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."
In the middle of all this tussling and spatting is Couric, a hard-working, essentially lovable TV personality who proved herself versatile, diligent and earnest when hosting the "Today" show -- a remarkable TV presence. It's undeniably true that because she is a woman, she was picked on for such frivolous allegations as showing too much leg when she arrived at CBS. Actually, male anchors and correspondents have been picked on over the years for their appearance, too -- like the hullabaloo made when Rather, for instance, merely donned a sweater-vest under his coat when he was anchor, allegedly to make him appear warmer on the air, if not in fact to be warmer in a chilly TV studio.
"Don't you bet that Katie Couric wishes she had never left the 'Today' show," Rather speculated yesterday, amplifying his earlier remarks.
During an appearance at Syracuse University, Moonves shot back: "Let's give her a break," but it's not clear what that means. Does it mean failing to report that "CBS Evening News" recently set a record for least watched network newscast in 20 years, then, a week later, scored even lower?
Couric has always had a high TV Q, which is a kind of private rating system used in the business to judge -- fairly or unfairly -- public reaction to TV personalities. But a prominent industry insider has said that Couric also showed an unusually high "negative Q," meaning that people who disliked her strongly disliked her, rather than merely dismissing her or brushing her off. Why this is so, or whether such measurements are accurate, no one really knows for certain.
Asked whether CBS was going to stand behind Couric amid all the criticism, controversy and the poor showing in the Nielsens, Kaplan said: "Katie's our anchor -- period. We have great confidence in what she can do." Kaplan, Couric and their co-workers have the summer to finish their remodeling work and build a better -- and more popular -- show. No changes in personnel are likely during the low-viewing summer months.
Rather said that he never planned an attack on the "Evening News" or on Couric, but that he was asked about it by Chuck Scarborough, who has replaced the deposed Don Imus on morning radio and MSNBC-TV. "He asked me directly what I thought," Rather said. "It is my wont to answer a question directly. It was not planned."
For the record, Rather had to endure occasional barbs heaved his way by Walter Cronkite -- Rather's predecessor on the "CBS Evening News" -- during and after Rather's reign on that program. Rather might still be on the show if not for a botched CBS News report about President George W. Bush's lack of active service in the National Guard and whether Bush was given special treatment.
The ensuing controversy not only spurred criticism of Rather, but also virtually split the CBS News division in two, with some employees thinking Rather should have done more to save the careers of producers who were fired under orders from the top. Moonves and Rather had never liked each other, and Moonves took the opportunity to essentially force out Rather. Moonves never could have turned the "CBS Evening News" into the "CBS Candy News" with Rather in the anchor chair -- and while Rather held the title of managing editor.
Even critics of Rather would have to admit he has always stood, firmly and stubbornly, for hard news over fluff and for integrity in the newsroom.
Rather insisted by phone yesterday that his criticisms go much, much wider than how badly or well "CBS Evening News" might be doing. "I was trying to make a larger point about dangerous trends I see in broadcast news and I just happened to be asked about the 'CBS Evening News' by Scarborough," Rather said.
"We have enormous life-or-death issues and challenges facing us in this country and the world today," he said. "Everything from the dismantling of civil rights enforcement within the Justice Department to the war in Iraq to news of secret prisons in Europe and, of course, the next presidential election.
"And yet, for some reason, Paris Hilton is the big story on newscast after newscast. She is inescapable. Putting Paris Hilton on the front page is ridiculous, and it is a mistake to load up a newscast with soft features. The corporate leadership of CBS doesn't even know what hard news is supposed to be -- not now, and not in the last years that I was the anchor of the broadcast. They know about entertainment, not news, and about kissing up to politicians in Washington who can do them some good from a regulatory standpoint and help improve their profit picture."
Rather did not say the situation was entirely hopeless. He said he likes ABC's "World News Tonight" with Charles Gibson, which is in first place among the three network evening news shows, and he also expressed admiration for Brian Williams of NBC News.
Rather also said that "under Rick Kaplan, the CBS newscast has unquestionably improved."
There has been enough back-and-forth-and-back-again for one day, because there are important, larger issues. They are issues that have dogged the networks since the day "60 Minutes" became a hit and taught the networks that the news could make money, big money, and no longer had to be carried as a loss leader or as a public service to viewers.
Now, instead of investigating ways to build audience, even among the young, the networks have tended to throw in the towel -- with such possible and notable exceptions as CNN's lively but solid "Situation Room" with Wolf Blitzer and its awesome News Wall.
"Young people will never watch the news" is as sacrosanct a bromide as "Young people will never read a newspaper."
Well, they'd better. Rather isn't being alarmist when he wonders what will happen to a nation addicted to fake news, celebrity gossip and pop-star prattle -- when people abandon the very virtue of being informed and instead insist on constant titillation from TV, cable and little gadgets they carry around in their hands.
"Broadcast news, and journalism generally, should not be a sedative," Rather said. "It should be a wake-up call."
Diplomatically or not this week, Rather was trying to contribute to that wake-up call with his remarks.