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Rather Blunt

(CBS/AP)
Well, this is officially ugly.

On Monday, speaking about the CBS "Evening News," Dan Rather told Joe Scarborough that CBS executives had been "dumbing it down and tarting it up, going to celebrity coverage rather than war coverage." He also criticized CBS for trying "to bring the 'Today' ethos to the 'Evening News'…in hopes of attracting a younger audience."

CBS President and CEO Leslie Moonves called Rather's comments a "cheap shot" the next morning – and characterized them as "sexist."

Rather responded on Fox News. "What [Moonves] is trying to do is change the subject," said Rather. "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."

He added: "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…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."

In a statement that night flagged by TVNewser, Rather added, "Moonves has weakened the News Division at CBS News since he took over. He doesn't get it." Evening News executive producer Rick Kaplan then told TVNewser that those working at the program "don't like to be told they're not doing a hard news show because they damn well are." He also suggested that Rather hasn't been watching the broadcast.

Rather's relationship with CBS News has been tense ever since he was semi-forced out of CBS News in the wake of the "Memogate" scandal. He now anchors a newscast on the HDNet cable channel that offers him full editorial control but few viewers, and maintains his public profile by offering opinions to various media outlets.

But Rather doesn't make a great journalistic elder statesman, in part because he's the John McCain of journalism – he tends to make ill-advised comments without seeming to give much thought to the consequences. "Tarting it up?" I don't think Rather's comments reflected any true sexism on his part, but he should have chosen his words better.

If you're going to publicly attack your former network, after all, it helps to have some message discipline. With his clumsy phrasing, Rather left the door open to the sexism charges – and Moonves seized that opportunity instead of engaging Rather's argument directly. Rather is right that Moonves was changing the subject. But by not choosing his words more carefully, Rather essentially invited him to do so.

And then there's the question of timing. If Rather had come out with these comments six months ago – say, around the time of the Mount Hood widow interview – they would have resonated. But the fact is the broadcast has gotten a lot better under new Executive Producer Rick Kaplan – newsier, harder, and less features oriented. Last week, according to Andrew Tyndall, the "Evening News" spent 11 minutes on Iraq, while ratings champ "World News With Charles Gibson" spent just two.

There is some truth in Rather's argument – we'd be better off with news divisions that worry less about profits and more about quality journalism. And his characterization of what CBS executives initially tried to do with the broadcast, moving it closer to something like "Today," is unfortunately true. But the current version of "Evening News," after some recent tinkering, is a pretty traditional newscast, not much different than the one Rather anchored.

And it's not as if Rather is immune to charges of dumbing down a news broadcast himself. "He needs to be more realistic about his role in lowering the seriousness of news reporting," writes Joe Gandelman. Phil Rosenthal points out that in 1990 Rather "fronted a backstage look at Paul McCartney in a special 90-minute edition of CBS News' '48 Hours.'" And his handling of the "Rathergate" scandal made it more difficult for CBS and other news organizations to run reports that leave them open to charges of bias and dishonesty.

Unlike Kaplan, I don't think Rather needs to "go through his life quietly." We need people fighting for journalistic integrity, and Rather is uniquely positioned to do so. He has important points to make, and much of the time they are worth listening to. I just hope that he learns to make them without prompting the ugly back-and-forth we've seen this week. This little war of words, in the grand scheme of things, doesn't much matter. But instead of focusing on the state of journalism, it's what we're all talking about.

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