Politics & Policy

The Cloud of Seriousness

Watching The CBS Evening News.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appeared in the October 23, 1987, issue of National Review.

The greasy, smothering cloud of unrelieved seriousness that hangs over network news in general and CBS in particular is a comparatively recent development in journalism. Try to imagine a newspaperman on the trail of a hot scoop and you invariably find yourself thinking of the cheerfully cynical manipulators of The Front Page or His Girl Friday. But from Edward R. Murrow to Walter Cronkite to 60 Minutes, the news division of CBS has devoted the bulk its vast energies to designing, erecting, and burnishing a myth of the anchorman as trenchcoated savior of the Republic.

#ad#These energies, interestingly enough, tend to soar in inverse proportion to reality. Murrow, some of whose work actually deserved to be taken seriously, was dropped by CBS because he made Bill Paley nervous. Cronkite became the most trusted man in America while operating a nightly headline service. 60 Minutes, a piece of diverting fluff thinly disguised as a news program, is treated as a journalistic institution so revered that its mighty correspondents cannot even be spared for ratings-boosting guest shots on the CBS Evening News.

Because of this myth, it was all but inevitable that CBS would tap Dan Rather for its flagship newscast when Walter Cronkite retired. Rather has long been one of the chief acolytes of the cloud of seriousness. Whatever he was like before, Watergate turned him into a puff adder of hubris. It also placed him high on conservative hit lists. But the really exasperating thing about Dan Rather is not that he is a fact-twisting liberal. It’s that he is a pompous buffoon who sincerely believes in the rectitude of the institution for which he works. Which is why what has happened to the CBS Evening News over the last few months has been so illuminating.

The boardroom coup that put Laurence Tisch in control of CBS last year was lustily cheered throughout the network’s news division. Regular announcements that the Murrow Era was back, bigger and better and nobler than ever, were issued on the quarter-hour. (Whenever a janitor is fired at CBS, the Murrow Era is either gone forever or back to stay, depending on whose press conference you catch.) The chief cheerleader was Dan Rather himself. “Larry Tisch looks to me to be a good man to ride the river with,’ Rather announced last September in a soggy burst of obsequiousness. “I like the look in his eye, the warmth of his handshake, and what he says about news.’

This remark suggests something of the way in which the cloud of seriousness shields those who inhabit it from the slippery, disagreeable details of life at the top. Television news, Dan Rather notwithstanding, is a tiny piece of a corporate enterprise whose sole purpose is to make money. During the Sixties, the entertainment division of CBS was making money hand over fist, and so the news division was treated as altruistic frosting on the cake, the ransom of respectability. But times have changed. Hypocritical executives who once paid smarmy lip service to the Murrow myth have now been replaced with cold-eyed profit-maximizers who couldn’t care less.

Larry Tisch, finding that his hirelings in the news division had been riding the river in stretch limousines, wound up giving two hundred superfluous employees the sack. Dan Rather’s next move was, to put it mildly, revealing. He broke simultaneously every rule in the corporate handbook by writing (or, some claim, merely signing) a piece for the New York Times op-ed page called “From Murrow to Mediocrity?’ Said Rather:

We take our public trust very seriously. It is why we are journalists in the first place. Our new chief executive officer, Laurence Tisch, told us when he arrived that he wanted us to be the best. We want nothing more than to fulfill that mandate. Ironically, he has now made the task seem something between difficult and impossible. I have said before that I have no intention of participating in the demise of CBS. But do the owners and officers of the new CBS see news as a trust . . . or only as a business venture?

Tisch’s response to this outrageous piece of nose-thumbing was characteristic. He did exactly nothing. He didn’t have to. Within a couple of weeks, the ratings of the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather slid ignominiously into the third-place cellar and stayed there. Tom Brokaw’s NBC Nightly News beat the socks off CBS week after week. Viewers, it seemed, had finally tired of Rather’s glib earnestness. By the end of the summer, “From Murrow to Mediocrity?’ was long forgotten. The rumor mill even had Diane Sawyer, the Veronica Lake of television news, joining Rather as coanchor in the fall and replacing him outright after the November elections.

This rumor was given an enormous jolt of credibility when Dan Rather bumbled into a matchlessly goofy fiasco. On the evening of September 13, Rather was anchoring CBS’s Sunday newscast. The sports division had been covering the U.S. Open all afternoon. A match between Lori McNeil and Steffi Graf was running long, and ratings-conscious network bigwigs warned Rather that the overtime would have to come out of his 6:30 broadcast. Infuriated by this edict, Rather stormed out of the studio right at 6:30. The match ended at 6:32. The entire Columbia Broadcasting System thereupon went black for seven minutes.

Most people would doubtless have taken this little peccadillo in their stride: So the network went black. Big deal. That’s what test patterns are for. Besides, Rather hotfooted it back to the studio and got on the air as soon as he realized that his childish tantrum had left CBS eyeless. But what did he do next? He issued a statement. “I would never, nor would anyone at CBS News ever think of deliberately allowing the network to go to black,’ Rather told a breathless America. “I do believe that the CBS Evening News is a public trust and will continue to do anything and everything to meet the responsibilities of that trust.’ Meanwhile, Larry Tisch played it cool. He called the blackout “unfortunate’ but said he wouldn’t “condemn’ anyone. For building confidence, this ranks right up there with a friendly peck on the cheek from Don Corleone.

The final irony of Dan Rather’s predicament, of course, is that the ratings of any evening news program are primarily determined by how well the rest of the network’s evening schedule is doing. The quality of the newscasts themselves is largely irrelevant. If you watch The Cosby Show, you’ll probably watch Tom Brokaw. NBC’s schedule last season was virtually invulnerable. Hence the decline of Dan Rather. The difference between the ratings of the three network news programs, in any case, is statistically trivial. Ratings matter to the networks only because they matter to the sponsors. The whole thing is an elaborate game scored on a balance sheet. Unfortunately, the rules are zero-sum.

All things considered, you’d think Dan Rather would have seen fit by now to pop his head out of the cloud of seriousness for a moment or two and start acting like a human being. Guess again. The folks at CBS recently suggested that he might want to tone down his clenched-teeth-and-methedrine delivery. Rather dutifully slowed his teleprompter to a crawl and spent a solid week snoozing on the air. The ratings remained in the toilet. So what did Rather do this time? He gave an interview. “I kept hearing that we should be laid back, homogenized, yuppieized, because that’s the fashion of the Eighties,” he told Tom Shales of the Washington Post. “I don’t know that to be true.’

For the moment, then, Dan Rather is back up to speed again, hopscotching the world for headlines, making a derailed milk train in Rhode Island sound like the end of civilization as we know it, desperately pretending that the way in which he earns his $ 2.5 million a year matters to someone besides Larry Tisch’s accountant. His ratings are even looking up. But Rather’s days are numbered all the same. Looking like a fool with the red light on, after all, is the first deadly sin of broadcast journalism. When Dan Rather committed it, the cloud of seriousness floated gently away, leaving him alone and unprotected and wondering, one suspects, why nobody takes him seriously any more.

Terry TeachoutMr. Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the critic-at-large of Commentary. Satchmo at the Waldorf, his 2011 play about Louis Armstrong, has been produced off Broadway and throughout America.

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