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Should CBS Have Interrupted The 'Late Show' With News Of Ford's Death?

Last week, the Chicago Tribune published a column by Phil Rosenthal in which he complains that "[w]hen Gerald Ford died Tuesday, CBS didn't even interrupt a 'Late Show With David Letterman' rerun. It just ran the news as a headline across the bottom of the screen." Rosenthal contrasts the decision not to break into the Late Show with CBS' handling of Lyndon Johnson's death in 1973, when Walter Cronkite took a phone call from the former president's spokesman live on the "Evening News."

"There was pride in relaying big stories first, putting one's stamp on them, reminding viewers this was the channel to watch for the latest news. But that was almost 34 years ago," writes Rosenthal. He argues that the era of people like Frank Stanton, "the man who made it possible for Edward R. Murrow to go after Sen. Joseph McCarthy," has "probably" "passed" at CBS.

I asked CBS News and Sports President Sean McManus to respond to Rosenthal's comments. He did so in an email. "…I think our extensive coverage of the funeral, including breaking in Friday for over 20 minutes during a live football game and the coverage of the Saddam execution and breaking into the network for that, shows that our commitment to covering the news and breaking stores is as strong as it has ever been," wrote McManus.

The decision to break into the football game, in fact, garnered complaints of a very different shade than Rosenthal's. "CBS broke into the Brut Sun Bowl game just to 'let us viewers see' Pres Ford's casket being carried out of the hearse at the family's funeral service. It's the family's private funeral after all! Good grief!," wrote one e-mailer to Public Eye. "Now they have a big mouthy political analyst yapping."

Wrote another: "Please stop interrupting our football game today with long, wasted TV shots of the church and finally Ford's casket.....interrupting for a minute or two wouldn't be so bad....interrupting for a long period of time when obviously anyone watching is on CBS for the football game is stupid."

The death of a former president puts television broadcasters in a difficult position. Obviously, it's impossible to please everyone with your coverage. Ford's death probably did merit at least a brief interruption of the Late Show, and interested viewers could have switched to a news channel or gone online for more extensive coverage. One can even look at the decision not to break in as evidence that entertainment trumps news at CBS. Of course, the decision to interrupt the football game provides evidence in the opposite direction.

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