Whither CBS News?

Jim Geraghty maps out the possibilities for CBS News after the final report comes out on Rathergate:

CBS could go one of three routes from this point. One, they could try to clean up their act, stop behaving as if their job is to drive President Bush from office, cover viewpoints beyond the left, and attempt to break up the groupthink that has calcified their news judgment.
Two, they could define themselves as the left-of-center news channel, and aim for the blue state audience. Instead of trying to prevent bias, they could embrace it, and make it part of their brand identity. “CBS News: The channel that progressives prefer.”
Three, they could define themselves as the tabloid news channel, rushing things to air without checking, and intentionally eroding their standards for accuracy in the name of being first. They could be one part supermarket checkout line tabloid, one part Drudge, one part Wonkette, one part British Fleet Street scandal sheet.

The third is obviously somewhat tongue in cheek, especially for a deep-pocketed broadcast network. I agree that CBS can and should make a clear decision as to which way the Evening News goes: try to build a new reputation for evenhandedness, or embrace the Left the way FOX has embraced the Right. On the other hand, the departure of Rather, who after all brought this story on himself in his capacity as a 60 Minutes II correspondent rather than as Evening News anchor, offers a third way: start splitting the brand, letting 60 Minutes and 60 Minutes II go their way as crusading liberal newsmagazines, while attempting to play it straight on the Evening News. This can work in the newspaper business – the Wall Street Journal has had success with both a highly ideological opinion page (which hires its own reporters) and a news section with a high reputation for evenhandedness and balance. Would it work in TV? If CBS tries to rebrand itself as a network that distinguishes between a balanced newscast and an openly left-wing newsmagazine, of course, the network would have to decide which side of the line they want to dominate the morning show, the coverage of big events like the conventions (where FOX, for example, has prospered by stacking its panels with conservative commentators who draw in right-leaning viewers). Splitting the two sides makes some sense: while the Evening News has floundered in the ratings, 60 Minutes remains healthy and can profit by enlarging its reputation as a vocal critic of all things Bush (although they might do well to stop shilling books sold by Viacom).
I’ve also got an outside-the-box suggestion for Rather’s replacement: CNN Headline News anchor, technology reporter and former Tech TV anchor Erica Hill. Hill would bring a number of advantages to the anchor position. First, and most obviously, she’s drop-dead gorgeous, better-looking than most of the actresses on CBS’ prime-time schedule, let alone in the news business. That never hurts in the ratings department, and before you gripe about looks as a job qualification, remind me again why Brian Williams is succeeding Tom Brokaw, and why John Roberts has been mentioned as a replacement for Rather: first and foremost because they are big, good-looking guys with reassuring voices. Let’s not pretend otherwise.
But there are other women on TV who could look good reading the news; what’s additionally noteworthy about Hill is her background as a tech reporter. If you’ve seen her reports on CNN, she clearly comes off as someone who understands and enjoys new technologies and, frankly, spends a lot of time on the internet; she’s been reporting for months on the influence of blogs and the internet on campaigns. That’s precisely the fresh perspective towards newsgathering that CBS badly needs. I don’t know how smart she is – her bio says she’s a summa cum laude graduate of BU, which is nothing to sneeze at – but she comes off as intelligent on the air, which is important.
Granted, there would be internal resistance at CBS to bringing in someone with minimal experience (she can’t be more than 30 years old, and looks younger than that), although again, the CNN bio does say she anchored the now-defunct Tech TV’s on-air coverage all day on September 11, which is a real baptism of fire for any anchor. And maybe shaking things up would be a good in itself, sending a message that the way things have always been is part of the problem and bringing in someone not so set in her ways that she can’t take the program in new directions. In any event, part of CBS’ problem, even above and beyond bias, is age: Rather and Bob Schieffer and Mike Wallace . . . these guys are fossils, and whatever their other virtues they can’t be expected to connect with younger viewers or change with the times. Maybe CBS, with an older-skewing audience, is happy with that dynamic, but it’s unsustainable long-term. A young, fresh-faced anchor would change all that. With Brokaw leaving, there will be a window of opportunity for a new anchor to capture market share if CBS can make a splash. Erica Hill in Dan Rather’s chair would make a splash.
UPDATE: You can catch a flavor of Hill’s style with her online “Hot Wired” columns at CNN.com here (from January, discussing campaign blogs), here (marveling that she could survive a few days without internet access) and here (discussing procrastinating online).

9 thoughts on “Whither CBS News?”

  1. I heard some talk about CBS wanting to pry away Tim Russert. Another very good option, to the extent this really matters at all, would be Lester Holt from MSNBC.

  2. A couple of issues here.
    First, CBS promoted Rather quickly because he was young, and look where it got them.
    Second, the problem with picking an attractive woman is that, at least as society sees it, women age more quickly. With an anchor, you want someone who radiates stability, which means you want a familiar face who will be around for a good long time.
    Making a splash is one thing, but picking your anchor should be about more than temporary ratings.

  3. Going after Russert is a good idea, particularly in light of Scheiffer’s age, but I can’t see the logic behind making him an anchor – he’s the best by far at what he does, which is interviews.
    Rather was almost 50 at the time. I think the careers of Jane Pauley, Barbara Walters, Katie Couric, Diane Sawyer and Paula Zahn suggest that women can have long careers in the news business, even when good looks were a big part of what got them in the door in the first place (well, I’m not so sure about that in Walters’ case). Here in NY, the WNBC co-anchor team of Chuck Scarborough and Sue Simmons has been together for 20-25 years, and she hasn’t aged any more visibly than he has.

  4. I would add that, if you listen to people like Peggy Noonan, who know him well, part of Rather’s problem was that he was not terribly well-educated and insecure around the East Coast elite. Bringing in someone who’s young isn’t a problem in that regard if they don’t have the same insecurities.

  5. Three, they could define themselves as the tabloid news channel, rushing things to air without checking, and intentionally eroding their standards for accuracy in the name of being first. They could be one part supermarket checkout line tabloid, one part Drudge, one part Wonkette, one part British Fleet Street scandal sheet.
    One problem with approach 3. Fox news already has this niche covered and nobody does it better.

  6. TechTV was sold to Comcast and merged with their tech-centric gaming network G4. So while TechTV may be defunct, you can still catch most of it’s programming on the new network.
    I think John Roberts is the obvious choice here. His looks are probably what have gotten him so far, but he does have a decent journalistic background. I think he’s been excellent as White House correspondent over the past few years.

  7. Newsmagazines are, more or less by definition, likely to have an ideological slant of some sort, since investigative journalism is their stock-in-trade. What CBS should do with 60 Minutes is simply enforce better quality control – getting some younger blood on the shows would help, as well, but there isn’t really any need to suddenly steer the show in a new political direction.
    It is not a good idea to have a nightly news anchor who people see as highly partisan, though. Jennings and Brokaw, while they certainly hold political views, generally manage to keep them less obvious than those of others at their networks, and that just plays better. That’s one reason why Rather, despite some real gifts as a reporter, was never really a great choice to be an anchor in the first place.

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