It's Monday morning. Who will try to take over CBS this week?
At CBS, they don't know whether to laugh, cry or cringe at rampant rumors of plans to take over the giant media corporation of which CBS News is currently the most visible, and perpetually the most controversial, part. Reports of plans for a takeover by maverick Atlanta businessman Ted Turner surfaced last week just before Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), who had previously advocated a takeover of the network by political conservatives, was off on another anti-media attack, citing CBS News in particular.
What had been a cold war -- conservatives against media they tirelessly claim to be left-leaning -- turned unsavorily hot with a wild Helms harangue that flashed back to early '50s rhetoric in impugning the morals and patriotism of the press, characterizing them as "men and women who, if they do not hate American virtues . . . certainly have a smug contempt for American ideals and principles."
Dan Rather had to report the speech on "The CBS Evening News" and mention that it contained three references to, as he put it, "Dan Rather." Reached at his home yesterday, Rather said he did not want to put himself in the position of answering the Helms accusations. "Tom Wyman, Van Gordon Sauter and Ed Joyce get paid to deal with those kinds of issues," Rather said, referring to the chairman of CBS Inc., a CBS Broadcast Group executive vice president and the president of CBS News. "I try to concern myself with the job of honest reporting."
What fellow CBS employes are asking themselves is, among other things, whether Helms is a character out of "Seven Days in May" or a character out of "Li'l Abner" -- a dangerous loony or a colorful loony. CBS News has just recovered from eight months in court fighting a libel trial filed by retired Army general William C. Westmoreland and largely financed by a right-wing millionaire. Now this. Insiders insisted the morale of the news division stiffens, not suffers, when faced with such attack from the outside.
But there was also the suggestion that cold silence from top CBS Inc. management -- an utter lack of reassuring words from Wyman's office or that of any other high-ranking corporate honcho -- was making many within the company more nervous, more worried, more apprehensive, than they otherwise might be. The possibility for panic should not be ruled out.
Joyce issued a statement Friday when he heard of Helms' remarks. "Sen. Helms appears to believe that he alone possesses some litmus test for bias or patriotism," Joyce said. "Americans have listened before to these attacks on the press. I am confident they will again recognize a transparent attempt to control the nation's information flow."
Yesterday, CBS News correspondent Bob Schieffer, who covered the Helms speech Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, objected to the nature of the Helms attack. "If he wants to criticize our professionalism or our methods, that's all right, but I very much resent this business of questioning peoples' patriotism," Schieffer said from New York. "I don't think it's funny. There's no basis for that sort of thing, and Helms has no business saying it."
Schieffer said that covering the speech took him back to "the Agnew days," when former vice president Spiro Agnew used the media as punching bag, whipping boy and Wicked Witch of the West. There were "catcalls" at reporters covering the event, Schieffer said, and shouts of "Hey, Jesse, here's the CBS guys!"
"I haven't heard a speech like that in that kind of an atmosphere in a long time," Schieffer said.
CBS stock was traded heavily on Friday but not as heavily traded as were scenarios and suppositions about what all this means -- the raucous Turner takeover noises (which by their very raucousness cast doubt on them) and the Helms routine. Sources at CBS and other networks speculated on background about the possible avenues all this bizarre behavior may follow. The tendency is to take it all very seriously even though it is generally believed Turner does not have the wherewithal to buy CBS. Broadcasting magazine, an authoritative industry weekly, reports today that late last week "the New York financial community was searching for evidence to indicate that a takeover of CBS was in the offing, but by week's end, it had yet to come up with any."
The most dramatic scenario links the Turner and the Helms maneuvers and sees them as part of a scheme -- indeed, a conspiracy at the highest levels -- to board and seize the good ship CBS. Could it be that the Turner and Helms fronts only seem independent of one another? Curiously enough, some of the more outrageous speculation goes, the Helms assault began not so long before Patrick J. Buchanan returned to the White House, this time as administration spokesman. Last time, he was speech writer to Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew.
Buchanan's recent employers have included Ted Turner. Buchanan appeared with Tom Braden on "Crossfire," one of the few avidly watched programs on Turner's Cable News Network. In 1972, while working for Nixon, Buchanan personally advocated "something done in the area of antitrust-type action" as a way to punish the television networks for their allegedly left-leaning political bias. Earlier, Buchanan authored the opening shot in Agnew's war on the "elitist" press.
Buchanan and Helms share the same political views. Could Jesse Helms be the front man for a new official assault on the networks and the press? If that went so far as an actual attempt at a hostile CBS takeover, the FCC, under Reagan-appointed chairman Mark S. Fowler, would not stand in the way, citing as usual the unquestionable sanctity of the marketplace.
Or so one scenario goes.
There are less dramatic interpretations of last week's events. One school of thought holds that Turner's all-but-announced CBS takeover bid was a smokescreen, that he really has designs on the far more attainable American Broadcasting Cos. Inc. Then there is the possibility that by claiming to want to buy CBS, Turner is actually trying to get CBS to buy him -- his struggling CNN empire is not exactly the envy of the industry.
Turner tried to get CBS interested in a merger two years ago. Insiders say that top CBS management was at first amenable, but then broke off talks when Turner presented demands that were considered "laughable," including that he be placed on the board of directors and given some domain over the entertainment programs of the CBS Television Network.
One veteran network executive speculates that both Helms and Turner are probably just in this for the publicity. The chance of getting ahold of CBS is almost farcically remote, he points out; it would involve persuading those who hold large blocks of stock to abandon their desire for profits in favor of some quixotic ideological mission. It's good publicity even for Dan Rather, the executive thinks, because after all, Helms isn't attacking Peter Jennings of ABC News or Tom Brokaw of NBC News. Implicit in the attack is Rather's dominance. "The CBS Evening News" is, week-in and week-out, the No. 1 rated evening network newscast.
The press, it should be remembered, feels duty-bound to give prominent display to all attacks against it, no matter how specious and far-fetched they may be. In all of his ranting and raving, Helms has yet to cite specific examples of the network "bias" that allegedly so galls him. Even right-wing study groups who've tried their darndest to prove network bias have been unable to come up with conclusive statistical proof.
At the moment, there is only one commentator frequently appearing on any of the networks with a clear political identity, and that's a conservative: George F. Will, Ronald Reagan's favorite read, who pops up often on ABC's "World News Tonight." If the left-leaning liberal press have so much influence, it might also reasonably be asked, how did Ronald Reagan manage to win reelection in a resounding 49-state landslide? Some power these media libs have.
Christopher J. Matthews, special assistant to Speaker of the House Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), thinks the renewed mania for attacking the press is an attempt to find and identify a handy-dandy new scapegoat for all political and social grievances. He thinks the networks now serve the role that the State Department served in the '40s and '50s. "And they go after CBS as the most network of networks the way they used to go after the State Department, which is where the real elite of the establishment, the real pinstripes, used to go to work," Matthews said yesterday.
George Crile, the producer of the Westmoreland documentary that provoked the suit, could practically be an Alger Hiss figure in this new arena, Matthews said. And CBS, the most Ivy League and hoity-toity of the networks, serves as the new State Department, a haven for the Eastern-educated, urban upper-middle-class professional.
Rumors continue, speculation continues, and CBS stock keeps going up with each new flurry. Even the network executive who thinks the whole business of takeover schemes sounds suspiciously improbable -- whether by Turner or Helms or a combination of the two of them (plus billions of dollars) -- agrees that if by some "Twilight Zone" set of circumstances the takeover occurred, it would be disastrous.
"It would turn a network into a declared ideological vehicle," he said. "Whatever people like Helms think about networks, they are not openly proclaiming intentions to be ideological instruments. CBS would become an organ of the conservative movement. It's against all precedent."
And what would happen?
"The first thing it would do is destroy all their audience, and kill their own investment."