Rather Silly Debate

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Virtually nobody looked good in the dustup last week between CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves and Dan Rather over Katie Couric and the state of network news. Not Rather, currently toiling for HDNet, nor Moonves, nor the supporting players, from CBS Evening News Executive Producer Rick Kaplan to American Women In Radio and Television (AWRT) President Maria E. Brennan. Indeed, the only party in this whole overblown media drama who came out of it with any class was Couric, who wisely kept silent.

Rather started the mess last week when he went on Joe Scarborough's WFAN(AM)/MSNBC simulcast show and charged that, under the direction of Moonves, CBS News was more about entertainment than about journalism that matters: The news had become “tarted up” and “dumbed down.”

Moonves is usually wise enough not to get dragged into this kind of pissing match. But while speaking at the Syracuse University Newhouse School of Communications series in New York, he went after Rather and charged his remarks as “sexist.” Ever loyal, Kaplan seconded his uber-boss' opinion and claimed that women throughout the ranks of CBS News were outraged over Rather's choice of words. Adding to the chorus of condemnation was AWRT's Brennan, who said she had never heard the word “tart” in reference to the male gender.

That same day, Rather went on Fox News to defend himself and keep his name in boldface. In no way was he putting down Couric, he explained. He was taking aim at the news business itself. Rather's target was Moonves, the guy who had deposed him in the wake of a botched piece about George W. Bush's questionable National Guard service during the Vietnam War.

Once everybody stopped taking potshots at each other, several things became clear. First, Rather's claim that Couric's newscast had gone softer than when he helmed it for more than 20 years—or for that matter, softer than ABC World News with Charles Gibson or the NBC Nightly News—simply isn't true. It may have been when Couric had her notoriously rocky start, but since Kaplan took over last March, it's essentially the same hard newscast that has been the bailiwick of these operations for years.

One thing I agree with Rather on is that his remarks weren't sexist in the least. I'd ask Moonves, Kaplan, Brennan and that whole crowd to check the definition of “tart up.” In my edition of Webster's, it's a genderless expression that means to “clothe, furnish or decorate in a showy and often cheap way.” Like the word “prostitute,” it becomes genderless when used as a verb. Indeed, as noted on TVNewser.com, the curmudgeonly Rather used the same expression in 2001, while still ensconced at the CBS Evening News, complaining about the state of network journalism on the PBS NewsHour With Jim Lehrer.

I'm not campaigning for William Safire's New York Times Magazine “On Language” column. I simply think there's too much at stake here in the discussion of “where goes news of substance” for it to get lost in empty bromides and sloppy attempts at takedowns on all sides of this ugly dustup. It's important for there to be substantive dialogue about the news business and the impact of bottom-line pressure on quality, fairness, accuracy and diversity—just to name a few key issues—instead of mucking up the works with name-calling and self-promotion.

E-mail comments to bcrobins@reedbusiness.com

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