Amid the whirlwind of change at CBS News today, I spoke with both outgoing president Andrew Heyward and newly announced president Sean McManus. (Just because I'm part of Public Eye doesn't mean I have a special place in the hearts of CBS' PR department.)
I suspect it will be nearly impossible to read or hear a story, today or in the coming days, about this change without a line about the "60 Minutes Wednesday" National Guard story and its impact on Heyward's departure. But he doesn't see it that way, telling me that, "on a scale of 100, last year's event … had zero to do with this." Heyward sees a much bigger picture, saying "this needs to be seen against the broader backdrop of almost 10 years in this job, which is a really long time, in a very rewarding and challenging assignment. In fact, I think this institution has moved well beyond the events of last year, much further than the people who cover us have. … One of the things that I feel good about is leading us past that and that is not a factor here, this needs to be seen in a broader context."
McManus also believes the story is in the past and says "the time is right for CBS News to move beyond the issues it has been dealing with over the past year." He acknowledges it is now part of CBS News and is "never going to totally go away." But he sees the opportunity for a "new chapter" at the news division. And, in case anyone wonders about his approach, McManus vows that CBS News will not be "intimidated or demoralized" by the past.
Heyward told me his departure was amicable between CBS CEO Les Moonves and himself, saying this is, "for CBS News and for me, the right time for a change. What that means is, Leslie wants a fresh perspective here and it's also the right time for me to do something new. So that's why this has been so amicable and cordial and mutually respectful."
Some may see the decision to put the same person in charge of two important broadcast divisions as a slight to the news side or an indication that the company was less-than-committed to news. Heyward adamantly disagreed. "Leslie has said this many times and I know he feels it deeply, you cannot be a full-fledged broadcast network without a strong news division," he said. And he noted that McManus "has an incredibly strong number two" at CBS Sports, "and he wouldn't take this on if he wasn't confident he could do justice to news."
For his part, McManus faces some questions about his ability to lead a "hard news" division. I asked him what he would say to assuage those skeptics. He noted, "I've spent most of my adult life, and much of my childhood, working on television production." He understands that producing a Masters broadcast or a Super Bowl is not the same as a convention, Supreme Court hearing or live news event but many of the "lessons I've learned about story-telling and reporting are transferable" to news.
McManus also said he brings to the job an eye for talent, claiming, "we have developed the best on-air talent in sports" and saying he's confident he can replicate that on the news side – whether it's with in-house talent or not. He says it would be hard to find a bigger news junkie than himself, claiming to devour television news, both cable and broadcast. "I would imagine nobody at CBS News watches more news programming than I do," he says.
The incoming news president says he has some specific ideas for the news, but isn't ready to share them with us yet. But he did say that "as a general theme, I know that approximately 75 million people watch the evening news programs each week." If you put on an "attractive" broadcast with good, "compelling stories," he added, viewers would value it.
He comes to the job as a self-described "blank slate," but knows what his approach will be. "I'm certainly not satisfied with being number three," he said, pointing specifically to the "Evening News." And he added that if he arrives at CBS News and finds "there's anyone who is satisfied with being number three -- that would be disappointing to me."
Both men claim to have an optimistic view about the future of evening news. "I truly believe there still is a definitive relevancy to the evening newscasts," McManus says. Asked if he sees the Internet and cable as threats, he notes there are a lot of choices to compete against but also points out there's plenty of competition in prime time as well. As CBS has shown with programs like "CSI," the networks can compete and there is no reason news should be an exception.
Heyward agrees, saying of the future, "I think it's bright. One of the ironies is, the more complex the world becomes and the more overwhelming the flow of information becomes, the more valuable a news broadcast that can synthesize, crystallize and provide some useful analysis and context…. I'm very bullish on the evening news."
As for his next move, Heyward said he didn't have many specifics beyond what he said in his announcement to CBS employees: "I am going to remain fully engaged in the media business. My goal is to explore that frontier just over the horizon where journalism, technology, and the needs of a new generation intersect in exciting and important ways." I asked him if that meant blogging might be in his future, to which he said, "I'll stay in the media business but whether it's content creation or the business side, I don't know yet. I do intend to continue to write and think and speak about things going on in the media … and given that one of the most interesting ways to do that is by interacting with others and the blogosphere, I certainly will participate in that discussion. But whether I become number nineteen million … on Technorati or not, it's way too early to say."
Stranger things have happened.