Dan Rather appeared on FNC’s Your World today and responded to stinging comments by CBS President Leslie Moonves. Transcript follows… (Photo credit: AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
UPDATE: YouTube has the video…
DAVIS ASMAN, GUEST HOST: Well, CBS News chief Les — CBS chief, actually, Les Moonves, blasting comments by Dan Rather about his successor, Katie Couric, today. Rather described the network’s changes to the “Evening News” as — quote — “dumbing it down and tarting it up” in a bid to attract a younger audience.
Today, Moonves calls those segments — comments sexist.
So, what does Dan Rather say? Let’s ask him.
Dumbing it down, tarting it up, referring to Katie Couric, that is tough talk.
DAN RATHER, FORMER CBS NEWS ANCHOR: Well, it’s tough talk about the news. Look, this is not about Katie Couric. It’s nothing to do with her gender. Anybody who reads what I wrote and what I said knows that that is true.
ASMAN: But I think Les Moonves was dealing with that “tart it up” comment.
ASMAN: Do you regret having said that?
RATHER: No. I was asked my opinion. I did not bring it up. I was asked my opinion. And I said what I genuinely feel.
But it does not have to do with gender. What he is trying to do is change the subject. And I find it insulting, and I find it disappointing — that’s a better word, disappointing — that Les Moonves, who knows a lot about entertainment, would try to mask the real point with that line of attack.
ASMAN: And what was the real point?
RATHER: Well, the real point was that, first of all, plenty of women have made it on television and made it in news. Kimberly Dozier, who works for CBS News, and was injured very seriously, was one of them.
ASMAN: Barbara Walters.
RATHER: Barbara Walters. There’s a long line of it. It is not about gender. And that is not what I was talking about. And Les Moonves knows that.
What it is about is the leadership at the very top of CBS. And you said before — you corrected yourself. I don’t think you should have. You said, Les Moonves was the head of CBS News — oh, I mean CBS.
RATHER: He is head of CBS News.
ASMAN: He’s head of the whole thing…
ASMAN: … both entertainment and news.
ASMAN: And you think the lines between the two are disappearing?
RATHER: I think they have disappeared.
RATHER: Virtually. I do.
Now, the leadership of CBS is caught up in what a lot of people, including myself, are caught up in. The nature of corporate network news has changed. At one time, places like CBS was — they were the champions of hard news.
These days, they don’t know what hard news is, the top corporate leadership. They know about entertainment, but they don’t know about news.
ASMAN: When did that change?
RATHER: Well, I’m not quite sure that you can set an exact date with it. But, certainly, into the late 1990s and going into the early 2000s, that changed.
Now, with CBS and the other networks being under such great pressure — it’s no excuse, but they don’t see news as a public service anymore, which has, in our great American system, opened up venues for others to take that mantle of news of integrity, hard news, understanding what it’s about, and serving it, where I work now, HDNet, being one. It’s not the only place. And the program we put on plays to a smaller audience.
But, as things involve, I think that we will continue to have quality news of integrity. But the networks have given up that — that mantle.
ASMAN: Well, what Moonves says is that, if CBS does not get a younger audience, those key demos, in terms of getting advertising — quote — “Evening news will die.” And that is why Katie Couric was put in place.
RATHER: Well, it’s his shop and it’s his business. And he made the decision. He made the decision. And, by the way, David, he admitted it today. He acknowledged it today.
He said that, in retrospect, it was a mistake to load up the “CBS Evening News With Katie Couric” with features. He said it was a mistake, which was basically what I said.
ASMAN: But is it Katie Couric herself?
ASMAN: Or is it what she has on her table, what is put on her table for her?
RATHER: No. That’s why I said it doesn’t have to do with Katie and it doesn’t have to do with gender. It has to do with the corporate leadership. And the corporate leadership has these pressures to deliver for stockholders. It’s all part of the system.
ASMAN: Now you have to sell news. In the old days, you didn’t.
RATHER: Well, exactly.
ASMAN: It was a loss leader.
RATHER: And Les Moonves knows about entertainment, but he doesn’t know about news.
He said, at one point, we needed to have naked news. He said at one point that…
ASMAN: Well, he was joking, no?
RATHER: Well, was he? You tell me. But he said it.
And he also that, if he had his way, he would blow up all of CBS News. And, in a way, he did that by saying, I need to go for the demographic.
And we understand. I understand very well the undertow of that.
But the point I was trying to make, David, and trying to make today, we have to decide, we journalists have to decide what kind of journalism we want to do. And each journalist has to decide it for himself, that the country has a lot of big problems. We’re talking about something infinitesimally small here. We have got the war. We have got a presidential election under way. We have the dismantling of the civil rights division of the Justice Department. These are important things.
ASMAN: But we have — we have a room for a lot in our — for example, FOX News has 24 hours of news. I mean, we can have very serious stuff. We can have very light stuff. You can have a whole panoply of news, can’t you?
RATHER: You can. But let’s be candid here. And I know you always try to be.
When something like the Paris Hilton story begins to run, you don’t have a panoply of news. Everybody goes with that story 24/7.
ASMAN: You have wall-to-wall coverage of the news.
ASMAN: Of one story.
RATHER: And this was the point I was trying to make the other day — and I think I did make it, anybody interested in reading the whole thing — was, it isn’t Katie Couric. And it isn’t even CBS News as a whole. It is what is happening to the news.
Now, if we keep going this way, we will give a new context to that old Humphrey Bogart line, we will always have Paris.
ASMAN: So, we will always have Paris is nothing else but Paris, is what you’re saying.
ASMAN: Is there any way, though, to — to both get the demographics that a news division needs, as part of a network like CBS, and have serious news?
ASMAN: How do you do it?
RATHER: Well, I believe it can be done?
RATHER: I believe you do it with quality news of integrity.
ASMAN: Did you think you were doing it? Were you bringing in the younger audience?
RATHER: We were sure trying, but we didn’t bring in the younger audience. We were unable to do so. And I am accountable for that, to no small degree.
But I do think that there is an audience for quality news of integrity, including on the evening news. And there is no empirical evidence that, by dumbing it down, by going with the Paris Hilton story, by softening things up, that it attracts younger audiences. There’s no empirical evidence for that.
But the corporate leadership, people such as Les Moonves, believe that. And they put the pressure on down below. And that is — the result is what we have now, which is not a good result.
ASMAN: But you are saying it’s not Katie Couric’s fault; it’s Les Moonves’ fault.
ASMAN: The buck stops right there.
RATHER: Well, it starts right there.
ASMAN: Should the shareholders be demanding that Les Moonves move on?
RATHER: I doubt that they will do that, because he’s very good at programming entertainment. He’s been one of the best there ever was at programming entertainment.
My — that’s not my argument. My lament is that there once was a line between entertainment and news. And, by trying to bring “The Today Show” ethos into the evening news, this is endemic throughout much of journalism. Even “The New York Times,” arguably the best newspaper in the world, one of the best newspapers in the world, had a front-page story about Paris Hilton on Saturday. This is something we need to be concerned about, because it matters to the country.
ASMAN: So, say you had the perfect job. You could design your own anchor job. How would your evening news look different than what we have today?
RATHER: Well, I now consider I have the perfect job at HDNet, because I have total, complete, absolute creative and…
ASMAN: If you were at CBS, how would you do it?
RATHER: Well, what I tried to do — keep in mind, I didn’t make all the decisions there — I would run hard with hard news. I would see the newscast as a public service. And I would operate it on the basis of, what is important? What’s the most important thing for people to know today?
I also would give much heavier emphasis to foreign news coverage. I was criticized when I was at CBS News, sometimes within CBS News, for doing that. But I believe strongly, with the international situation being what it is, that you need to emphasize foreign news, emphasize important news, emphasize quality news.
And I will tell you this. If you put “Oprah” in front of me and “Entertainment Tonight” behind me, I will win for you any market in the country.
ASMAN: We have got to leave it at that.
Dan Rather, HDNet is where you can see our friend Dan Rather.
Thanks very much for coming on.
RATHER: Thank you, David.
ASMAN: Appreciate it.
RATHER: Thanks so much. Enjoyed talking to you.
ASMAN: Appreciate it.