We've been eagerly watching the dust-up between Dan Rather and his former bosses at CBS. The fight began when Mr. Rather, appearing on Joe Scarborough's morning radio show, accused CBS of "dumbing down and tarting up the news," while claiming that his critique was not personally aimed at Katie Couric, who now sits in The Dan's old chair.
Network execs wasted little time in firing back at their long-time anchor, who worked at CBS News for 41 years. CBS President Les Moonves, who was instrumental in hiring Ms. Couric, said that Rather's remarks were "sexist." And Rick Kaplan, who recently returned to the network as executive producer of the CBS Evening News was even more blunt. Mr. Kaplan defended the program's hard-news focus, and took his own shot at Rather:
"I wish Dan was watching more closely," Kaplan said, adding: "A lot of people here are very disappointed with him. ... They went through some very dark days with Dan, and they don't like hearing that they're not doing the news. They damn well are."
The "dark days" was an obvious reference to Rather's discredited story on President Bush's air national guard service, which led to the cancellation of the news magazine 60 Minutes II (which aired the segment), and hastened his own exit from the CBS anchor chair.
What's behind this little spat? It's clear that Mr. Rather still has some hard feelings over his departure from the network. After the cancellation of 60 Minutes II and his departure from the Evening News, Rather became persona non grata at CBS News and was shown the door. It was quite a comedown for a man who had been the face of the network's news division for almost a quarter-century, and a sharp contrast to other high-profile "retirees" (such as Mike Wallace) who still maintain offices at the network and contribute occasional, high-profile reports. Mr. Rather is currently producing and fronting a news magazine for Mark Cuban's fledgling HDTV network, which attracts a minuscule audience.
On the other hand, there's also the possibility that network brass may be using the Rather flap to generate a little controversy, and attract a few more viewers for the Evening News. Bernard Goldberg, who knows the CBS news division as well as anyone, advanced that scenario on Sean Hannity's radio show yesterday. Mr. Goldberg believes that Rather's criticism is on target, although we would argue that the dumbing down/tarting up problem affects the media as a whole. Goldberg also argues that the Couric-led Evening News is an absolute disaster that is on the verge of failure. By keeping the Rather remarks alive for a few more news cycles, they hope that younger, female viewers will sample the Couric broadcast, in defiance of that mean, sexist Dan Rather.
Calling that a desperation strategy would be an understatement. But there's no doubt that the Evening News is in trouble. Less than one year into the Couric era, CBS's flagship newscast remains dead last in the ratings, and is attracting fewer viewers than it did when interim anchor Bob Schieffer was in the chair. After describing Rather's recent comments as sexist, Les Moonves also pleaded with viewers and critics to give Ms. Couric more time, noting that she's been on the job for only nine months. But industry analysts believe that time is already running out, and some speculate that Couric could leave the Evening News by the end of the year.
As for us, there's nothing more entertaining that a MSM feud, and we hope that Rather, Kaplan and Mooves can sustain this one for a few more days. As Mr. Goldberg observed yesterday, the fight is made more enjoyable by the blatant hypocrisy of all participants. Moonves offered praise for Rather when he was forced out at CBS, and at the Emmy Awards in 2006, Rick Kaplan said The Dan "set the gold standard" for broadcast journalists.
And, lest we forget, the man who is accusing his old network of "dumbing down and sexing up the news" is the same guy who once hosted a show called "48 Hours Mysteries," a rehashing of sensational and lurid murder cases. So much for the gold standard.