THE BLOG
02/11/2009 01:36 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Playing "Network Chicken" at CBS News

Several years ago, Les Moonves, President of CBS, publically suggested he wanted to "blow up" CBS News. What a sad departure from our golden days. CBS News had emerged over the decades as the most glistening jewel of the Tiffany network. This reputation for excellence flourished under William Paley's generous hand... and under the watchful editorial eye of heroic journalists like Edward R. Murrow, Mike Wallace, Fred Friendly, Dan Rather, Walter Cronkite, Charles Kuralt, Don Hewitt, Lane Venardos, Sir Howard Stringer, and a cast of about a thousand other legendary journalists and producers. Their extraordinary skill and integrity were revealed each night in the CBS Evening News and on 60 Minutes (which largely retains its autonomy and still-luminous reputation for integrity.)

Along the way, CBS News was victim of a thousand little cuts... the most egregious under Larry Tisch (who made a great deal of money while killing lot of people as owner of the Lorillard Tobacco Company). This was followed by the insipid regime of the Westinghouse Corporation which briefly aquired the once glittering network in an effort to save itself from bankruptcy. The CBS Corporation was then reorganized and largely plundered by Mel Karmazin, who walked away with a vast payout after significantly gutting the employee pension plan... leaving the reeling company further enfeebled in the shaky hands of Sumner Redstone.

As Dan Rather was purged, Les Moonves finally got his wish and assembled a group of executives who largely succeeded to "blow up" CBS News. Although the hiring of Katie Couric was not as horrendous a decision as the earlier unfortunate hiring of Bryant Gumbel, both hires were ferociously expensive and devastating evidence that infotainment was to be the last option for the news division.

What had been the finest broadcast news organization has devolved into what employess there describe as the most disorganized and least motivated place to work in any of the network news operations. Dozens of cherished journalists fled or were fired. Yet the supposed cure was worse than what ailed CBS News. Not surprisingly, the amiable Katie Couric continues as the face of the CBS News brand's tailspin. As Moonves should have observed, it is far easier to blow something up than to return it to its former glory.

When I started working in Special Events at CBS News, getting on the air first... before our competition...with the most accurate and insightful reporting about a breaking news event was our clear mission and shared passion. But I watched as about a decade ago the news division began to play something called "Network Chicken": a "game" of indecision to see if we really "needed" to interrupt prime time programming (and particularly the commercials) with whatever news event had occurred. If half the world blew up during "The Price is Right", the other half wouldn't know about it until after "the Showcase," whatever that is.

Instead of basing our decision to break-in on-air on the editorial merit and news value of an event, the decision whether to contemporaneously inform the public would be made by waiting to see what OTHER networks would do first. Sometimes CBS would play "Single Chicken": deciding to hold off interrupting programming until one of our competitors (either ABC News or NBC News... but certainly not Fox) went on the air first. Sometimes, we would play "Double Chicken," deciding that we would not go on the air until BOTH NBC and ABC News chose to go on the air first. Coverage was not determined by the nature of the event but by the decision- or indecision- of executives at other news networks!

There was a time when news judgment was dictated by rigorous decision... based on fulfilling a public trust. Mindful of a social need, the news division existed not as hand-maiden to the ad-sales department but because of a sacred covenant between journalists of CBS News and the public that relied on our judgment.

Often, this new era of indecision took on a comic quality. Just days after Dan Rather announced his departure, I cheekily pretended to my colleagues that comedian Jon Stewart would be named his replacement. (Many of my colleagues shared the observation that network news "journalism" could no longer be taken seriously, so my "announcement" was enjoyed as the sorry joke it was.) Comedy-news was emerging as a sharper, more insightful, less soporific means of revealing genuine honest intellectual discourse. But never in my wildest dreams did I think my sarcastic suggestion to replace a great news anchor with a comedian would be announced, as Les Moonves did three days later, as under "real consideration." Fortunately, it was the wise and perceptive Jon Stewart who announced that he wouldn't consider such a move. After all, the comedian had integrity.

When I was seven years old, I announced to whatever world that cared that one day I would work at CBS News. When I was 17, after not snagging a CBS News job, I started working at PBS in New York, down the street from CBS. Later, I finally joined CBS News, as I had long intended and dreamed. After thirty years in broadcasting, most of them at CBS News, it became increasingly obvious that I had to get out of that place. If CBS News had been allowed to continue to uphold the tradition as an organization that put the public trust first, I never would have voluntarily left. But when we became "Network Chickens," we shamefully revealed that we would dare to go last while daring least. We squandered our birthright and the precious trust CBS News once shared with the public.

It was not technology---not the web---or the ubiquity of cable news providers--- that decimated CBS News. Nor will it matter which human face news executives next sacrifice to anchor this sinking institution. Neither Katie Couric nor Bryant Gumbel nor a glee club of pretty reporter-faces are solely to blame for the black eye that is CBS News. We, the network chickens who allowed CBS News to be blown up from the inside, must bear that shame.

Certainly today's pygmies of broadcasting history achieved such modest stature as a result of a very different regulatory and economic environment than that which influenced our forebears. For during the more robust days of broadcast journalism, there was a clear and respected concept of broadcasting in the public interest. In exchange for being granted free use of the public spectrum, broadcasters were required and expected to "serve the public interest, convenience and necessity." Government intrusion into journalism is anathema and will always be. But a reckless government giveaway of a limited public resource is equally abhorrent when the public receives little or nothing in return.

Of course, US broadcasters were given a mammoth gift of our public spectrum... actually a double gift: of both the analog spectrum we're all waiting for them to return... (which the networks are taking their own sweet time to transition away from) ... PLUS the massive and hugely valuable hunk of digital spectrum we have granted them for years to come.

And what do these broadcasters present the public in return for this massive "gimme? " Aside from one of the world's most well-funded lobbying efforts, not much.

Wasn't it embarrassing, during this past election, that the most vigorous debates in our vast media polyglot occurred on comedy programs? More people - by orders of magnitude - watched candidates appear on shows like Saturday Night Live and on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart than on any and all news broadcasts. And, in terms of issues coverage, I am embarrassed to concede comedy broadcasts did a vastly superior job actually identifying news issues and reporting on them. Long after the campaigns bypassed insipid news broadcasts, presidential candidates were granting largely unfettered access on Saturday Night Live... including John McCain's shameful appearance a mere three days before the election.

When the networks want to increase profits, they dismiss more news crews and experienced journalists. Why not? Nothing is stopping them. Nothing stopped them from shutting down bureaus around the world. Here in the U.S., cities that lost news bureaus might as well not even exist if you watch evening news coverage..

When broadcast news operations began reaching out for "public input" for videos and other "user generated content," management cynically claimed they cared about tapping into the public voice and the power of the "new media." The truth was and is that news executives by and large think such sources of information are basically crap. But they know a good deal when they see one! Free video? Free commentary? Free stuff, regardless of quality or of bonafides, from places where their crews are long gone and their experienced journalists have long been retired?

The decline of network news programs was not inevitable. 60 Minutes remains a majestic rebuke of that notion. But the cowardice and greed of broadcast executives condemned CBS News to wither as producers in the control room were forced to play "Network Chicken."