• U.S.

Press: Discord in the House of Murrow

5 minute read
James Kelly

The conversation surely ranks as one of the oddest in the annals of broadcast journalism. During lunch at a Manhattan restaurant two weeks ago, Don Hewitt, executive producer of 60 Minutes, asked CBS Broadcast Group President Gene Jankowski a question. Would the company ever consider selling CBS News? If so, said Hewitt, he and several of the division’s brightest stars, including Dan Rather, Diane Sawyer, Mike Wallace, Morley Safer and Bill Moyers, would like to buy it. “I told him CBS News is not for sale. It never was, never is,” recalls Jankowski. “I didn’t take it seriously.”

Hewitt, concerned about recent CBS takeover attempts by Ted Turner and a right-wing group called Fairness in Media, says he was only trying to protect the news division from possible meddling by ideologues and corporate raiders. Yet some CBS staffers contend that Hewitt was implicitly taking a swipe at the team of Van Gordon Sauter, executive vice president of the CBS Broadcast Group, and Edward Joyce, president of CBS News. Though Hewitt denies that Sauter and Joyce were his targets, many CBS employees blame the duo for low morale within the division. At the same time, an internal struggle is being waged over how CBS News should be run and the way news should be presented. For some veterans, nothing less is at stake than the legacy of CBS Icon Edward R. Murrow. Says a long-term CBS correspondent: “The issue is what kind of product ought to be going out in the name of CBS News.”

Morale suffered its greatest blow last month when 125 news positions were eliminated and 74 employees were dismissed. The cutbacks followed CBS’s decision in August not to renew the contract of Supreme Court Correspondent Fred Graham, who reportedly earned $250,000 a year. The reductions, which affected 10% of the 1,250-member staff, were designed to help pare $6 million from the division’s estimated $225 million budget. Though the savings were part of a company-wide austerity program put into effect after CBS bought back 21% of its own stock for nearly $1 billion last summer, some news personnel felt that Sauter and Joyce should have fought to keep their department immune. Others were upset over how the firings were managed. “People were out at work in the morning, were told to come in, clear out their desks and not come back ever,” says a Washington correspondent.

For many staffers, the firings underscored their fear that the loyalties of Sauter, 50, and Joyce, 52, no longer belong to the news division but to Black Rock, the nickname for CBS Inc.’s Manhattan headquarters. According to their critics, the two men have their feet firmly on the corporate ladder and are eager to advance upward. Though both spent much of their careers as journalists (Sauter worked as a newspaperman for nine years, while Joyce began as a radio reporter), they made their reputations in management positions. Sauter served as the network’s chief censor and head of the sports division before becoming president of CBS News in 1982, while Joyce served as general manager of several CBS-owned television stations. When Sauter moved to his present post in 1983, Joyce took over as president.

The two men are also responsible for changing the way CBS handles the news. Washington coverage has been cut back to make room for more featurish stories from around the nation. Graphics have grown flashier, segments faster paced. Whether these developments should be cheered or booed depends on which staffer is asked. For many critics, the Sauter-Joyce news approach was symbolized by West 57th, a briskly edited magazine show with four young hosts and a predilection for pieces about rock stars and religious cults. Some veterans, including Hewitt, publicly castigated the show, though a few early doubters admit that the program grew better during its six-week run last summer. Now on a planned hiatus, West 57th is due back on the air at year’s end.

Some critics within CBS detect a subtler failing, a vague sense that their division no longer represents the vanguard of broadcast journalism. “We don’t have a Nightline, we don’t have a morning news show that goes to Moscow [as NBC’s Today did last year],” says a CBS correspondent. Few changes gall staffers as much as the fate of the CBS Morning News, the perennial also-ran among the three network breakfast programs but the one that presented the most substantive news. To boost ratings, Sauter approved the hiring of Phyllis George, the former Miss America whose flubs finally led to her ouster in August. Though the program now is steered by the competent Forrest Sawyer and Maria Shriver, it is a pale imitation of Today and Good Morning America and still runs a miserable third.

Joyce acknowledges that the Morning News “got off track” but defends the current version. Though he admits that previous CBS News presidents protected their staffs better, he argues that CBS Inc. never before had such financial troubles. “It’s totally understandable that there should be pain in the aftermath of the layoffs,” Joyce says. “It was a terrible process but one we had to go through.” As for the complaints about news coverage, Sauter blames “naysayers who have negative feelings about almost anything that has taken place over the past four years.”

Even the harshest in-house critics cannot argue with the numbers: the CBS Evening News remains the highest-rated of the three network shows. And if the network’s star attraction, Dan Rather, is unhappy with management (as some insiders contend), he says only nice things about his bosses in public and obviously approves of how the Evening News has evolved. To a certain degree, all three networks’ news divisions are victims of success. Once revenue losers, they started to make big money within the past decade and thus began to be treated more like businesses. Profits, for better or for worse, were something Edward R. Murrow never had to worry about. –By James Kelly. Reported by Barry Kalb/New York

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