Many a TV creepy-peepy has dogged the heels of many a news subject through corridors and doorways and into parking lots, but this time the subject reached out as the camera entered an elevator behind him, put his hand over the lens, and knocked the camera to the floor. The hand did not belong to an underworld kingpin or to an Abscam victim or to Frank Sinatra.
It was the hand of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, Warren Burger, who could be heard growling "Get out of here!" and "Don't stick that thing in my nose!" and whose moment of reckless intemperance made him look dangerous and irresponsible. It also made for electrifying television on "The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather" last week.
Much-much-much attention has been paid to the way Rather's ratings compare with those of his deified predecessor, Walter Cronkite; in fact, as reports like correspondent Derek Blakely's encounter with Burger in Lincoln, Neb., make clear, this is still by far the best daily newscast in network television. The Rather version of the "CBS Evening News" is just now emerging, like all of CBS News itself, from the doldrums of transition. CBS and the "Evening News" are going to re-assert themselves in the weeks and months ahead as the loudest and proudest voice in broadcast journalism.
Not at all coincidentally, correspondent Bill Moyers has just returned to CBS News from PBS, where he had free reign but a tiny budget and a minuscule audience. On another of last week's editions of the "Evening News," Moyers proved how potent and important TV news can be.
Moyers reported on an enormously discouraging governmental shell game -- the $37 billion refinancing of a natural gas pipeline from Alaska. Moyers introduced the story by saying, "If you want to know why so many Americans are fed up with both political parties and have simply stopped voting, and if you have a strong stomach, I have a case in point."
The case in point detailed how the Northwest Alaska Pipeline Co., faced with a shortage of private funds to build the pipeline, waged a successful lobbying campaign to get the government to, in effect, force 38 million natural gas consumers in 47 states to foot the bill. Rep. Tom Corcoran (R-Ill.) is quoted in the report as calling this deal "potentially the greatest consumer rip-off in the history of the United States."
Most of the other news media had ignored the alarming aspects of the story, but with his one report, Moyers inspired an avalanche of mail to Congress and to CBS and, says a spokesman for Ralph Nader, probably changed the House vote on the Senate-approved measure, though not enough to kill it. "On this bill," Moyers said on the air, "the two-party system was not up for grabs. It was up for sale."
"We transcribed the Moyers piece and sent it to every member of the House," says Harvey Rosenfield, staff attorney with Nader's Congress Watch lobby. "Print dropped the ball completely on this one, but the Moyers report was one of the strongest pieces of journalism we have ever seen on television."
From his office in New York, Moyers concedes that the report was not just reportage; it had a point of view. "Most broadcast journalists are nurtured by the networks and reared with a mandate to be objective and impartial," says Moyers. "But it's one thing to be impartial, and another to be indifferent." CBS has given him a "commentator" badge so he can roam into areas other reporters must leave alone.
It wasn't just the raw material of the story that made it compelling; it was also the astute use of television. A list of political contributions made by John McMillian, chairman of Northwest Alaska Pipeline, was run on the screen almost too fast to be read but deftly made its point merely by going on and on and on. McMillian was seen on the telephone kibitzing and laughing triumphantly; in this context, he looked like an arrogant old so-and-so. And at five minutes and 26 seconds, the report was at least three minutes longer than most "Evening News" segments.
Even Moyers is amazed at the tremendous response to the pipeline story.
"I didn't quite realize how powerful the 'Evening News' is," he says. "It's even more powerful when you engage that viewer." He calls for a secretary to bring him a few letters "at random" from the bag of pipeline mail in the next room. He reads a few letters aloud; all are positive and adulatory.
A viewer in Boulder, Colo., says the report "got to the root of our system and how it works."
A viewer in Santa Barbara, Calif., says, "Thank you for telling us who is doing what to us."
And a viewer in Portland, Maine, writes, "Journalism of this caliber you rarely see on television."
Moyers, too, thinks things are looking up for CBS News. The problem in the past couple of years has been that regimes were overlapping. William Leonard is nothing if not distinguished, but he's been a lame duck CBS News president, because everyone knew his days were numbered; mandatory retirement at 65 was waived for him temporarily while a replacement, the energetic Van Gordon Sauter, was decided upon.
Similarly, the Rather newscast was a victim of corporate and executive diffidence -- a fear that if the broadcast changed too much, viewers would be shocked out of their skins, and driven into the arms of Frank Reynolds or John Chan-cell-lor. Cronkite was gone, but his producer Sanford Socolow remained, and the Cronkite Style hung around like an old rumor. Now Socolow has been replaced by wunderkind Howard Stringer (producer of "The Defense of the United States") and the newscast will become truly Rather's show.
There are still staff morale problems to be ironed out. Many correspondents reportedly resent the "Preferred Correspondents List" that has been drawn up for the Rather show; it means that most of the time, only the established names get on the air, regardless of the content of reports. It's all too clearly a star-system ratings ploy (even Mike Wallace and his .357 Magnum are showing up on the "Evening News" as ratings insurance) and insiders say it is not going over among the staff.
Moyers, meanwhile, is peeved by all the attention lavished on Rather's ratings and hair style and eye contact. "Dan is the managing editor of that broadcast; he's in control," says Moyers, crediting Rather with invariably making "the right decisions" on the program's content. On the pipeline story, "I told Dan about it, and he said, 'Do it.' I said, 'It's going to be long, it's going to be tough,' and he said, 'Do it, for God's sake.' "
The report epitomizes the best kind of TV journalism, because people perked up and reacted; it involved them. "That single segment mobilized the American public to one of the biggest consumer rip-offs ever to go through Congress," says Rosenfield, the staff attorney. "Given a chance, the American people will express themselves."
Says Moyers, "Most of the news on television is, unfortunately, whatever the government says is news. But when people know how their government is really working, they respond. They become excited by the prospect of being able to make a difference. Jefferson was right; if you know, you can act."