behind the news

TV News Gone Soft?!

Rather’s ‘wake-up call’ could have been made twenty years ago
June 15, 2007

Another controversy swirling around Dan Rather? Maybe. But this time, his insights into the future of journalism—and what, in fact, is real news—are most timely. The hoopla began after Rather’s interview with MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough on Monday, in which he said that CBS is “dumbing down and tarting up” its evening news broadcast with Katie Couric. Rather asserted that the network—not the “nice” Katie Couric, made the mistake—“to try to bring the ‘Today Show’ ethos to the ‘Evening News…’ in hopes of attracting a younger audience.” Newspapers and bloggers picked up on the story, which spread far and wide on the Web.

Ann Althouse, a blogger and University of Wisconsin law professor, charged that “sexism” was at the heart of Rather’s comments:

“I don’t like the dumbing down of the news, but I see…feminist issues. Is Rather insinuating that having a ‘female’ newscaster is part of the process of ‘tarting up’ the news? I know he doesn’t precisely make that connection, but, to me, it’s just glaring that the word ‘tart’means ‘prostitute.’ How on earth does it matter what ‘time’ the news is on? If something is wrong for the evening news, why isn’t it just as wrong for the morning news? I think what is unstated is that only women are watching those morning ‘shows’, so the standards are lower. We don’t even call the evening news a “show,” do we? It’s not a ‘show,’ it’s a ‘program!’”

In response, Rather differentiates between substantive, serious nightly newscasts and the lighter, feel-good morning shows featuring gardening tips, summer salad recipes, and Sopranos wrap-ups.
But Leslie Moonves, CBS’s CEO, agreed with Althouse, calling Rather’s comments “sexist” and partly to blame for Couric’s lackluster ratings (in fact, a twenty-year low for CBS Evening News). “I’m sort of surprised by the vitriol against her. The number of people who don’t want news from a woman was startling,” Moonves said.

In response to Moonves’ criticism, Rather appeared on FOX News to defend his earlier remarks. He immediately went on the offensive to discredit Moonves for his conflict of interest as CBS’s chief and entertainment guru. A telling exchange with host David Asman:

Sign up for CJR's daily email

“RATHER: He [Moonves] is head of CBS News.

ASMAN: He’s head of the whole thing…


ASMAN: … both entertainment and news. And you think the lines between the two are disappearing?

RATHER: I think they have disappeared.”

A powerful statement from a veteran newsman. Rather continued, “They [network directors] don’t know what hard news is, the top corporate leadership. They know about entertainment, but they don’t know about news.”

Rather also released a statement through HDNet, clarifying his criticism of CBS:

“This is not about Katie Couric. Never has been. It has NOTHING to do with gender. I find it disappointing and insidious that Les Moonves would try to mask the real point with that line of attack. Plenty of women have made incredible sacrifices in the name of hard news. Just look at the record of CBS News Correspondent Kimberly Dozier for one. This is not about gender, this is about leadership at the very top of CBS. They started weakening the role of hard news at the network long before Katie arrived there. Les Moonves started talking about “naked news” — a comment that should live in infamy. He talked about ‘blowing up’ CBS News and suggested that the landmark journalistic work of Edward R. Murrow should be de-emphasized. Moonves has weakened the News Division at CBS News since he took over.”

Even right-wing media watchdog “Newsbusters” noted Rather’s “fair point” in “vociferously derid[ing] the media’s obsession with celebrities, in particular the hyperbolic coverage of the Paris Hilton affair.”

Washington Post columnist Tom Shales put it best:

“Even critics of Rather would have to admit he has always stood, firmly and stubbornly, for hard news over fluff and for integrity in the newsroom. Rather isn’t being alarmist when he wonders what will happen to a nation addicted to fake news, celebrity gossip and pop-star prattle — when people abandon the very virtue of being informed and instead insist on constant titillation from TV, cable and little gadgets they carry around in their hands… Diplomatically or not this week, Rather was trying to contribute to that wake-up call with his remarks.”

Rather is arguing that there is an assault on the core of journalism: hard news. True enough, but he (and everyone else who is opining about this kerfuffle) should be intellectually honest enough to acknowledge that that assault—in TV news especially—began years ago, when Rather was still in the mix.

Alexander Heffner is an intern at CJR.