Dan Rather Takes On Network News With His Tart Remark

With Katie Couric at the anchor desk,
With Katie Couric at the anchor desk, "CBS Evening News" has plunged in the ratings. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)
By Tom Shales
Wednesday, June 13, 2007

"It may not have been the wisest thing I've done this week," Dan Rather joked yesterday by phone from his office in New York.

Wise or not, the former CBS anchor's comments about the network's evening newscast have created a firestorm -- the kind that is probably good for the TV news business.

Rather sparked the controversy during a radio appearance Monday morning when he said CBS executives have attempted over the past year to lure viewers to the "CBS Evening News" -- which has plummeted in the ratings -- by "dumbing it down and tarting it up." He said they have tried to graft the " 'Today' show ethos" onto the program, which just happens now to be anchored by former "Today" star Katie Couric.

Reaction was swift if not bright. Leslie Moonves, CBS corporate chief, shot back yesterday with an alleged defense of Couric that, in standard executive fashion, was really a defense of Moonves, the man who created the broadcast for Couric in the first place. He seized on the word "tarting" and called Rather's remark "sexist" -- an attempt by Moonves to blur the issue.

Later in the day, Rick Kaplan -- who was brought in eight weeks ago to improve the "Evening News" and its lowest ratings in decades -- said that he thought Rather's remarks were "out of place" and that "when he uses a phrase like 'tarting up the news,' maybe he thinks having a woman anchor is what's tarting it up."

Rather yesterday defended the "tarting it up" reference -- on Fox News, a perhaps unlikely venue for him -- by saying he was not attacking Couric personally: "It's not about gender. . . . That is not what I was talking about. And Les Moonves knows that."

Rather -- who anchored CBS's evening newscast for nearly a quarter-century -- thinks the failure of the "CBS Evening News With Katie Couric" isn't really Couric's fault but Moonves's. The CBS chief decided that to get younger viewers to watch the news, it has to be more fun, more upbeat, more entertaining. In other words: The news had to stop being the news.

The news had to start being the "Today" show. Or something very much like it. And so when Couric signed on nine months ago, the program was filled with squishy gimmicks, such as an alleged vox populi kind of segment in which people opined on issues of the day. Kaplan said yesterday that Rather is picking on the wrong show.

"If Dan wants to have a feud with Les Moonves, that's his business," Kaplan said. "But we are very much a hard-news broadcast now. The show's a pretty good program. Clearly, Dan is not watching or he wouldn't have said what he said."

Rather, 75, who now anchors "Dan Rather Reports" on HDNet, has watched the show occasionally in recent weeks: "I saw it one night last week," he said by phone. He also said he had received a "very nasty note" from Kaplan.

Said Kaplan: "My note to him was: 'I am very disappointed that you chose to say the things you say. I'm very, very sorry.' That's nasty? I think Dan has a thinner skin than we thought."

Kaplan said many female colleagues who had worked with Rather were "livid, just livid," about the "tarting it up" remark. Meanwhile, a longtime Rather supporter who asked not to be identified because he still works in broadcast news said: "Rick Kaplan should worry less about Dan Rather and more about the fact that the ratings have actually declined since he took over the broadcast."

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