News War [site home page]
  • Home
  • Interviews
  • Site Map
  • Discussion
  • Part 1
  • Part 3
  • Part 4
  • Watch Online

tom bettag

Bettag worked at CBS News for 22 years and served as executive producer for CBS Evening News with Dan Rather from 1986 to 1991. He left CBS in 1991 and moved to ABC, where for 14 years he served as the executive producer of the late-night news program Nightline. When longtime Nightline anchor Ted Koppel left the show in 2005, Bettag went with him to Discovery Communications, where they now develop and produce long-form documentaries for the Discovery Channel. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Aug. 15, 2006.

... You've been in this business for a very long time and in some very important positions with CBS and ABC. In your own mind, looking back over your long career, was there ever a golden age in TV?

Basically, I don't believe in the "good old days." One of the reasons why I'm an optimist was that I got into this because of [former CBS President] Fred Friendly at Columbia Journalism, and Friendly had been kicked in the teeth by CBS. [Edward R.] Murrow had been kicked in the teeth by CBS. They weren't the only ones who had experienced just awful, awful experiences in that. So I came into the business believing that this is a very tough business where you're trying to do news in an entertainment format and that there is an inherent conflict and there will always be a fight and always be a problem. I think Good Night, and Good Luck is a deeply pessimistic story. To say those are the good old days is not saying very much. ...

[Is there] anything that you look at and say, "We're actually much better at it now"?

Oh, there's no question that from a technological standpoint, we can bring you infinitely more. Again, golden days of Walter Cronkite, there used to be seven stories from Washington, two stories from outside, ... because Washington was the only place where you could get today's stories quickly on. Then there was a story that was phoned in from Vietnam. And then [correspondent] Ike Pappas was somehow coming in from a flood or a fire, and that was what it was. …

The American newsie who loves news has way more access to information than they ever had. You can't argue that the American public is much better served by a three-network oligopoly that only serves up what those three networks serve up as compared to what we have now. ... You have to dig, and you have to sort through some things that are either not accurate or junk, but there's nothing wrong with that. ...

You're from a newspaper background. ... So what were your first impressions of TV news when you actually started to see it up close at CBS?

From the beginning I loved television. Essentially what I found is that writing is a very lonely process, and what I loved about television is it's all teamwork. It can only be done by a group. ...

Tell me a little bit about the role of anchorperson. …

Well, there are anchors, and there are anchors. The classic anchor is somebody who earned his or her stripes by being out in the field, knowing everything that there is to know in the course of that, and what we've just seen with these people who have been on the air for 20 years -- be it [Peter] Jennings, [Tom] Brokaw, [Dan] Rather, [Ted] Koppel -- are people who have covered more stories than anybody else in the organization. They are truly the most experienced, smartest people. I mean, Dan Rather was there when Kennedy was shot. Dan Rather was there in Vietnam. Dan Rather was there in Watergate -- has all of that level of experience, and in that sense, the anchor is just the smartest, most experienced person in the shop.

“I've been hearing since 1985 about the death of the evening news, and, you know, wake me when it happens.”

That becomes very important when suddenly something comes out of the blue like a 9/11, and we were blessed that we had these people who had been there for 20 years. ... That voice of experience is ultimately what the anchor is.

I got into television in trying to figure out, is this a fit for a person who believed in news? My old editorial page editor [was] saying, "Remember how the country turned to [Walter] Cronkite when Kennedy was shot?" We had no president of the United States. All you had were Cronkite and [Chet] Huntley-[David] Brinkley. Those people held this nation together, and I think that is the ultimate role of the anchor. ...

In the mid-80s, basically news divisions that were left to run by themselves, sometimes by fairly enlightened owners. Suddenly you're owned by bigger corporations -- Disney, GE [General Electric], Loews. Tell me a little bit about that experience. As you said before, there's always a tension between making money and delivering a public service: news. It seems that that got ratcheted up in the mid-80s.

This really comes back to [60 Minutes creator] Don [Hewitt's] part of this, and the turning point was when 60 Minutes started making money. ... There's an old Fred Friendly line that I think is the critical one: "Television can make so much money doing its worst that it can't afford to do its best."

Once it was realized that you could make a lot of money with news -- mostly in the form of news magazines and not necessarily hard news -- that turned the business completely. ... The news divisions were turned into people who really produced what some people have called "entertainment posing as news" -- good storytelling about murders, about mysteries, about lurid sort[s] of things that make great television. We started doing what I think is entertainment posing as news very successfully, and making a lot of money and filling that entertainment gap in prime time. ...

The biggest detrimental change [I've seen in the industry] is that people have realized they can make a lot of money with news and asked the news division, "Do what you can to maximize profits." ... It is now a profit center, and in the conflict between public service and making a profit, profit is winning out. That's the biggest change.

... We talked a lot about profits, but [what about] the corporate ownership? [Dan] Rather has said, ... "I don't know who owns me anymore."

That is a real problem. We are such a small part of the overall corporate picture that if you're trying to get their attention [and] saying there's a real problem, that is very, very tough. That's just something we have to deal with, but then you just have to yell louder. ... Yes, that's a problem, but it is also the corporation has more money to be able to absorb the ebb and flow of the whole thing, and there are probably trade-offs. ...

At ABC, at Nightline, where you were doing very serious news, ... did you nevertheless feel pressure to do shows that would get ratings, that were going to appeal to a broader audience, that weren't so serious or intellectual or hard to follow?

Not particularly. People knew what they were going to get when they got Nightline, and we could do serious stories and get very good ratings. Say we did five consecutive nights on the Congo, which nobody else had done, and everybody said, "Nobody cares about Africa," etcetera. We got great ratings on that. I think that becomes an issue of the identity of Nightline. People came to Nightline expecting that, and if we'd been trivial, we would have maybe been successful for a couple of months where people say, "Yeah, you won't believe what Koppel's doing," but we would have killed the brand in the course of that.

So what happened at Nightline? I mean, here's the series that's been on since 1979, wins every award imaginable in our industry. What happened? There's no room at a certain point for a Tom Bettag/Ted Koppel version of Nightline?

No, no, no. That's not right. Nightline continues to do some very good stories with very good correspondents, and on the night of the big story -- say the most [recent] being the terrorist attack threat in London -- all over the story in an extremely strong way. And I think Nightline continues in a very admirable way.

What happened simply in that is that Ted Koppel did this for 26 years. I did it for 14 years. When you get up at 9:00 in the morning and you leave at 12:15 at night year after year after year, there's a point at which you say, "Look, I'd really like to have a little bit more family time; I'd like to try to do that." For us, it was a change that this is a life that we can sustain for the next 10 years if we want to do it. That was a personal decision, and [we] could have gone on doing Nightline very happily. I don't think you could interpret our leaving as a symbol of something else.

... That whole period when ABC was saying, "Oh, what if we could get [Late Show with David] Letterman to come on and maybe replace Nightline?" I mean, that must have been difficult to deal with.

... The desire to steal Letterman away from CBS, to have this coup and this strike, they just needed our time period. I don't think that was really about "We want to get rid of news in that slot." It was really, "We have a chance to just have this raid that we would get enormous credit for" at a time when ABC needed a big hit, and whoever happened to be in that late-night time slot would have gotten hit. ...

Let me come back to [former CBS head] Laurence Tisch and your era with him. Here you are, running the CBS Evening News. You're like the editor of a major newspaper. You've got a huge audience, and you've got corporate pressures. Talk to me about that period.

... Tisch looked at a very fat CBS and said, "I'll bet that I can cut 33 percent of this organization out and deliver a product that is 90 percent as good, and if I could do that, I can make Wall Street incredibly happy, I can make my stockholders happy, and that's what business is about."

In the course of doing that, he clearly drove the stock up, sold at an enormous profit, and that was business and only business. I was brought up within the Friendly-Murrow school, that the business interests and the editorial interests are always in a constant tension, [and] that is a good, healthy tension that should be there, and neither side should win. In that particular moment, Tisch just rolled the editorial side, and it was sad, but a big lesson learned.

There was a tremendous loss of morale at CBS.

Oh, absolutely. When Larry Tisch left CBS, it was not the same news organization by a lot that was there when he came.

You went to Nightline in '91. You had a very good, long run there. What was it about Nightline that you wanted to do? Because it had been on the air for quite a while. A lot of people say you reinvented the show. ...

... What I really did was listen to Ted, and at that point, Ted was saying, "You know, I'm really looking for doing something else; that this is so formulaic that it's boring to me to a large extent." [I] said, "OK, so what do you want to do?" And he said, "I'd really like to get out in the field and just do stories and do things that are new and different in the course of the thing."

So we started going out and doing innovative original programming, not playing off of the story of the day and just saying, "We're just going to do the most interesting thing we can possibly do," and then sending correspondents out doing the same thing. ...

It was a necessary change. It was what Ted needed to be energized. It was what we needed to do not to be repeating the same thing that the 24-hour cables were doing. We just said, "We'll do the most interesting thing in the world." So when we did something like the Congo, that's something that nobody else is doing, [it] gave Ted enormous satisfaction, and the viewers said, "Well, I didn't see that anyplace else." That's basically what we did. ...

[In Iraq] Ted Koppel was embedded with U.S. forces. Did you have any second thoughts about that? Was that a good idea?

None. Ted being embedded with the U.S. forces really worked because Ted had the savvy, the credibility, the ability to say to the top commander whom he was with, "No, I won't do that." I have reservations about some people being embedded, young people who didn't have the ability to say no.

Putting somebody of Ted's stature, it was a great relationship. He and the commanding officers had a wonderful relationship. We got great stuff out of it, reported well, performed a public service, and you couldn't possibly have done it any other way. It's not whether you do it; it's who you put there.

There's been a lot of criticism of us in the press for ... not reporting more critically about, for instance, whether there were weapons of mass destruction or not. Looking back at that period, did we do a good enough job?

No, we did not do a good enough job. At the same time, I'm somewhat forgiving on that front. I think 9/11 was one of those major events that set a notion of "We are a nation at war." ... This is [a] kind of post-Pearl Harbor atmosphere in which it is extremely difficult to be questioning the people who brought you through 9/11.

I think one of George Bush's better moments was in that post-9/11 period. He really did get the country through that, so there was an enormous amount of credibility on that side. And that makes it very difficult. The way the U.S. media handled itself during World War II, the way it handled itself in the Korean War or the beginning of the Vietnam War, was very uncritical in the same way, and I think we were caught in that. But as a result, we didn't do a good job.

Was there, in that post-9/11 atmosphere, and even several years down the road, a feeling that if we criticize the government, we're going to open ourselves to the charge that we're not patriotic? Specifically with Nightline, there was a time when you were presenting names of soldiers killed in Iraq. Some people criticized you, saying that that was not helpful.

We got hammered for doing that. There's no question, we live in this enormously divided society where it is hugely polarized, and that's a difficult climate, because you're trying to reach all the people. You're not trying to reach the conservatives or trying to preach to the liberals. ... So you're moderating your message, trying to see if you can't find that, and that's extremely difficult.

But this administration has been extremely effective in making their supporters vocal and yelling to the media that you're distorting this; that you're being wrong; don't sit and take this. ... When we did do the names of the dead, we knew we were going to get hammered in advance. We did get hammered. We didn't wince. We were proud that we did it and actually got a lot of credit for it, and in the long run, it accrued to our reputation, because the average person thought that was terrific. ... The hammering worked to our advantage, and one affiliate group refusing to put it on the air worked to our advantage.

Why did you do [the names of the dead]?

This was [former Executive Producer Leroy Sievers'] idea. He remembered during the Vietnam War this was done, and the people really appreciated it at that time. ... We were ... uncomfortable with always reporting numbers -- you know, 22 people were killed this week -- but those people never had names or faces. ... We also wanted to put faces with them, so we went out and got pictures where they existed and said it's not enough to say more than 2,000 people have been killed in this. …

I feel strongly, Ted feels strongly, that one of the problems with this war is the average person, it doesn't impact on his life; [we're not] asked to make any sacrifices. We're still getting tax cuts. We just go along as if this war doesn't happen, and it really happens to the military class out there that gets forgotten, and allowing that to be forgotten is bad journalism.

You've dealt with a lot of presidential administrations in your long career. ... But the Bush administration has had a very particular relationship with the press. ... Could you talk about that and how it's changed?

Well, one, I think the Bush administration was extremely well put together in thinking about how we're going to deal with the media. They've just got some very bright people who thought this through. But I think they're also the beneficiaries of the fact that there isn't an oligopoly that they have to deal with. There [aren't] three networks, and if indeed you don't get on one of those three networks, you don't get on; you don't get your message out.

Now, with this multiplicity of outlets, they saw that we can stiff all three networks if we have to, and we'll get our message out on Larry King [Live on CNN] or on Fox or on Rush Limbaugh. ... They've used that extremely effectively in seeing the changed media climate, ... and used it well, which is absolutely their right.

It takes me back to that famous story … where the Tet Offensive happens, and Walter Cronkite actually gets up from behind the anchor desk, goes to Vietnam, reports that the war is not going well and that it might be a lost cause and maybe we should actually leave. And Johnson is watching it in the White House, saying, "We've lost Cronkite, we've lost the country."

Right. There's no one figure that reaches as many people as Cronkite did at that moment. They don't need any one figure. There are enough out there that in aggregate, they can reach the country in many different ways, which is, again, I think, good for the country. ...

Dan Rather left CBS in a very unceremonious way. What do you think about his departure and the whole "Rathergate" episode? A lot of conservative bloggers think he's a pelt on their belt now.

One, I think CBS did Dan a big favor; that they handled this so badly and in such a mean-spirited way that I think in fact Dan comes out looking good and CBS looks like this kind of mean organization. ... Bloggers think that they nailed Dan. I don't think that that's going to happen very often. I think bloggers are a huge worry for corporations, for anybody, because a lot of those blogs, I think, are dead wrong. The great danger of the Internet is that there's just an enormous amount of misinformation. Corporations really worry that they can get bloggers putting something out, and trying to stomp it out is very difficult once it gets going. But I don't think the bloggers have as much impact as they think they do.

Did CBS get the reporting wrong?

Well, I think in the end most of that story was right. You have the secretary saying, yes, he did write memos like that, and that's what he said, but those weren't the memos.

What I love about being a journalist is you've got to get 100 percent right. Politicians don't have to do that at all. I mean, Ronald Reagan would [say] these things -- that there's more oil in Alaska than Saudi Arabia -- and then if you called him on it, say, "Golly, did I get that wrong?" [He's not] expected to necessarily get it completely right, and that's politics. Journalism is you have to get it 100 percent, and I like being held to that standard, and I think Dan Rather doesn't mind being held to that standard.

I think Dan's greatest crime in all of this was that he was intensely loyal to his people. In this particular moment he just stepped up and said, "I take full responsibility for it; I did it." In other scandals, correspondents have said, "Look, I just read the words." Dan is never going to do that, and in this particular case, he was immensely loyal to his producer, jumped in, and that was his greatest sin in it.

But no, it was not 100 percent right, and if it's not 100 percent right, it's not good journalism. ...

You gave a very interesting talk about the evolving definitions of news. This was a while ago. And you said when you started out in this business, you were working with old-school guys, old pros who had a pretty elitist attitude about what was news: "It's news if we decide it's news." You've seen that evolve over time. But in this talk you come back to the idea -- maybe there was something to that idea, being held accountable to the idea of "We're putting this on; our reputations are on the line." Tell me about that a little bit.

As strange as it sounds to have experienced reporters saying, "News is what I think it is and I will try to tell you what I think is out there" -- that sounds very arrogant, but I'm a small-town, Midwestern person, married to a small-town Louisiana Cajun. When I go to my relatives and say, "What do you want to see on Nightline?," they look at me with a strange look and they say, "I want to know what Ted Koppel thinks is important." [They are] looking for that leadership of "Tell me what you think is important; you're the guys who know." …

That's the problem with television research today and working by focus groups. This is the equivalent of politicians governing by focus groups: Ask people what they think a popular position is, so that will be my position as I run for president. That's the kind of lousy leadership that makes for bad politics, and I think just asking focus groups "What do you want to see on television?" is the kind of lousy leadership that makes for bad journalism.

... In this business, you have to deal with political attacks. Is this era any worse?

... I think that goes with the territory. It went with the territory in the so-called good old days; it goes with the territory now. The real issue is whether journalists have the guts to stand up to that, and to a degree some journalists have been beaten down. They say, "You just can't beat it, and I'm just not going to fight it." That's a mortal sin, as far as I'm concerned, in journalism. ...

There are a lot of people -- and we're talking to some of them -- ... in this dot-com era, blogging era, who say: "Look, it's citizen journalism. It's democratic. We're going to go out and report the news, and we can do a better job than these old, elitist, now mainstream institutions of journalism." The other side of that, though -- and you get this from people, for instance, at a newspaper like the Los Angeles Times -- is "We're one of the few institutions that can put hundreds of reporters on television, hundreds of producers, cameras into the field to really cover something. Without us, what can bloggers do?" In that sense, bloggers are sort of parasitical.

Right. I think there's room for both, but I don't think that the Los Angeles Times, CBS, ABC is ever going to go away. There is going to be that need, and there are going to be people who like to sit and read blogs and write blogs. ... I know a couple of young kids who say, "Actually on television it's way too early to watch, but if you TiVo it at 6:30 at night, in one half hour there's this program called the evening news where they compress everything into a half hour. And you can zip through the commercials, and in 22 minutes, you can pretty well know what's going on and actually know what they're talking about." And there's this discovery of this new thing.

I think there will be people who want that, and there will be people who want blogging, and that they both get what they need is terrific. ...

We are in a pretty partisan era. Don't you think that there's a lot of pressure now where people say, basically, "Reinforce my opinions"? ...

I don't buy that. I mean, that is a niche, and it works for certain people. Those audiences are minuscule. The 24-hour cable networks -- I mean, Fox can have more people than the others, but that is a tiny, tiny group of people. It's 2 million or 3 million out of this huge nation. ... Having talk radio and Rush Limbaugh being enormously successful and popular ... doesn't mean that he's talking to anything like the mainstream of the American people. ... You don't have to talk to just left or just right. In fact, talking to either one of those I think narrows you, and there's lots of money to be made if you're just trying to make money by talking to the mainstream.

So network news, 60 Minutes, The New York Times, Washington Post -- not going to disappear?

Not going to disappear. I've been hearing since 1985 about the death of the evening news, and, you know, wake me when it happens. People have been talking about this forever and ever, and there are always going to be smart people who want to know what went on today.

home + introduction + watch online + interviews + parts 1 + 2 + part 3 + part 4 + join the discussion + producer chat
site map + press reaction + dvd/vhs & transcript + credits + privacy policy + journalistic guidelines
FRONTLINE series home + wgbh + pbs

posted feb. 27, 2007

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of wgbh educational foundation.
photo illustration copyright © entropy media
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation