On the day that he resumed the sole anchor role on the "CBS Evening News," Dan Rather said Monday that he had not opposed Connie Chung's efforts to anchor hard-news stories and disputed the notion, advanced by people close to his former partner, that the failure of their dual-anchoring is a feminist issue.
Chung, for her part, said she believes there is a similarity between her situation and Barbara Walters' in the late 1970s, when her dual-anchoring with Harry Reasoner on the "ABC Evening News" went down in flames amid Reasoner's acrimony toward her.
"I've read comparisons to Barbara Walters, and I think there's validity there," Chung said in an interview. Without citing any specific examples, Chung said, "I think it was always difficult for Dan any time I was assigned to cover a big story for the 'CBS Evening News.' "
Rather disputed that view.
"I did not oppose Connie's going on the road, and I never did anything publicly or privately" to oust her from the newscast, Rather said in a separate interview. "I accepted a co-anchor willingly and enthusiastically and, for the first 18 months of the co-anchoring, I was supportive and encouraging of the arrangement, even when I had some reservations about it.
"The dual-anchoring did not work, but I do not see this as a gender issue," Rather continued. "While I have been anchor, the 'CBS Evening News' has had more women and minorities than any other network newscast. . . . What other anchor has willingly given up half the newscast? Harry Reasoner made no bones about how violently opposed he was [to the pairing with Walters in 1976]. That is not the situation with me, and I think the record shows that."
Chung, who was dropped on Saturday, 12 days shy of what would have been her second anniversary on the "CBS Evening News," believes that she is being made a scapegoat for the decline of the newscast, which has fallen into third place in the ratings.
"I feel that I am being asked to take the fall for the failure of the 'CBS Evening News,' " she said, "and I simply don't see the justification for it."
Asked whether she believes she is being discriminated against because she is a woman, Chung responded, "I don't know what their specific reasons are for offering me a demotion. What I do believe is that in 1995, the only woman on one of the three major network news programs should not accept any second-class status."
Chung and her agent, Alfred Geller, were in negotiations with CBS Monday to settle her contract so she could leave. The network does not plan to renew her prime-time newsmagazine, "Eye to Eye," which also has had low ratings.
CBS News President Eric Ober defended the decision Monday.
"I don't think this is an issue of sexism any more than it was sexist for us to put Connie in as co-anchor in the first place," he said. "I think this whole thing is being misconstrued. We're not blaming Connie; if you want to blame somebody, blame us as management, who thought this would work. It wasn't working, and we had to make a decision about which person, based on experience, we felt would be the strongest anchor. I don't think many people would dispute our decision."
Ober said that Rather had been cooperative about the dual-anchoring from the beginning. But Rather acknowledged that he had been unhappy when management sent Chung alone recently to anchor the signing of the Middle East peace accords, saying, "That's pretty big and important turf." But he added, "I did not oppose her going."
He also was upset when Chung alone got the call to cover the Oklahoma City bombing--and that decision triggered criticism both inside and outside the network that led to her ouster. TV critics compared her hard-news reporting skills unfavorably to Rather's, which was painful coming on top of the sagging ratings.
"The morale here in the past few months and weeks has been terrible," one CBS staffer said. "Even when we had good reporting out of Oklahoma City, all anybody focused on was why Connie was there."
Rather said it was the Oklahoma City decision that caused him to tell CBS executives that he could not continue on the same basis and that changes needed to be made in the newscast.
"I told them, 'I can't go through this again,' " Rather said Monday. But he added, "I was not saying, 'Don't send Connie.' There is plenty of room on a big story like that."
Rather said that he did not present an ultimatum regarding Chung's future. In fact, he said, he was not informed of CBS' decision until minutes before the network confirmed it to the press Saturday night.
Several network sources said they believed CBS management had not been publicly supportive enough of Chung when she faced tremendous criticism over her "just between us" interview with Newt Gingrich's mother on "Eye to Eye," an incident that hurt her credibility with the public. They also say that Chung was encouraged by CBS executives to go after Tonya Harding and other tabloid-style stories for "Eye to Eye," which also hurt her hard-news credibility.
Rather, who flew back here from a trip to Texas over the weekend, said Monday morning that he had not yet met with "Evening News" producers and senior news executives to formulate plans for the newscast. But he said, "I think we have a real opportunity to take a fresh look and improve what we're doing."