Pilots of six new series were shown. Reports were made on everything from prime-time entertainment to the work of the “football overrun committee.” But most of the material was pretty dull, predictable, or both--with one unexpected exception: CBS News.
Its segment, begun with emphatic pledges of journalistic fairness, balance and accuracy, turned into a bouncy, music-filled collection of clips from CBS News programs and periodic pauses for brief remarks by CBS News stars, including Dan Rather.
Occurring on the last day of the annual CBS affiliates convention in this sparkling city of smartly dressed women and light-hearted men, the show was remarkable if only because it seemed so in contrast with the traditional somber, serious image of CBS News that began back in the era of Edward R. Murrow.
The presentation was a stage production of sorts, a shiny new package mostly containing time-honored calls for all that is holy in journalism, with the stars seated in executive chairs atop small platforms, each taking a brief turn in the spotlight.
There was no question-and-answer session, just short speeches.
Rather sat at a small mock-up of the top-rated “CBS Evening News” show that he anchors. Also present: Mike Wallace of the long-running news hit “60 Minutes” and Bill Kurtis and Phyllis George, co-anchors of the third-in-ratings “CBS Morning News.”
Wednesday’s effort seemed intended to drive home the point that no matter what conservatives such as Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) say about “liberal bias” at CBS News, such doesn’t exist there, only rigorous standards of journalistic honesty and constant self-examination.
The latter was noted in the form of questions that flashed on and off a large screen above the stage at Nob Hill’s cavernous Masonic Auditorium, where the proceedings, attended by 700 station executives, took place.
“Is it balanced?” the sign on the screen said. Then, in rapid order: “Is it fair? Is it accurate? Is it relevant? Is it responsible? Is it important? Is it timely?”
CBS News staffers ask those questions every day about stories planned for broadcast, said CBS News President Ed Joyce. In their effort to come up with a “yes” each time, he said, “nobody expects more from these people than they expect from themselves.
It was a refrain echoed both by Rather, the tough, experienced news veteran, and by George, whose appointment to the “CBS Morning News” in January drew much criticism on grounds that she had no real news credentials, never had covered a major news story in her life.
In his role as anchor and managing editor of the “CBS Evening News,” Rather said, “Nobody expects more from Dan Rather than Dan Rather.”
George, whose co-anchor praised her “warmth and energy” as of great help to their morning show, said, “Nobody expects more from Phyllis George than Phyllis George.”
“I believe I have a lot to offer,” she added. “I know that I have a lot to learn. I’ve never ducked a challenge, and I certainly don’t expect to start now.”
(At a later closed-door meeting of affiliates and CBS officials, one station executive asked if George really could help CBS’ struggling morning news show. Replied Joyce: “We think this is just what the (CBS) ‘Morning News’ needs.”)
Wallace, the lead-off speaker, confined his remarks to calling “60 Minutes” a “dream assignment” and saying that after 17 years “we’re still committed to keeping our broadcast on the cutting edge of today’s journalism.”
Rather, on the other hand, indirectly touched on the criticism by Helms and other conservatives about CBS News. Without naming anyone, he vowed that “we are not going to report to suit anybody’s political preferences. We will not play favorites or pull punches. . . .”
He got applause when he added: “Insofar as it’s humanly possible, and with God’s help, we’re going to report it straight.”
The presentation was marked by clips of various news programs and shots of correspondents and anchors hard at work, all this accompanied by recorded orchestral music that often was quite jazzy and at times seemed more appropriate to an action-adventure series than broadcast journalism.
The proceeding concluded with a bouncy jingle in which vocalists sang that CBS News “keeps America on top of the world.”
What would Ed Murrow think of all this, er, flash?
“I haven’t the foggiest idea,” said Van Gordon Sauter, who headed CBS News until 1983, when he became an executive vice president of the CBS Broadcast Group in charge of the CBS News division and its TV stations division.
Interviewed after the show, he seemed mildly surprised that anyone would suggest that the production, even with its emphasis on fair, balanced and accurate reporting, seemed to smack of show biz.
He said that it only was “an effective use of contemporary television technology” to present CBS News’ message and that in his opinion “the content was enhanced by the form.”
“I thought it (the show) was sensational. . . . I would say it probably was the highlight of the convention,” said James Sefert, president of a South Carolina-based company, Cosmos Broadcasting, which owns a CBS-affiliated station in Toledo, Ohio.
But neither Sefert nor fellow conventioneer Mac Patton, Cosmos board chairman, thought that the glossy presentation demeaned CBS News or cast doubt on its pledges of fairness and accuracy.
“It certainly was different,” Patton said. He said he’d never seen anything like it at any CBS convention he’d ever attended.
Former CBS News President Richard S. Salant, who wasn’t at this year’s convention, agreed, and was sharply critical of the entertainment aspects of the production when the show was described to him by phone Thursday at his Connecticut home.
A traditionalist, he called the showcasing of the news segment “disturbing and depressing” and said, “It’s all part of the new age . . . it’s hype and show business.”
Despite that, he declined to say that the convention production bodes ill for the future of the division he headed until his retirement from CBS in 1979.
“I don’t know,” Salant said. He chuckled. “We (top network news executives) always say everything goes downhill after we leave. But the ‘CBS Evening News’ is still a good program.”
Staff writer Morgan Gendel contributed to this report.