The publicity generated by the hiring of Katie Couric and the new management's keen interest in the third place "Evening News" broadcast have given CBS a chance to become the news leader that it once was. A dispirited news organization has been given a shot in the arm and a burst of energy. Let's hope they make the most of it.
There is no question that Couric will attract new viewers and encourage former ones to come back. All the babble in media circles about whether she is the right person for the "Evening News" audience is nonsense. Couric proved her worth in one of the toughest arenas in the news. Her years in the long morning format at NBC showed beyond doubt that she knows her stuff, can think on the hop, and is very user friendly. If she can do that, she can meet the requirements of an evening news anchor, which in fact are less demanding.
What Couric does not have is the years of experience of the old generation of anchors – Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and the late Peter Jennings – in reporting news from abroad. Her competition will not have that either. But what she may lack in the foreign department can be made up by the sort of stories her show puts on the air.
The anchor, after all, is not the news. The anchor is the person who introduces the news – what the British call a "news presenter" or "news reader." In the long run, what will count most for the new "CBS Evening News with Katie Couric" -- and what will retain the viewers who come to sample her wares -- is the news itself.
I am convinced that people turn on the news to find out what is going on in their region, their country and in the world, and what it means for them. It's as simple as that. They do not tune in to the news to be entertained. Other programs do that better. (If you want both news and entertainment, you can choose Jon Stewart's the "Daily Show.")
Anchors, of course, can turn away viewers who do not like their personality or a perceived bias. I am from the old school that believes journalists who report the news (as opposed to commentators) should keep their political views to themselves and not wear them on their arms. (Before he stepped down as America's most famous and trusted anchor, how many people knew that Walter Cronkite was a liberal?) Judging from her track record, Couric will not be a turn-off.
What she will need is a news organization that can deliver the goods. That requires time and money. The old CBS, after all, did not get its reputation as the "Tiffany network" overnight or on the cheap.
One recent move I applaud is the creation of a CBS News investigative reporting unit. Both ABC and NBC have units and correspondents that regularly break the sort of stories that require hard work and a lot of digging. CBS comes late to the game, but I hope it will build on this new asset. There are few things that audiences like better than learning something new and important. Most of the news on the evening shows is so predictable.
The appointment of Lara Logan as chief foreign correspondent was another smart move. It allows CBS to showcase important stories, such as the series she recently did in Sudan. She may be a bit young by my standards, but she is dead earnest in wanting to do compelling stories in places that CBS rarely covers. Foreign correspondence is a business in which you grow old fast, at least in terms of experience. However, it is silly to say that whenever there is a big story, Logan will be there. She can't be everywhere, and if she is going to do the kind of stories that will make her reputation and make people talk about CBS News, she needs to be given enough time in the field to do a story well.
CBS needs more than one big foreign correspondent. It also needs regional correspondents who track and cover events day in and day out in areas where they have developed contacts and competence. They don't need to work out of big bureaus. You will get more real news and context out of a competent one-man-band correspondent in an area he or she knows well than someone who is parachuted into a story after it has already made headlines. One obvious need for CBS is at least one correspondent based in the Arab world. NBC News has just assigned a correspondent to Beirut.
The present CBS News system of putting the lion's share of its assets in a big London bureau and having few correspondents on the ground in other areas of the world that are more crucial to American interests is both expensive and not very smart. Putting a senior correspondent back in the Moscow bureau would make sense, especially if that person is also given responsibility to cover such sensitive areas as Iran and former Soviet Central Asia. And congratulations, CBS, for starting to cover Latin America again. That continent, like Africa, has long been one of the black holes in your coverage.
The success of CBS News will depend on its new generation of correspondents, both domestic and foreign. Their relative youth is both a weakness and a strength. Sure, they lack the insights and gravitas that come from years of experience in the field. But fresh blood energizes an organization, and if the new generation has the right stuff and you give them the assets and time to do real reporting and not just "packaging," they will become tomorrow's heavyweights. That's what made Peter Jennings a star.
Experienced producers are a great asset, and CBS fortunately has them as well as first-class camera teams and tape editors. I routinely watch all three evening news shows, and believe that CBS News still airs the best-produced stories. However, on most nights, NBC News gives the audience more facts and context. That may be one of the main reasons it is still in first place. ABC News is somewhere in between.
One more word – since you have graciously offered me the opportunity to say what I think about the organization I served for more than three decades. CBS News has a responsibility to the public and to our nation, not just to its stockholders. Television news still reaches more people than any other media and should deliver the facts that keep the electorate well informed and our government on its toes. "News lite" is not good enough in the dangerous world of today.
Fortunately, if you do it right, you can fulfill your obligation to the public and be number one at the same time.