Rather, speaking by phone on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program with Joe Scarborough Monday, said CBS had made the mistake of taking the evening news broadcast and "dumbing it down, tarting it up," and playing up topics such as celebrities over war coverage. The comments subsequently appeared in blogs and in stories published Tuesday in the New York Daily News and the New York Post.
While referring to his successor, Couric, as a "nice person," Rather said "the mistake was to try to bring the 'Today' show ethos to the 'Evening News,' and to dumb it down, tart it up in hopes of attracting a younger audience."
Moonves, asked about the remarks at an appearance in New York sponsored by the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, called the remarks "sexist" and said he was surprised at the amount of negative coverage Couric was receiving. Couric, the first solo female news anchor, has been struggling in the ratings.
Photos: Katie Couric
"She's been on the air for nine months," Moonves said. "Let's give her a break."
Couric started strong but has settled into a distant third in the evening news ratings race. Last month, her "CBS Evening News" set a record for its least-watched broadcast for at least two decades, then broke it the very next week.
Rather left as "CBS Evening News" anchor in March 2005 and cut ties to the network a year later. He continued to be dogged by controversy surrounding his role in a discredited story about President Bush's Vietnam-era military service.
Moonves said he "absolutely" had confidence in Couric and the direction that the CBS Evening News is going, saying it's imperative to reach younger audiences. Evening news broadcasts can't continue to have audiences that are mainly over 60, Moonves said, otherwise "the evening news will die."
Meanwhile, Moonves said the network's decision last week to reinstate the canceled show "Jericho" following an outpouring of viewer e-mails and other protests spoke to the growing influence of the Internet on broadcasters.
"It was a campaign that couldn't be ignored," Moonves said of the mobilization of "Jericho" fans, saying it was "astonishing and well-organized."
As part of the campaign, disgruntled viewers delivered thousands of pounds of peanuts to CBS's corporate offices, a reference to a scene in the season finale where a character replies, "Nuts!" to a demand that the town in Kansas, which had been isolated by a nuclear attack, surrender.