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Katie Couric, CBS Anchor? It's Like Night And 'Today'

By Tom Shales
Thursday, January 20, 2005; Page C01

What to call the speculation about a certain Ms. Couric of NBC's "Today" show taking over the "CBS Evening News" from a certain Mr. Rather? There seems no other choice: "Katiegate."

Not that there's anything wrong with her. Katie Couric has proven a very versatile and lovable "Today" anchor. But the two broadcasts have relatively little in common. By contemplating radical changes for the "Evening News" and, reportedly, other parts of CBS News, CBS President Leslie Moonves is sending shock waves through the division, even as it attempts to recover from the trauma caused by a much-criticized segment that aired on "60 Minutes Wednesday" and led to plans to sack four prominent staffers.

CBS President Leslie Moonves reportedly is looking to radically remake the "CBS Evening News." (John Paul Filo -- Cbs Via AP)

That story isn't over by a long shot. Joe Hagan reported yesterday in the New York Observer that producer Mary Mapes, considered most responsible for the Sept. 8 report -- on George W. Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War -- issued a statement insisting she had done "nothing wrong" in preparing it. The three other staff members, told by CBS to resign, have so far declined to do so, Hagan reported, and are considering "legal action" against CBS News.

Luring Couric away from her $20 million NBC contract is only one of the changes being loudly pondered by Moonves, a former actor who still appears once each season on a CBS drama or comedy and knows nothing about news. That hasn't stopped him from deciding that Dan Rather's exit from the anchor chair and the brouhaha over the flawed report constitute good excuses for making sweeping changes in the third-rated "Evening News" that could leave it virtually unrecognizable -- and signal a huge plummet in prestige for the network news division long considered television's finest.

Rather had long planned to retire later this year, but the date was moved up to March after controversy arose over the "60 Minutes Wednesday" report, for which Rather, busy with other news duties, basically just served as on-air correspondent. He did not do the reporting. The segment dealt with Bush's National Guard service and with his allegedly being found deficient by a commanding officer. It's common knowledge that Bush was a spoiled little rich boy who did not serve with any great distinction, so this story wasn't exactly a blockbuster. It was more a matter of new details.

Unfortunately, the details weren't true. Or at least the segment made a sloppy case for their being true. Some of the documents uncovered were apparently faked by a longtime Bush basher. Mapes apparently failed to subject her sources to enough skeptical scrutiny and should have been more careful about the documents.

Unquestionably it was a blot on the record of CBS News but hardly the end of the world. Every news organization has its blots.

Stern action by Moonves, on the heels of an independent report criticizing the segment, was seen at least partly as a sop to quiet angry conservatives; for decades, going back to Edward R. Murrow's heroic debunking of Joe McCarthy, CBS News has been the far right's punching bag. But CBS News staffers are puzzled, if not furious, over Moonves's rumored plans to remodel the "Evening News" completely when Rather leaves and turn it into a nighttime version of the morning shows -- replete, perhaps, with comedy capers, jokes and satire, maybe some showbiz gossip and someone like Couric as a very "viewer-friendly" host who appeals to the young-adult demographic that generally doesn't watch the news.

Moonves reportedly would like to not only lure Couric but also add alleged satirist Jon Stewart to the "Evening News" as a commentator; Stewart hosts "The Daily Show" on cable's Comedy Central. Speaking to TV columnists and reporters in Los Angeles, Moonves would not confirm the rumors but did say that he wants "a revolution and not an evolution" and that "I think we have to do something really different to get people's attention" to raise the "Evening News" broadcast's ratings.

These musings have been met with incredulity, resentment and contempt within the ranks of CBS News. CBS News President Andrew Heyward, instead of standing up for the news division as network news presidents are supposed to do, is reportedly working with Moonves on the radically overhauled broadcast and other changes throughout the division. Heyward is supposed to come up with exciting new news programming, but his record on that score isn't very impressive: such debacles as "Eye to Eye With Connie Chung" and "Public Eye With Bryant Gumbel." Both were flops.

Moonves is also despised by some insiders and observers for what he hasn't done. He has failed to come to Rather's defense even after Rather's 30 years of unquestioned loyalty to the company. Rather is such a team player that he apparently felt that standing by the controversial report, even as it was being condemned left and right (mostly right, of course) was the equivalent of standing by his colleagues and being supportive of people he had worked with and grown to trust.

Over the years, Rather defended the team much more often than the team defended Rather. Smug old fossil Andy Rooney, paid millions to sit on his duff and compose smirky essays for "60 Minutes," scoffed at Rather's "Kenneth, what is the frequency?" story years ago (Rather said he was mugged by two men, one of whom uttered that seemingly coded rhetorical question) and continued scoffing even after the culprits were found and the story verified.

Instead of standing by Rather, Moonves has snidely said that Rather will report for "60 Minutes Wednesday" -- but only if it isn't canceled. The show had strong ratings until this season, when the ABC breakout hit "Lost" bloomed in the same time slot. Even one of Moonves's beloved "CSI" shows would have trouble holding its own against "Lost," an excellent and high-rated smash. Moonves says Rather would remain merely as "a reporter," sounding almost as if he were being busted back from general to private.

Rather, reached in the Washington broadcast booth from which he will anchor today's network coverage of the presidential inauguration, declined to comment on any of these issues yesterday.

Network bosses love nothing so much as beating up on their own news departments, especially when the entertainment division is doing well. CBS prime-time has made a tremendous rebound under Moonves's supervision, CBS has been king of the daytime soaps for decades and David Letterman's ratings are up in late night, though he still loses to NBC's empty suit, Jay Leno.

Now Moonves has become a terror himself, trashing the news division at a moment when it seems vulnerable. Perhaps even the title the "CBS Evening News" will be jettisoned and replaced with something livelier. In honor of Ed Sullivan, they could call it "The Really Big News Show."

Or, in the interest of truth-in-labeling: "Almost the CBS Evening News."

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