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Reading: And That's the Way It Was

How golden were the old days at CBS News? Did serious journalism put it on top? Or did being on top allow it to be serious?

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Edward R. Murrow, the patron saint of "serious" TV journalism, churned out his share of trivial living room chatter during the 50s. In fact, by the end of his career, he had probably spent more of his time on the air doing celebrity home interviews than serious journalism. His lofty reputation as a TV journalist rests on two of his least representative programs: Harvest of Shame, a 1960 documentary on the squalid living conditions of Florida migrant workers, and his 30-minute, prime-time attack on Senator Joe McCarthy on his popular See It Now series.

Sometimes Murrow is given more credit for saving the republic than is his due. By the time of Murrow's televised condemnation, McCarthy had already so enraged the Eisenhower administration with his investigation of the Army that he was probably already on his way down. Still, few broadcasters would have taken the risk of attacking McCarthy on prime-time TV during a Red Scare, and it is likely that even fewer could have carried it off. Murrow had, of course, already established his saintliness with the American public as a radio correspondent during World War II, broadcasting gripping, inspirational descriptions of London during the air raids. In effect, Murrow was the Columbia Broadcasting System's Winston Churchill.

To some extent, Murrow's credibility accrued to all of CBS News. Walter Cronkite, who came closest to being an heir apparent, was secure enough in his reputation to stand up to the Pentagon during the Vietnam War, and Dan Rather had the chutzpah to pop off to the president during the Watergate crisis. At certain critical moments in our recent history, CBS newspeople have stepped out of their announcer shoes and--with a gesture or a quip or a raised eyebrow--openly revealed their skepticism of what policymakers were saying or doing. If a correspondent for In These Times doubts the word of the powerful, it doesn't get much notice, but if Dan Rather does it, he carries a market share with him, a mass audience.

And this is the crux of the problem: Dan's share of the market is waning. There has always been a struggle within CBS between entertainment and news value, between ratings and journalistic integrity. News is, after all, a commodity, and if there is indeed a "marketplace" of ideas in this country, the system of barter in that marketplace is ratings.

In the good old days, CBS dominated the ratings battle in both news and entertainment programming and could afford to be more serious than the other networks. Thus when the CBS Morning News was started in 1965, the attitude of network president Bill Paley was, according to one executive, "do a hard news program and never mind the ratings."

That attitude was, needless to say, not typical of the other networks, least of all ABC, the regular third-prize winner in the ratings contest. It was ABC that pioneered the mindless morning show, introduced zippy graphics to the evening news, hired the odious Geraldo Rivera, and gave us Nightline.

In its way, the latter may have been the most insidious of all these innovations. If the point of journalism is to get at the truth, then the journalistic value of the debates on Nightline and MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour is low, especially when you have an administration that makes a regular practice of "disinformation." The debater who lies and invents facts is always at an advantage if he can exploit the credibility of high office. If Joe McCarthy were alive today, you can bet he and Ted Koppel would be on a first name basis.

What is needed in these trying times is not a gentlemanly talk-show host to further the cause of ambiguity, but a hard-nosed news organization with the resources and credibility to give us an independent take on what's happening--even if that take is the sort of avuncular corporate centrism we could once have expected from Murrow or Walter Cronkite. It is still the case that CBS News adopts the most critical and independent stance vis-a-vis the Reagan administration. If all the other network news shows are reporting that economic indicators are up across the board, the CBS Evening News can be relied on to run some lugubrious report by Ray Brady on plant closures in Ohio or the high rate of savings-and-loan failures in the American heartland. Sometimes it seems to me that Dan Rather is providing a counterpoint to the cheerful indifference of the other news anchors.

Unfortunately, at a time when the legacy of Murrow could have been used to greatest advantage, CBS News was in the process of undermining its own credibility. In Bad News at Black Rock, Peter McCabe's darkly comic account of life at CBS News, the decline and fall of the Morning News is presented as a synecdoche for the decline of the whole news operation between 1982 and 1986. (The term "Black Rock" refers to the imposing black office tower in New York that houses the corporate offices of CBS. The news offices are in an older building on West 57th Street.) A former magazine editor, McCabe went to work for the Morning News as an idea man ("senior producer") in 1985 and lasted until 1986, when he was fired by Susan Winston, a young hotshot executive director who was hired away from ABC's Good Morning America. "Understand this," Winston told the Morning News staff her first day of work. "I've been brought in here to get ratings, and I'll do anything, anything, to get ratings."

McCabe gives us a few examples: After the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, Winston wanted to book one of the American schoolchildren who had been in Kiev at the time of the accident in order to have Faith Daniels run a Geiger counter over him. "The teenager we had booked had been contaminated, but only slightly," reports McCabe. "The radiation had been on his clothes, which had long since been destroyed, and he himself would not set off the machine."

"I can't believe that," Winston reportedly replied. "Those things are highly calibrated."

The booker was insistent. The Geiger counter would not respond.

"See if you can find another kid," Winston said.

McCabe obviously doesn't much like Winston, whom he compares to the ruthless "news doctor" played by Faye Dunaway in Paddy Chayefsky's movie Network. But the steady slide into gimmickry and superficiality at the Morning News had started a couple of years before Winston's arrival. If there is a villain in the story, it is Van Gordon Sauter, the ambitious former local news director, who took over as president of CBS News in 1982. According to custom, CBS News executives are supposed to jealously guard the interests of the department against the relentless commercial pressures of the executives within Black Rock. But as McCabe tells it, Sauter broke with this tradition, willingly subordinating journalistic values to entertainment values in order to increase ratings. Among the old-guard newsy types--the "ghosts of Murrow," as one producer called them--Sauter was seen as a traitor who sold out the news department in order to curry favor at Black Rock. A year after he took over the news operation, Sauter was made a vice president of the mother corporation, the CBS Broadcasting Group, an honor that news executives traditionally accepted at the end of a long and distinguished career. A former news director at WBBM, Sauter went to work for CBS as Paris bureau chief in 1975. At that time, he met and impressed CBS founder Bill Paley and later was made head of the "program practices" department, the chief network censor.

After he took over the news department, Sauter saw his immediate goal as the need to reestablish the primacy of the Evening News. The transition from Cronkite had not been smooth, and Dan Rather, who had shown a surprising edginess on camera, began to lose ratings. By the fall of 1981, the unthinkable happened: CBS Evening News finished third in the ratings. Desperate measures were clearly in order; a third-place news show means a weak "lead-in" to the prime-time schedule. While Rather took drama lessons and changed his wardrobe, Sauter revamped the program to make it more like a local news show.

Under Cronkite, the geographic center of the Evening News had always been Washington, and the program's top concern had been politics and public policy. Sauter decided to shift the focus from Washington to the American heartland and to increase the emphasis on human interest stories. He also touted the importance of "moments," visual images that gave viewers a sense of what it feels like to be there in the middle of a story. "News being news," writes McCabe, "the person affected by the story was often a victim of some sort; according to the moment theory, the best TV news reports captured this person's distress on tape, built it into a context that made it poignant." Rather liked the theory so much, he passed out "moment" buttons to the staff. Reporters more and more tried to have "moments" in their stories, and stories without moments often didn't make it on the air.

"The broadcast was not complete unless it took a good tug at your heartstrings several times within its twenty-two minutes," writes McCabe. "Throughout 1982, as the country tried to pull itself out of recession, there were a lot of unhappy farmers and laid-off workers on the CBS Evening News, people who would never know that their personal misfortunes were helping to build CBS's theory of moments into a coordinated ratings triumph."

The Morning News, meanwhile, had always been the weak link in the CBS News organization, regularly placing third in the morning ratings. In the past, however, the program had been appreciated by television critics and viewers who were more interested in news than entertainment and life-style features. Especially during the years that Hughes Rudd, Bruce Morton, or Charles Kuralt were anchors, the CBS Morning News was seen as an intelligent, well-produced news show. Too bad it always came in third. In those days, however, the CBS Evening News and 60 Minutes had high enough ratings to keep the penny-pinchers and show biz types at bay. With the ratings dip that came with the succession of Dan Rather in the early 80s, however, CBS found its entertainment shows were beginning to be regularly trounced by the more creative NBC programmers. As the profit margins grew thinner, the Morning News, a money-losing operation, began to fall under the anxious scrutiny of Black Rock.

The Morning News underwent an even more radical "makeover" than the Evening News, with a series of increasingly disastrous anchor changes and content choices that created turmoil for the organization and provoked the ridicule of media critics. The first to go was Charles Kuralt, the network's most venerable newscaster, who had been coanchor with Diane Sawyer. He was replaced by Bill Kurtis, who was thought to be more suited than Kuralt to the lighter content of the new Morning News, which, like ABC's Good Morning America, began to rely more and more on celebrity interviews and soft-news features. At first the new combination seemed to work. Under Kurtis and Sawyer, who were capable of handling both lighter features and hard news, the ratings began to improve. But then disaster struck the Morning News when Sawyer was promoted to 60 Minutes. With a flourish of publicity, the network announced her replacement: Phyllis George.

Phyllis George, the former Miss America, was Sauter's idea of the "women of the 80s," a glamorous beauty who would add some valuable glitz to the Morning News. Even from a business standpoint, it turned out to be a poor choice, however, for George not only lacked journalism experience, she wasn't even particularly smooth on camera. "The critics settled in to watch," writes McCabe, "and for the next three months, while Phyllis's presence made barely a blip in the ratings, they took increasing joy in noting her predilection for embarrassing gaffes as well as a style that suggested she could have used another year or two of education."

The live television producer's worst nightmare occurred on Wednesday, May 15, 1985, during an interview with convicted rapist Gary Dotson and his alleged victim, Cathleen Webb, who had recanted her testimony and sworn he was innocent. At the end of a particularly frivolous interview, George looked at the two guests and with a laugh that McCabe describes as "breezy," said: "How about a hug?"

After the "hug" incident, the CBS Morning News became something of a media laughingstock, the butt of jokes on the Tonight Show and the object of cartoons in the New Yorker. To the network, however, it wasn't funny. George had been given a $3 million contract, largely for the purpose of conducting celebrity interviews, but the Morning News producers were finding that celebrities were becoming increasingly reluctant to appear on the air with her.

Meanwhile, Bill Kurtis, who had always secretly objected to being teamed with George, was finding the situation increasingly demeaning and decided to go back to WBBM. Kurtis was replaced by a little-known news reader named Forrest Sawyer. In June 1985, Black Rock finally acknowledged its mistake and got rid of George, although it still had to honor its three-year contract. George was replaced by Maria Shriver, the daughter of Eunice Kennedy, and when she didn't work out either, there was talk of trying to hire back Connie Chung from NBC. As the ratings continued to slide, however, the game of musical anchors being played each morning on CBS had itself become a joke. "Did you hear there's a job opening for anchor of the CBS Morning News?" asked David Letterman. "Applications can be picked up at the post office."

The tragically absurd part of the Morning News saga is that the network not only squandered the credibility of its news department by adopting show biz values, it still managed to finish third in the ratings. While spending huge sums to hire Phyllis George, Black Rock became increasingly miserly about basic production and personnel costs, slashing budgets and staging wholesale layoffs. Ultimately, the network officials decided that having a Morning News show at all was prohibitively expensive. Instead, they opted for a lightweight talk show hosted by an actress best known for her camera commercials with James Garner.

To many of what McCabe calls the "old guard"--the ghosts of Murrow--this was the final sellout. Fred Friendly, Murrow's producer, called the decision "so tragic, it takes your breath away." Andy Rooney, the humorist on 60 Minutes, wrote in his newspaper column: "CBS, which used to stand for the Columbia Broadcasting System, no longer stands for anything. They're just corporate initials now." But the most thorough critique came from Bill Moyers, the former LBJ aide who had been hired away from PBS to be a commentator or "special correspondent" for the Evening News. Moyers, who had decided to leave the network, told Newsweek: "The line between entertainment and news was steadily blurred. . . . In meeting after meeting 'Entertainment Tonight' was touted as the model--breezy, entertaining, undemanding. In meeting after meeting the discussion was about 'moments'--visual images containing a high emotional quotient that are passed on to the viewer unfiltered and unexamined. . . . Pretty soon tax policy had to compete with three-legged sheep, and the three-legged sheep won. There were periods when I thought the British royal family had signed on as correspondents, so frequent were their appearances."

Moyers believed that CBS News had actually driven away viewers by treating them as "consumers instead of citizens." "When you don't respect their intelligence you lose them," he said. "Not the mass audience, but the critical audience that makes a difference in a tight competitive race. That's why we lost our big lead in the Evening News. Over the long run, the better journalistic outfit tends to win. That's what CBS used to believe."

It must have been frustrating for Moyers, perhaps the most serious journalist on television, to have had to count the three-legged sheep, but much as we can admire the sentiment, his contention that the "better journalistic outfit tends to win" needs to be examined. Was it really better journalism that allowed CBS News to win during the halcyon days, or was it winning that allowed CBS News to be serious? Walter Cronkite, it seems to me, was popular in large part because of his noble and reassuring presence. It so happened that he was a former wire service reporter who cared about good journalism, and high ratings allowed him to pursue his interest in public policy.

As McCabe reminds us, the lines between entertainment and news had always been a little blurry at CBS. When Cronkite hosted an earlier incarnation of the Morning News in the 50s, he had a gag writer and worked opposite a lion puppet named Charlemane. Cronkite's failure to make headway against NBC's Dave Garroway, who worked with a chimp named J. Fred Muggs, resulted in his replacement by Jack Paar, who in turn was replaced by Dick Van Dyke, who in turn was replaced by Will Rogers Jr.

Mike Wallace, it should also be remembered, started off as a game show host. He got his big journalistic break in 1965 when he was chosen to anchor the Morning News. Interestingly, in McCabe's book, Wallace figures as one of the old guard, the "ghosts of Murrow," who objected to the adulteration of news under the Sauter presidency. Yet watching Wallace on 60 Minutes, you can easily recognize a onetime game show host's sense of showmanship. The formula that 60 Minutes has followed with consistently high ratings over the years is to report hard-news stories in a way that is both entertaining and serious, or at least occasionally serious. (And that is, by the way, the legacy of Murrow--entertainment for the sake of occasional seriousness.)

Entertainment is part of what distinguishes TV news from newspaper news. The images are vivid and powerful; the experience is passive but more immediate. The content is often superficial compared to print, but there are additional dimensions--sight and sound--that can convey a sense of drama that words alone cannot. Good television news is well produced. Technically, it has much in common with good entertainment. In terms of form, Entertainment Tonight would not be a bad show to emulate. It's very tight. But there has to be a clear distinction between the content of Entertainment Tonight and the content of, say, West 57th. The danger is that networks have begun to lose the distinction between form and content, and to substitute the values of show business for the values of journalism. In that case, the line between entertainment and news is not blurred, it's erased.

Bad News at Black Rock: The Sell-out of CBS News by Peter McCabe, Arbor House, $17.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Richard Laurent.

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