CBS still doesn’t have a permanent replacement in mind for Dan Rather, who ends his 24-year tenure as anchor of CBS Evening News on March 9. But it has found a temp to fill in. On Wednesday, CBS confirmed a USA Today report that Bob Schieffer, host of Sunday morning newschat Face the Nation, will take over the anchor desk for an indefinite period. Still, the stopgap appointment did little to squelch observations by the network’s critics that its news division, still smarting from last fall’s “Memogate” scandal, remains in disarray.
The transition between Rather and Schieffer, who knows the ropes from the 20 years he spent anchoring the Saturday edition of the evening newscast, should be smooth. Still, replacing the 73-year-old Rather with Schieffer, who turns 68 later this month, won’t exactly bring in the youth demographic that CBS craves. Plus, the fact that CBS won’t say how long Schieffer will serve underscores the network’s apparent lack of a succession plan. (One unnamed network executive told the New York Times that Schieffer is likely to stay for three months.)
Rather didn’t announce he was stepping down from his anchor desk until last fall, in the wake of the scandal surrounding his 60 Minutes Wednesday report last September about President Bush’s Vietnam-era National Guard stint, a report based in part on documents now widely believed to have been forged. Four staffers lost their jobs over the incident, though Rather has said that the timing of his retirement announcement was coincidental. Still, CBS has known for years that Rather’s tenure was coming to a close, yet the network never named someone like John Roberts or Scott Pelley, both rising CBS News stars believed to be in line for the job, as Rather’s heir apparent. (Contrast that with NBC, which announced two years in advance that Tom Brokaw would retire in Dec. 2004 and that his replacement would be Brian Williams.)
In recent weeks, CBS chief Les Moonves has floated several ideas to the press about the future of CBS Evening News; one was to replace Rather with multiple anchors based in different cities, à la ABC’s World News Tonight in the late ’70s. Another was to recruit Jon Stewart for an Andy Rooney-type commentary slot. In any case, CBS had better come up with a plan soon, as the newscast’s ratings have been dwindling. Besides, Schieffer tells the Times, ”Morale here is not very good. I think our people need to be reminded that this is still a very good news organization and we’re pretty good at what we do.”