It was five minutes to 3 on a recent weekday as a limo carrying Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes pulled up in front of Miami International Airport. Wallace was due on the 3 p.m. flight to Newark, but he was so incensed by the reporter’s question he heard over his cellular phone that he stayed in the car to answer it. ”How can CBS News be saved?” he asked incredulously. ”We have wonderful talent, wonderful producers. We don’t need to be saved. That’s ridiculous.”
Ridiculous? Well, let Westinghouse Electric Corp. be the judge. After nine Dickensian years under slash meister Larry Tisch, who cut the number of network employees by more than 75 percent and reduced the news division staff by almost half, from 1,600 to 1,000, CBS has a new owner. But Westinghouse, which bought the embattled network for $5.4 billion late last month, has more to contend with than just the network’s sagging prime-time lineup and a disgruntled David Letterman.
CBS News, the once-storied home of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, is in crisis. Anchored by Dan Rather, the CBS Evening News is a perpetual third in the ratings race, and the entire news division has been dogged by controversy. Just when the flap surrounding Connie Chung’s abrupt ejection as coanchor last spring died down, 60 Minutes came under fire for a messy story involving a former tobacco company executive. Parts of the show’s interview with Jeffrey Wigand, a former exec with Brown & Williamson, were never aired, giving the impression 60 Minutes had caved in to corporate pressure. Reports that Wigand had worked as a paid consultant for 60 Minutes on a previous story and had been given veto power over his own interview suggested that the show had turned to checkbook journalism. (Wallace calls such charges ”asinine,” saying Wigand’s only veto power was in giving the go-ahead as to when the story would run because he was getting death threats. He says Wigand had no say over editorial content.)
But a beleaguered 60 Minutes and a fading CBS Evening News are just two of the problems plaguing CBS News—which has been hurt by weak lead-ins as well as by the loss of the NFL franchise and eight important affiliates. Neither 60 Minutes executive producer Don Hewitt nor Dan Rather has a serious successor. On-air talent is harder to keep and more difficult to attract given the gutting of many news bureaus and the lack of more than just two newsmagazines that would offer more exposure for correspondents.
Can Westinghouse bring CBS News back from the brink? Many familiar with the network’s woes believe it can be revived, pointing to the disastrous shape ABC News was in before Roone Arledge took over in 1977 and turned it around. Their suggestions:
Spend A Little Money Already Larry Tisch’s drastic cuts may have made the company more profitable, but everyone agrees they helped ruin CBS News. ”They’ve got to change the bottom-line approach,” says Connie Chung, 49, who is still technically employed by CBS, though she has been at home with her recently adopted son, Matthew, since shortly after her dismissal from the Evening News in May. ”CBS News always had the reputation of being autonomous—the news division was allowed not to make money. That’s one of the main reasons it always had such a sterling reputation.”