America needs a TV counterpart to the New York Times, a newscast with credible, in-depth reporting and real bite. Dan Rather pledges he’ll create that, with a tiny cable network as his outlet. Couric and Co., with a much bigger megaphone, sound alarmingly complacent.
The fates of Dan Rather and Katie Couric are intertwined now. Or, at least it has seemed so for the past week as they vied for attention. Couric went on a six-city “listening tour” to find out what real Americans think she ought to be reporting when she ascends to the anchor desk of the CBS Evening News on Sept. 5 and she ended up yesterday before the TV critics and reporters massed at the Ritz-Carlton in Pasadena.
Rather was at the press event several days earlier to announce his new gig on Mark Cuban’s HDNet: Dan Rather Reports, a weekly hour that he says will be filled with a rare commodity in TV, hard-edged, investigative reporting.
Although it may not seem so, as a journalist, Rather is in a far, far better place than Couric. Backed by Cuban’s fortune and his apparent willingness to mix it up, Rather has the opportunity to live the reporter’s dream—going for the story without corporate, political or advertiser pressures or constraints.
Now, it is true that HDNet is far, far away from CBS. Most have never even heard of the cable/satellite network, let alone watched it. To date, it has been distinguished only by the prettiness of its high-def pictures. It is a non-factor in news.
But if Rather comes up with some news, everybody will hear about it. It will be picked up by wire services, newspapers and TV news outlets and it will echo throughout the Internet. Of course, that’s part of the reason Cuban became Rather’s patron, to bring attention to HDNet.
Rather’s mission is clear. He’s going after the biggest stories as aggressively as he can. “I’m not going to be bullied or intimidated,” he told the reporters in Pasadena. “I’m not going to back up, back down or back away to meet your partisan, political or ideological agenda.”
Big talk. To make it real, he has a lot to do between now and October when the first hour is set to air. He’s got to assemble a team of producers and come up with some stories with some real pop. He says he will be going after some folks at CBS News.
But he also says he will search beyond CBS. I hope he does. I hope he and Cuban collect every attack-dog investigative reporter in the country and set them to work afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. America needs that right now. America needs a television counterpart to the New York Times, a newscast with credible, in-depth reporting and real bite.
I’m not sure what Couric was trying to accomplish on her tour last week. If it was to promote her show, then that’s OK. The better her ratings, the more freedom she will have to do the stories she wants to do, the better able she will be to resist pressure from above. Bean counters tend to leave alone the people who are bringing in a lot of beans.
But to the extent Couric was actually trying to figure out what to cover on the Evening News, it’s alarming. It suggests that, unlike Rather, she doesn’t know what she wants to accomplish other than producing a good TV show that attracts a big audience.
You don’t do big-time journalism by focus group. And CBS News is big time, or at least it’s supposed to be. It is supposed to be on the front lines of the biggest issues confronting America today—terrorism, Iraq, energy, civil liberties, global warming, economic and social justice. That’s certainly where Rather intends to be.
On the tour last week, Couric and her executive producer Rome Hartman seemed principally concerned with reassuring everybody that they would not be making radical changes. “It’s going to be an evolution, not a revolution,” Couric told reporters in Clearwater, Fla., last Monday before her first town hall meeting. “We’re going to make some changes. But we’re not going to alter it so radically that people are going to be like, ‘Oh my God, what is this?'”
That’s too bad because right now the CBS Evening News isn’t particularly compelling. It’s gone a little soft without the likes of Rather and producer Mary Mapes around. Couric and Hartman should be out there promising to shake things up, to make news by breaking news. They should be putting every arrogant politician and every overstuffed CEO on notice. Their goal should be to alter the newscast so radically that people are going to be like, “Oh, my God, what a great news organization.”
On the contrary, CBS News President Sean McManus, who appeared with Couric at the Pasadena press conference, essentially told the world yesterday not to expect great journalism from CBS News. He said his “number-one goal” this fall is to capture a larger share of the evening news audience. And then he said this: “I think the product that we will put on will first and foremost be a really intelligent, journalistically sound summary of the news of the day, which is our first obligation.”
A summary of the news of the day. Well, that ought to sell some newspapers. With that attitude, it’s no wonder the evening newscasts are fading into oblivion.
While Rather was declaring his independence from corporate influence over the content of the news, McManus declared it was “non-existent.” There is not an influence from corporate America or specifically from the corporations for which we all work, whether it’s Disney or CBS or General Electric, he said. “If it happens, I haven’t seen it in the seven months I’ve been doing this job.” Somebody buy this man a ticket to Good Night, and Good Luck.
At their press conference, Rather and Cuban showed similar signs of naivete or self delusion. Rather said he will have “the ultimate responsibility and accountability” for everything he broadcasts. At CBS, he said he had to answer to a bunch of execs. “Now, the difference here is that the chain of command begins and ends with me.”
He cannot possibly believe that. It’s Mark Cuban’s network. He’s paying the bills. And he has the ultimate responsibility. If Rather libels somebody, who do you think is going to get sued?
Cuban didn’t contradict Rather. If he doesn’t think he is in charge, just wait. He said the right-wing Rather haters all found his e-mail address and “they’re already worn out.”Ãƒâ€šÃ‚Â No, Mark, they are just getting started. If Rather reports the weather, you’ll hear about it. And if Rather reports anything seriously critical of the Bush administration or the Republican party, you’ll find yourself in the middle of a firestorm. People will be out to destroy you just as they have tried to destroy Rather.
Cuban thinks he knows controversy because he yells at referees during basketball games. Karl Rove and Dick Cheney are not David Stern. And like it or not, when he hired Rather, he became a political figure. He became a target.
Cuban reminds me of Ted Turner. Like Turner, Cuban is a cocky, but charismatic guy without journalistic credentials who thinks he can do anything, including turning TV news on its head. Let’s hope he shares another of Turner’s attributes: courage.
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