Former TV anchor Dan Rather has thrown down the gauntlet in front of his former employer, CBS Television. In a recent interview on MSNBC, Rather said the network had made a serious error in “dumbing down and tarting up” its evening news program with Katie Couric. The use of the term “tarting up” was interpreted by many – including American Women in Radio and Television – as a direct slam at Couric and an example of sexist comments by Rather.

Before running off in all directions with a “he said, she said” approach to Rather’s remarks, keep in mind that Rather, as news anchor, had been publicly, though justifiably, disciplined for his role in a bungled news series about President Bush’s service in the National Guard. Thereafter, Rather was treated rather shabbily by CBS and its president, Les Moonves. Rather’s final months with a now hostile network have been described as “severance by a thousand cuts.”

Rather, though not fired, was taken off the air and replaced by Bob Schieffer, a veteran correspondent who was then considering retirement. Rather was given a small office at the end of the hall, a desk, a telephone, and not much else, including news assignments. After about a year of this inauspicious treatment he resigned. When he left, the CBS news division was described as “split in two.”

Earlier, CBS also treated its iconic news anchor, Walter Cronkite, in a similar manner. Although Cronkite committed no wrong, and was considered a devoted worker in the style of Edward R. Murrow, CBS gave him the “bum’s rush” in order to place Rather in the anchor chair expeditiously. And if you listen closely to the introduction to the “CBS Evening News with Katie Couric,” it is the voice of Cronkite, not a staff announcer, introducing her. Is that humbling or what? To paraphrase Harry Truman, if you want a friend at CBS, get a dog.

So Rather witnessed his replacement in the form of a popular, attractive “cutsie pootsie” female named Katie Couric. In addition to thousands of photos everywhere, showing her dynamite smile, there is even a website devoted to showing Couric’s crossed legs whenever she was photographed during a Today Show interview. The site still receives hundreds of hits daily. Not long after she took over the anchor spot on the “CBS Evening News,” the program plummeted into a distant third place in the ratings race. In fact, at one point the newscast was the least-watched news program on television in twenty years. Les Moonves rushed to the defense of his prodigy, saying she had been on the air for only nine months and that she deserved a break, and an end to the carping, especially from the likes of Rather.

Rather then turned his criticism to Moonves, saying, “This doesn’t have anything to do with Katie. It has to do with Moonves, who may know something about entertainment, but nothing about news.” Rather’s problem with CBS’s journalism philosophy is apparently nothing new. “In the last years that I was the anchor of the broadcast, the corporate leadership of CBS didn’t know what hard news is supposed to be – not then, not now,” he said.

Whatever his qualifications, Moonves correctly observed that most of those watching the news were older Americans, and that almost all advertisers desire a younger demographic, a more youthful audience to whom it can expose its products. While the concept is valid, it remains to be seen whether younger viewers will become news junkies simply because Couric is cast as more upbeat and entertaining than the other network anchors. CBS has called on producer Rick Kaplan to salvage the evening news, a show that Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales has described as “filled with squishy gimmicks.”

What remains to be seen is whether it is Couric or Moonves who ultimately suffers. CBS Television might go the way of many local TV stations and most radio stations, and give news only a passing glance, if that. After all, the Federal Communications Commission no longer requires the commitment to news by station owners that it once did. Couric could survive in some sort of an amalgam of fluffy, happy news and occasional hard news documentaries. As for Moonves, he doesn’t have too many people above him with the power to eliminate his job. And Rather, now 75, is hosting a weekly hourlong news show on HDNet. If he has saved only a small portion of his paychecks over the past four decades, he should be able to live out the remainder of his years in comfort and peace. Well, maybe not peace.

– Chase.Hamil

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