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In The Eye of the Storm : Issue of Power Anchor Wields Raised Anew

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Times Staff Writer

The new books by Peter J. Boyer and Ed Joyce about the agonies, staff cutbacks and turmoil of the last few years at CBS News have raised anew the issues of anchor power and the impact on the quality of news coverage caused by belt-tightening orders from the bottom-line brigades now running all three networks.

The “principal issue the (two CBS) books make,” said Reuven Frank, twice president of NBC News in 38 years at the network and soon to become a senior Gannett Fellow at Columbia University, “is the rise of the anchorman as a major figure of authority” in the network news operation; he makes or participates in decisions once exclusively the domain of his bosses.

What that has done to evening newscasts, said Frank, who is writing his own book on network news, “is that it concentrates more and more on him.”

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Some in the industry disagree that all three network anchors have the bureaucratic clout that Frank ascribes to them. CBS’ Dan Rather and NBC’s Tom Brokaw are said to have it, but not ABC’s Peter Jennings.

Indeed, several network and industry sources say ABC News seems to be faring better overall in ratings and critical acclaim because its president, Roone Arledge, has spread the news stardom and responsibility around.

Ironically, Arledge is credited with driving anchor and correspondent salaries sky-high in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s by wooing several top correspondents away from CBS, and trying to get Rather.

But having done that, noted one industry observer, Arledge and his executives “haven’t put all their eggs in one (anchor) basket. Look at the number of ‘stars’ they’ve developed in addition to Jennings and Ted Koppel (such as Barbara Walters, Sam Donaldson and David Brinkley).

“They’re showcasing a lot of people, while NBC and CBS are falling into the trap of ‘the anchor is everything.’ CBS puts on shows like ’48 Hours,’ and it has to be Rather who anchors it.”

Neither Rather nor CBS News president Howard Stringer would comment on the two new books about the woes of CBS News, which has been the hardest hit of the three networks by recent budget cuts. A $30-million whack last year included the firing of 215 staffers--the largest pink-slipping in network news history.

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Much of that budget has since been restored, and about 100 staffers have been hired because of increased news programming.

But the shock of the major hit, plus two earlier cutbacks and the well-publicized internal fights and politics at CBS News, have to have had a serious effect on the work of the troops, noted a rival network executive, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. He believes that they inevitably must think, “Why am I knocking myself out?”

But by the same token, he said--and others agree--that the arrival at all three networks of what some call “numbers crunchers”--budget-slicing executives--has been beneficial, in a way.

“They haven’t destroyed news coverage,” he said. “What they’ve done, by reducing resources, is brought back the need to make journalistic decisions again.”

Former NBC president Robert H. Mulholland, who began his TV career in news, echoed that opinion: “They’re forcing them to make editorial decisions, rather than cover everything that moves and decide later what to use.”

Mulholland, who now heads the industry-sponsored Television Information Office but is leaving soon to teach broadcast journalism at Northwestern University, said that the era of tight budgets is going to help news in the long run:

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“They have to decide what is the news and what isn’t. If you can cover everything that moves, you never have to make a decision. You just say, ‘Cover it.’ ”

Because of that cover-everything philosophy, “there was a (staff) bloat that had developed” in network news divisions, said Frank, whose own news division has in two years trimmed about 20% of its staff.

(NBC News, now numbering about 1,000 and facing more reductions next year, is under orders from top management to break even financially by 1990.)

But now, Frank added, “they’re cutting back to where they were in 1980. Nobody would dare say, ‘Cut back to where you were in 1972,’ though.”

Ron Handberg, vice president of CBS’ Minneapolis affiliate, WCCO-TV, a station regarded as having a first-rate local news operation. hasn’t yet read either of the two new books about CBS News. But he was quite aware, he said, of the turmoil there during the presidencies of Van Gordon Sauter and Edward Joyce.

“There was a major changing of the guard in journalistic philosophy,” he said, and he heard a lot about it from friends in the traditionalist Old Guard at CBS News.

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“Unquestionably there was anguish and agony and a belief some very important (journalistic) principles were being abandoned at this time,” Handberg recalled.

But he didn’t subscribe to that, he said. Change was needed. “My great lament,” he said, “is that it was handled so poorly, that the personalities responsible for changing the course of the ship didn’t handle it with a gentler, steadier hand. Because a lot of the people who ended up on the dump heap were really good people, good journalists who loved CBS News and were concerned about its future. . . .”

How does he view CBS News now? “It’s still recovering. I think it’s still looking for its identity. I think the effects of the turmoil still linger in the very heart of the organization . . . (but) I think it is recovering.”

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