News Articles

Behind the Smiles at CBS

12/12/2004 07:00:00 PM Eastern

The CBS brass all had on their cheery game faces at the annual holiday
party the network throws for the press in its New York headquarters. But
despite all the bonhomie in Studio 19 Dec. 9, everybody knew there was an
unsmiling 800-pound gorilla in the room: the report expected to be issued any
day now by the investigation into the discredited 60
Minutes
report by Dan Rather on George Bush's National Guard
service. Whatever the investigative panel's ultimate findings, it's clear
that CBS News is already in the midst of an upheaval; a lot of jockeying went
on at the party, and it wasn't just for refills at the bar.

In one corner of the room, when 60
Minutes
correspondent Scott Pelley knelt down to chat with Walter
Cronkite, who was sitting in a chair, it looked for all the world like Pelley
was seeking Uncle Walter's blessing. The polished Pelley, a dark-horse
candidate to replace Rather when he departs CBS Evening
News
, worked the room like a veteran politician throughout the
night. However, he may have appeared too eager with so many bigwigs in
attendance, including CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves. Especially since folks at
the party were still buzzing over Pelley's quotes in the
New York Observer on Dec. 6, which sounded
like open lobbying for the job. It didn't go over well with the
powers-that-be at CBS. Pelley's prime in-house rival, White House
correspondent John Roberts, skipped the pigs-in-a blankets and booze-drenched
affair.

But CBS This Morning co-host Harry
Smith, who'd like the Evening News job,
did make it to the event and amiably chatted up network brass and reporters
alike. “Harry has more talent than just about anybody here,” said one CBS
executive. “If he had John Roberts' hair, instead of a bald pate, he'd be
a shoo-in.”

CBS News President Andrew Heyward was there, too. Though a favorite of
his boss Moonves, he's the subject of increasing speculation that the
investigation's report will cost him his job. Floating near by, deep in
conversation, were 60 Minutes executive
producer Jeff Fager and 48 Hours executive
producer Susan Zirinsky. Both are leading candidates to replace Heyward if he
gets the axe.

Rather himself turned up at the party, after the Evening News broadcast, and left early. Pals say he is
relieved that the date of his exit from the anchor chair has been settled, but
he's still holding on to the improbable dream that the dubious documents used
in his Bush/National Guard report will somehow be authenticated.

He's not the only one. Just the day before the party, Mary Mapes, the
producer of the infamous segment, was hauled back before the investigative
team, which is led by former Associated Press President and CEO Lou Boccardi
and former Reagan and Bush I Attorney General Richard Thornburgh. The panel,
which includes lawyers from Thornburgh's law firm, has been digging into the
documents affair for two months. Its members wanted to revisit Mapes'
previous statements to the group, particularly in light of a 60-plus-page
defense of the 60 Minutes piece that the
producer delivered to the investigators. Many inside CBS are suspicious of the
panel's impartiality. There's a sense that Boccardi is “a journalistic
fig leaf,” as one insider claims, and that it's the conservative Thornburgh
leading the charge. Buzz at the party indicated that CBS' legal bill for the
investigation could top $1 million.

In the center of Studio 19, Moonves was characteristically off-the-cuff
on just about every subject—except the Bush/National Guard
60 Minutes fiasco. Flying high on CBS'
recent sweeps victory, he fielded a question about what he likes best about his
relatively new job as co-COO of CBS parent Viacom. “The money,” he said.
“It seems the higher up you go, the more you get away from the fun stuff,
like the programming and you get all caught up in the grownup stuff.”

Some more grownup stuff awaits Moonves. The decisions he makes in the
aftermath of the report and the announcement of Rather's departure will have
a profound impact on the future of a once-storied news division, from
determining who will sit in the anchor chair of its flagship newscast to who
will lead the news division out of its current crisis. No, that can't be much
fun.

E-mail comments to
bcrobinsreport@reedbusiness.com

September
October