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Andy Rooney: The Return of a Curmudgeon

3 minute read
Richard Zoglin

Television is one of those peculiar institutions (professional sports is another) where the underlings often wield more clout than their bosses. The faces onscreen, after all, are what count for the audience, not the faceless executives who ostensibly hire and fire them. David Burke, president of CBS News, found that out the hard way, when he suspended 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney last month for allegedly making offensive remarks about blacks and homosexuals. The uproar over the suspension was instant and unrelenting. Thousands of complaints from viewers poured in to CBS. Press critics chided the network for trampling on Rooney’s free-speech rights. CBS colleagues, most notably 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt, lobbied on Rooney’s behalf.

Last week the boss capitulated. With just three weeks of the three-month suspension completed, Burke reinstated Rooney. “Painful though these events have been,” said Burke in a press release, “we have all learned a great deal about how sensitive and fragile our society is . . . how deeply people and groups can be hurt if great care is not taken in conducting public discourse.” Rooney was back on the air Sunday night with a comment about the controversy.

Rooney’s troubles stemmed from remarks attributed to him in a gay magazine, The Advocate. He was quoted as saying that blacks had “watered down their genes because the less intelligent ones are the ones that have the most children.” In a letter published in the same issue, Rooney expressed his distaste for homosexuality in blunt and ill-informed terms. Rooney denied making the racist remarks. But insiders say it was the letter — which was sent without Burke’s approval — that was most responsible for the suspension.

The campaign for Rooney’s reinstatement was fierce. Hewitt even posted a memo at CBS headquarters blaming a dip in 60 Minutes’ ratings on Rooney’s absence. A much more important factor: last week ABC scheduled the hit show America’s Funniest Home Videos opposite it. Though Burke did not elaborate on the reasons for his change of heart, Rooney was quick to attribute it to “the preponderance of public opinion.” Says he: “It took a lot of courage to do what ((Burke’s)) done.”

Burke may need more than courage to survive in his increasingly hazardous job. Rumors swirled last week that the CBS News chief, who was named to the position in August 1988 after eleven years at ABC, was about to resign. In the corridors of CBS News, Burke was criticized not only for his handling of the Rooney affair but also for his aloof and uncommunicative management style. (Burke, head of one of the nation’s leading news organizations, routinely turns down all press interviews.) He is also under pressure to reverse the ratings slide of the CBS Evening News. Yet CBS sources last week discounted reports that Burke’s job was in jeopardy. CBS Broadcast Group chief Howard Stringer praised Burke for dealing with “a delicate and complicated issue with thoughtfulness and strength. He has my and this company’s full support.”

Amid all the ruckus, Rooney should be happy to return to his weekly musings on trivia like junk mail and vacuum cleaners. And how contrite is the curmudgeonly commentator? “I’m furious about the race issue,” he says. “As for homosexual insensitivity, I suspect I’m guilty.” His reinstatement proved at least two things. Insensitivity to homosexuals is a pardonable offense, even at the skittish networks. And TV executives should think twice before tangling with a star.

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