was pushed out and that his bias led him to push his ideology instead of fact. He's leaving in disgrace and we all know it.
Andrew Tyndall: During the 20-or-so year period when Rather-Brokaw-Jennings went head-to-head, each of the three of them spent some time in first place, some time in second place, some time in third place. During that same time each of the three newscasts adopted different editorial strategies under different executive producers. Rather has not been in perennial third place for his entire career. The CBS Evening News he leaves has superior journalism than the one he co-anchored with Connie Chung a dozen years ago. The signature story of that format was Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. Since the US invaded Iraq, CBS has covered that story more heavily than ABC or NBC. Rather gets enormous credit for landing the Abu Ghraib scoop just last year.
Andrew Tyndall: I'm signing off now. Thanks for all your questions. My apologies to those left unanswered. We'll all be watching at 6:30 p.m. tonight to hear those final words. Courage