What’s Ailing CBS News? Let’s Make a Not-So-Little List

Van Gordon Sauter was president of CBS News in the early 1980s and until recently was chairman of the California Boxing Commission.

What’s the big problem at CBS News?

Well, for one thing, it has no credibility. And no audience, no morale, no long-term emblematic anchorperson and no cohesive management structure. Outside of those annoyances, it shouldn’t be that hard to fix.

Personally, I have a great affection for CBS News, even though I was unceremoniously shown to the door there nearly 20 years ago in a tumultuous change of corporate management.

But I stopped watching it some time ago. The unremitting liberal orientation finally became too much for me. I still check in, but less and less frequently. I increasingly drift to NBC News and Fox and MSNBC.


This week, when CBS News announced that four employees would lose their jobs in connection with the George Bush National Guard story, I was struck by how the network had become representative of a far larger, far more troubling problem: A large swath of the society doesn’t trust the news media. And for many, it’s even stronger than that: They abhor the media and perceive it as an escalating threat to the society.

If it’s not stopped, the erosion of a centrist organizing principle for the media will soon become a commercial issue. Partisans will increasingly seek their news from blogs and websites and advocacy publications. And the majority -- those readers and viewers most comfortable in the center -- will try to find something

This will not be a problem initially for many big-city newspapers that both lead and reflect their liberal constituencies. The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe and the Washington Post are all pretty much in sync with their hometown sentiments. But there are problems looming for these papers. As the middle class surges into the new exurbia, those liberal and sectarian perceptions will not travel well from the city to the outskirts. Suburban papers, far more attuned to the local sentiments, will be able to seize upon disaffection with the city sophisticates.

Television’s situation is even more stark. There are now true alternatives to the major network news programs. An English-style partisanship is burgeoning on the tube. Don’t like those libs on CBS News? Go to the conservatives on Fox. Find NBC News too “centrist”? Click to ABC News or CNN. Can’t stand Rush Limbaugh and his bombastic conservatism? Head for the liberal alternative, National Public Radio. Find them all heavy-handed oafs? Go to the “news” with Jon Stewart and his merrymakers.

At this stage, local television news, the most heavily researched news product in the nation, clings to the center, trusting that banality will trump opinion. Ultimately, if the networks can’t reform themselves, this country will end up with just that: a lot of scrupulously impartial (which is not necessarily to say good) news sources, managed by research-driven executives who find it a good marketing approach.

But my guess is that CBS Chairman Les Moonves, the most effective executive in broadcasting today, will try to use the current frailty of CBS News to reshape it. The insufferable hubris and self-righteousness of the organization have been replaced by apprehension.

Although himself a liberal, Moonves will mandate a clear and defensible center for the news organization. CBS News long has been in third place -- once an intolerable position. Much of that disaffected audience must be restored if CBS News is to be resurrected. Flavored news, of the right or left, won’t work. Networks must offer nonpartisan, objective news.

For CBS News, the only path back to anything near first place will require a compass setting based in objectivity and quality.

Or it can sulk and feel victimized and drift even further into a partisan milieu with an even smaller but highly dedicated audience.

I’d bet on the former. The stockholders bought into broadcasting. Not narrowcasting. The market will prevail.

In this case, that’s a good thing. For CBS and for the news business.