Extended Interview: Dan Rather
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TERENCE SMITH: I think the fundamental question here is, in an age of 24-hour news and instant news, is there still a role for a broadcast like this?
DAN RATHER: Yes, there is still a role, and there will always be a role for trying to be an integrity-filled broadcast. It sets out to do two things; one, to at least call attention to, if not report in some depth, the most important and most interesting things that happened during the [day]. As for the fact that we’re now in a 24-hour news cycle, deadline-every-second world, that’s part of the new reality, with which we must deal.
But I do call attention to the fact, if you’ll indulge me because I think it’s important, that the combined audience of the big three evening newscasts is between 30 and 31 million homes on any given night. That is by far the single largest audience for years in the country. And that’s why I continue to say that ours is a public trust. I believe that a public journal is a public trust. This is a public journal. It’s part of three that deliver the news to, by far, the most Americans.
So is our role as big as it once was? No. Is it still large and important? By any objective standard, I think the answer is yes. Certainly, cable news contributes, it helps. It’s helped competition. But some of these cable news programs are not, in fact, news programs. It’s all chat; they’re all talk, they’re all chatter, they’re all babble.
But the cumulative audience for all of them is quite small. It’s measured in the hundreds of thousands of viewers, as compared to 30 to 31 million. Now, I do think that those that are of the best quality are worthy competitors, and they contribute mightily to public information and giving of the news. But what’s lost so often, Terry, is this context and perspective about what the evening newscasts are and are not, as compared with yesterday.
TERENCE SMITH: The format of these broadcasts has remained remarkably the same for 38 years, since Walter Cronkite sat at a forerunner of this desk and made it a 30-minute broadcast, and yet the content has changed a great deal. What do you think of that, of that evolution?
DAN RATHER: Well, first of all, we haven’t changed as much as we probably should have. I think it’s valid criticism to say that we haven’t been thoughtful enough nor have we acted quickly enough or well enough to the changing needs of the audience and new ways of coverage and new ways of broadcasting.
I certainly think that it’s a valid criticism to say, in general, that evening newscasts have been more entertainment oriented than they should be. I’ve actually done comparisons with the broadcasts of yesteryear, and there’s less difference than those who champion yesteryear would like you to believe, but it’s a valid point; that entertainment values have increasingly encroached on news values throughout the news spectrum — newspapers, magazines — as well as on television.
But I work on the CBS Evening News and have to be accountable for that. And we’ve made mistakes. We’ve allowed entertainment to become too big a factor.
TERENCE SMITH: And do you think that has turned some of the public off or, in fact, brought them in the tent?
DAN RATHER: Well, I’m of the school that says that it may have turned some off. I’m in the minority. It’s fair to say that majority thinking in television newsrooms these days is that you can’t win with hard news and only hard news all of the time in any half-hour broadcast. I do not subscribe to that. I was hard news yesterday, I am today, and I will be tomorrow. I’m a hard news true believer.
But this is a collegial process that we go through here, and I have been open to the argument — maybe too open, I don’t think so — that says you don’t want to be yesterday’s broadcast. On the other hand, I don’t want us to tailor our news standards to fit the trend of the day or the style of the day.
And this I think is an important point for the audience to understand, Terry: In this newsroom and in every newsroom in the country, whether they will admit it or not, fear is a major factor. It’s the fear that if we don’t do it, whatever “it” is — tart it up, dumb it down, go more entertainment, go more for what’s interesting as opposed to what’s important — our competitors will, and they will eventually drive us out of business.
And that fear runs rampant in every newsroom. It’s much more critical in your average local station newsroom than it is at the network level for what I think are obvious reasons. However, it is true of network newsrooms, as well as others. So what we have on a day-to-day basis is a struggle, as Ed Murrow put it, between wanting to do good and needing to do well. Translation: We want to put on a first-rate news broadcast, but we also are under pressures to make sure that the broadcast gets as large an audience as possible and makes as much money as possible.
I consider this to be the most important thing in American journalism, as a whole, and it is particularly acute with evening news broadcasts. The struggle to keep entertainment values from totally overwhelming news values, that’s the struggle we’re in.
Now, your question was “how does it compare with yesteryear?” In many ways, I think we’re better. That runs a risk of being a self-serving statement. I hope it doesn’t play that way. I mean it as objectively as possible. We have a lot of good stuff in evening news broadcasts now. But having said that, I do acknowledge that entertainment values threaten to overwhelm the news values.
I do want to make one other point on this; that there’s a tendency to lump all three of the big three evening newscasts together, and in many important ways, that’s fair enough, but in some important ways it isn’t. There are differences between the newscasts at NBC, ABC and CBS. And, frankly, I naturally encourage more comparison shopping. Each has a different style.
TERENCE SMITH: What, in your view, separates the CBS Evening News from the other two network broadcasts?
DAN RATHER: Well, I know this about us — we believe in hard news here. Hard news has an emphasis on those things that are most important, and when necessary, even at the expense of those things that may be more interesting. That’s one of the hallmarks of the CBS Evening News. I won’t say we’ve done a good job, but compared with others, I’m proud of what we’ve done in holding to our standards.
We sometimes suffer in the ratings, I am told, because we don’t jump on the tawdriest story, news of the day, quite as hard as somebody else may do. We have not subscribed to the idea that we are a “blend,” a so-called “interesting blend,” which generally means blending entertainment and news. Now, I’ll let others judge how well we have done it when we stand alone. But compared to the others, I’m proud of what we’ve done here.
But I will say I think all three of the evening news broadcasts really aspire to be broadcasts of integrity, and in most important ways are. But this is simply to say that there are differences, and I think the differences are becoming greater, as we struggle ever more mightily for a smaller and smaller audience, all the while acknowledging that our audience is, by far, the largest there is. But compared to what it was on a percentage basis in the ’60s, ’70s, even into the ’80s, it has shrunk.
TERENCE SMITH: What about the aging of the audience, the fact that all of the polls show that younger Americans don’t watch news very regularly, don’t read newspapers? How do you bring them into the tent?
DAN RATHER: I wish I knew, and if you find out, call me collect because we are very eager to have everybody watch the Evening News.
In the 1970s, even into the early ’80s, there basically were only ABC, NBC and CBS. And, indeed, for a while there was only CBS and NBC as viable evening news operations.
As the competitive pit has gotten so much larger, people have many more choices, that’s one of the factors in much of the younger audience not going to evening news broadcasts, in my opinion. MTV is around, and they want to watch MTV. There are all kinds of other programs to watch. So I think that’s definitely a factor.
By the way, as the competitive pit has gotten larger, has gotten fiercer, this is one of the major factors putting pressure on the big three evening newscasts to dumb it down, tart it up, sitcom-to-entertainment values because the competition is so fierce for the audience. That’s not a complaint, it’s simply to try to explain what the reality is for us.
But now back to your point about the older audience. My bosses would probably argue with this, and they do a back-flip when I say it, but we’re not doing an evening news broadcast for 13-year-olds or even 17-year-olds. I’m delighted when they watch. I’m really pleased when we’ve got them. But we try to be serious about the news. We try to take the news seriously and not take ourselves seriously. And we want to put on a serious news broadcast for people who are interested in serious news. And, as best we can in today’s competitive environment, when my feet hit the floor every morning, that’s what I want to put out.
So it’s vital to us to get the core news viewers to respect the CBS Evening News. That is job one with us. I emphasize again we want everybody. We want the younger audience.
But our basic audience, our dependable audience, the audience we cannot stay in business without, are somewhat older people who understand news and care about the news. I would love it if I could say to you our largest audience is composed of people 18 to 45. I would love it because our advertisers would love it, and my bosses would love it. But I have to deal with the possible, and it’s simply not possible for us to make that our largest audience.
Now, it’s fair to say, “Well, if you’re programming primarily for an older audience, you shouldn’t be surprised that you’ve got an older audience.” And I agree with that.
TERENCE SMITH: The other big change is in viewers’ lifestyles. Now, the evening news is on at a certain hour when, perhaps, fewer and fewer people are available to watch it.
DAN RATHER: This is true. And one big difference that we should note because it is a huge difference when you’re talking about size of the audience, ratings, number of people you get to watch your broadcast, the CBS Evening News, in the 1960s and ’70s and on into the early 1980s, was at 7 p.m. in New York and most Eastern cities and at a comparable hour across the time lines of the country.
For reasons that have to do with owners and station managers wanting to do more and more entertainment, the news is pushed back on the schedule. We’re now seen at 6:30 in New York. There’s an enormous difference between the audience available for news at 6:30 and at 7:00. And in many places in the country, we are seen at 5:30, and in some places we’re seen as early as 5:00 and even 4:30, on occasion. Now, 4:30 for an evening news broadcast, 5:00 for an evening news broadcast, even 5:30 — again, this is not a complaint. I’m not the vice president in charge of excuses — but by any reasonable analysis, this is one of the factors that has shrunk the size of the audience, and it’s getting worse.
I fear we lose a lot of people talking this way because it’s inside television. But when you go to analyze why what has happened has happened, all of these things have come into a confluence which has resulted in smaller audience share. But while I think it is inevitable that our audience share will go even lower, you said we’re now at about 44 percent for all three of the newscasts.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see it at 35, 30, maybe even 25. But this can, and will be, a viable business, even with audience shares down, say, 25, 30, even 40 percent – and here’s why. We will still have the largest audience of anybody in the news business. As long as we have the largest audience of anybody in the news business, this will be a viable business, a viable journalism enterprise for somebody. I don’t say that all three of what we now call the big three will survive.
In the days that you mentioned, where there were only [the] big three newscasts and that was about it, the prices that advertises paid were much less than they are today. And the reason is it’s harder and harder for advertisers who want to reach a true national audience to find anything on television where they can be assured of getting a large national audience. They can still do that with evening newscasts.
I am absolutely convinced that when I am off in Florida fishing the pilings and way out of this business that somebody’s evening news business will continue to be a very good business. It may not be at 6:30 or 7 o’clock at night. It may be 10 o’clock at night, maybe at some other time. You may be able to get it in ways we cannot even imagine right now, but it will be a good business.
TERENCE SMITH: Look down the road a little bit — what you think the evening news broadcasts will look like?
DAN RATHER: Well, I’m always eager to look ahead, but I also have in mind what Abe Lemmons, an old basketball coach used to say. People that live by crystal balls tend to live in bad houses, which is another way of saying I’m going to guess with you, but it’s only guesses.
My guess is that what I dream will eventually become a reality. I dream of having an evening news broadcast at 10 o’clock at night in the Eastern time zone, 10:00 to 11:00. That’s live across the time lines. It’s done live 10 o’clock in the East, it’s done 9 o’clock in the Midwest. We do a separate broadcast or update it for the West Coast. It’s a combination of pretty much what today’s evening news is and 60 Minutes and Nightline –one hour in the last hour of what we now call prime time. Now, so far as I know, I’m the only person in this building who still even talks about this because it’s, everybody says, look, it would be a great idea, but it’s not possible to do. Somewhere in the future I think it’s not only going to be possible, I think someone will do it.
TERENCE SMITH: What would make it possible? What has to change to make it possible?
DAN RATHER: Well, first, someone has to make a decision. It’ll take someone with vision, both the power and the will to make a bold decision.
Secondly, it will take a realization that all networks are running desperately thin on entertainment programs that can fill three full hours every night, seven nights a week.
I think it will also require that those of us who do the news make better arguments to those who are in ownership and management positions about why this is good business.
We’re pretty good at making the argument why journalistically it would be a good idea to do the evening news at 10:00. Where we have failed so far, and I include myself in this criticism, is not outlining why we think it would be a very successful business.
I’m convinced that it would be a successful business, particularly if someone moved quickly, moved, got into position first and stayed with it and made it seven days right across the board. I’m not saying it [would] win every night in the last hour of prime time, 10 o’clock in the East, 9 o’clock in the Central time zone, but I think it would draw a very large audience. I think that it would be very profitable, and I think it would be a great bet on the future.
TERENCE SMITH: Dan Rather has been in that anchor chair for almost 20 years. How much longer does he want to be in it?
DAN RATHER: For as long as I can do it and do it up to my own standards and the standards of CBS News. You know, Terry, you and I worked together for a long time. I think you know me well enough that what I know and about all I know is to work hard, try hard, trust in hard work, determination, perseverance, and know that the best motto, for the long pool, is don’t grumble, just keep plugging away.
And that’s how I feel about this job. I love this job. I love everything about it. I want to do it for as long as my health holds and as long as I can meet our standards. The second either one of those things ceases to be, no one will have to ask me to be out of here.