Times Staff Writer

CBS News’ decision to hire Phyllis George last January as co-anchor of the troubled “CBS Morning News” “wasn’t a mistake,” but it just didn’t work out as well as had been hoped, a top executive who participated in the decision said Tuesday.

Van Gordon Sauter, a CBS Broadcast Group executive vice president to whom the network’s news division reports, spoke in a phone interview from New York. George, citing personal and professional reasons, resigned from the two-hour daily program on Friday.

In an unrelated development, Fred Graham, CBS News’ Emmy and Peabody award-winning legal correspondent for 13 years, confirmed reports that he is leaving the network.

He said that “CBS elected not to renew my contract” when it expires in January.


(There was no immediate comment from CBS. Graham said Tuesday that he and network officials still are discussing whether he’ll leave in January or stay until the end of July of the current session of the United States Supreme Court.)

George’s brief stay on the “Morning News” was part of another unsuccessful effort by CBS News to boost the program’s ratings. Save for the summer of 1983, when it briefly was No. 2 in the morning Nielsens, the program has remained third to NBC’s “Today” and ABC’s front-running “Good Morning America.”

During her “Morning News” stint at what network sources said was an annual salary of $750,000, George was beset by criticism both for her lack of hard-news reporting experience and several much-publicized verbal gaffes she made on the show.

Despite persistent rumors that she’d be leaving the show soon, CBS officials in mid-August still were insisting that she’d be back after a two-week vacation with her family.

But on Friday, George, whose husband, former Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown plans to seek his former office in 1987, said in a statement that she had told CBS News President Ed Joyce of her “desire not to continue with my present CBS assignments.”

Her agent in Los Angeles, Ed Hookstratten, later said he didn’t know if she would continue at CBS, either in news or elsewhere. A CBS spokeswoman on Tuesday said that issue has not been resolved yet. She said she didn’t know if there had been what the British call a “golden handshake,” a financial settlement releasing George and CBS from her three-year contract.

Despite several calls to his office Tuesday, Joyce was unavailable for comment at press time. His secretary said he was busy in meetings.

“I just don’t know,” Sauter said when asked if he now he thinks it was unwise to have brought George over from CBS Sports to the “Morning News.” “Was it the best option at the time? I would tend to think . . . the answer probably would be yes.”

The executive, president of CBS News before moving up to the company’s broadcast group, said that in reflecting on the hiring of George, “You end up really saying, ‘Hey, it was the best shot at the time. . . .’

“So was it a mistake? No, it wasn’t a mistake. Did it work out as well as everybody wanted it to? No.”

After her resignation, CBS quickly moved to fill the anchor slots created both by George’s departure and that of Bill Kurtis, who left the program last June.

It named as their permanent replacements two relative unknowns--Forrest Sawyer, an Atlanta anchorman hired only last July to co-anchor the “CBS Early Morning News,” and Maria Shriver, a Los Angeles-based CBS correspondent.

The new anchors, the fifth mixed-doubles team the “Morning News” has had since the short-lived pairing of Hughes Rudd and Sally Quinn in 1973, had been working as temporary co-anchors until Friday.

They began their new full-time assignments Monday. Sawyer told viewers that George, “a very important member of our ‘Morning News’ family,” had left the program, having decided “to put her own family first for a while.”

Apparently referring to himself and Shriver, Sawyer added: “We hope to become a habit to all of you.”

That will take some doing, said Steve Friedman, executive producer of the rival “Today” show. He said that although CBS doubtless will try to make the Sawyer-Shriver duo a success, they face tough competition.

They are up against established, far better-known anchors--Bryant Gumbel and Jane Pauley at NBC, and David Hartman of ABC’s “Good Morning America"--and “whatever you could say about Phyllis George, she had a name,” Friedman said.

“These people"--Sawyer and Shriver--"are like the junior varsity. They’ve got to prove themselves, got to prove they can play in this league.”

That George’s exit had not been expected to come so swiftly was indicated by a program listing for Monday, Labor Day, in this week’s TV Guide. It carried her as a co-anchor of the “CBS Morning News” and added:

“Scheduled: A discussion of job satisfaction.”