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Dan Rather Steps Down

Aired November 28, 2004 - 11:00   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Dropping anchors. Dan Rather gives up the chair at CBS. Was it really his idea or is he trying to blunt the investigation into his badly-botched story on President Bush's National Guard record? Will the episode tarnish Rather's remarkable 40-year career and can the "CBS Evening News "thrive without him.
Tom Brokaw steps down this week at NBC. Can Brian Williams fill his sizable shoes and keep the news division on top? ABC's "Nightline" loses an executive producer and dips in the ratings. Could Disney be eying an end to Ted Koppel's program.

Plus, saturation coverage of that basketball brawl. Have the media been adding to the frenzy and turning a blind eye to the NBA's thug culture?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, this is a special edition of RELIABLE SOURCES with Howard Kurtz.

KURTZ: Welcome to an hour-long RELIABLE SOURCES this Sunday morning when we turn our critical lens on network news and the changing of the generational guard. The pre-thanksgiving bombshell. Dan Rather hanging it up next March on his 24th anniversary as the longest-serving CBS anchor ever.


DAN RATHER, CBS ANCHOR: After nearly a quarter of a century as anchor of this broadcast, I've decided it is time to move on.


KURTZ: He's had an amazing career, reporting from the scene of the JFK assassination in 1963, anchoring from the streets of Iraq in 2003. There was an on-air shouting match about Iran-Contra with then Vice President George Bush. And the final pre-war interview with Saddam Hussein, but his last big story when one Rather would probably like to forget. The "60 Minutes" report of accusing president bush to have favorable treatment in the National Guard based on 30-year-old memos that could not be authenticated. And that, eventually led to this apology.


RATHER: It was a mistake. CBS News deeply regrets it and also I want to say personally and directly, I'm sorry.


KURTZ: Joining us now from New York is Rather's long-time friend, the executive producer of the "CBS Evening News," Jim Murphy. Welcome.


KURTZ: I've often joked that Dan with have to be carried out with his fingers gripping the chair. Was this a hard decision for him?

MURPHY: I'm sure it was. But he's been thinking about it for quite some time, I mean, they have been talking for months, they were talking well before this story broke and there goes my IFB, so bear with me as I try to pretend I'm a television professional. It was tough, it was a tough week, it was a tough decision to come to, but, like I said, he's been talking about it for months -- for months before the Guard story broke. So, I mean, the timing just felt weird, but it wasn't supposed to be.

KURTZ: But how much was the specter of that National Guard story, Jim Murphy, and the fact that there is an investigative panel that's going to deliver it findings in a couple week hanging over this whole process?

MURPHY: Well, it had to hang over it, obviously, it is a cloud over the news division at the moment. But as I said, this was supposed to happen. Dan and his bosses -- my bosses had been discussing this for a while. So, the timing is unfortunate, some people are going to associate the two events, they're not, basically, related. Because one was going to happen whether or not the other one did.

KURTZ: Well, let's take a look at what Rather had to say about his future on this program back in June.


RATHER: You know, I love my work, I love being in journalism. As long as my health holds and as long as they want me to do it I'm really eager to do it.


KURTZ: That didn't sound like a man getting ready to hang it up, Jim.

MURPHY: Yeah, well, as you know, well when you're in the middle of a negotiation you just generally don't discuss those things publicly.

KURTZ: All right. But do you think this Guard story and all the controversy surrounding it, for which Rather has apologized, as we showed at the top of the show, is, at least in the way it's being portrayed in the media, unfairly tarnishing his 40-year career? MURPHY: Well, over time that is going to get sorted out. First of all, he's been a journalist for 50 years and half a century he had one snakebite. That's a pretty amazing record. As you know, your institution, the "New York Times," CNN, everybody in this industry has at one time or another or many organizations, I shouldn't say everyone, have suffered from a story that went wrong. And it's just unfortunate this one happened at this time. You called it his biggest story this year, but I think his biggest story this year was Abu Ghraib, which was a much more important and bigger story and it turned out that there wasn't an issue with that.

KURTZ: But you're certainly not saying that the mistakes that were made on the National Guard story that were not his fault somehow.

MURPHY: Well, I don't know if they were. The investigation is finding out who did what and when at each point in the process of collecting facts for this story. You know a lot of people have been questioned, a lot of people were involved in working on this story and the investigation is going to, I assume in the end, sort out who did what and when and who was ultimately responsible. And I do not believe that that is going to be the correspondent. I mean, everybody in this industry knows that a lot of people work on each and every story and a lot of people are out front on information-gathering and the correspondent is definitely involved, but usually not in charge.

KURTZ: Well, from people who think that Dan Rather is, let's say, a not so closeted liberal, to those who find him a tad eccentric, what is it about him? He has always been a kind of a lightning rod in this television industry.

MURPHY: That's interesting. He does have a pretty outsized character. He is a folksy guy from Texas, but part of what's -- part of Dan's legacy and part of his history has to do with what CBS and Dan have been involved with for a very long time. Here is a guy who was forged by the Depression and the New Deal, born in a poor place at a terrible time in this country's history who grew up to escape all of that, cover the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, Watergate and many things since and I believe that a lot of people have always felt that CBS news was a little too progressive. I mean, and that goes back throughout all of those stories I just mentioned.

KURTZ: But it's not just CBS News being too progressive, perhaps, it is also someone says is Dan's confrontational style whether it's standing up to Vice President Bush or anybody else that he was interviewing or parachuting into war zones. Is that a plus or minus or ...

MURPHY: Parachuting into war zones isn't confrontational, that's someone who likes to get his boots on the ground. We both know that going some place where big things are happening gives you a view that you cannot get by sitting at a studio. I remember when we went to Kabul, American troops weren't even at the city, they were out at Bhagram Air Base, they were just taking the country and we had an interview right when we got there with the Abdullah Abdullah, the foreign minister for the Northern Alliance and off camera, I've never seen anyone appear to be as nervous about the location he was standing in and sitting in in that hotel as he was that day. You don't see that on television. What he was telling us with his body language is that we were in a really dangerous place, he was marked and that he always had to keep moving because it was a very dangerous country. You wouldn't know that without being there.

KURTZ: It is all about appearing to be a cool customer on the air. All right. Jim Murphy in New York. Thanks very much for your insights into Dan Rather this morning.

MURPHY: Thank you, Howie.

KURTZ: Good to see you. When we come back, we'll ask a panel of television news veterans about Rather's departure. And the impact of the National Guard debacle.

And still to come, all the media coverage of the Pistons-Pacers punching. Are journalists pouring fuel on the fire?


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES where we're talking about Dan Rather's dramatic resignation and the future of network news. Joining us now are three television veterans. In Boston, former ABC News correspondent Bob Zelnick, now the dean of the Boston University School of Journalism. With me in Washington, former CNN correspondent and Washington bureau chief Frank Sesno, now professor of public policy and communications at George Mason University. And Marvin Kalb formerly a correspondent at CBS and NBC News. Now a senior fellow at Harvard's Joan Shorenstein Media Center. Welcome.

Bob Zelnick, should Dan Rather have stepped down and do you believe it was directly tied to this National Guard story?

BOB ZELNICK, FORMER ABC NEWS CORRESPONDENT: To answer the second question first, yes, I believe it was directly tied to it and I think the timing was directly tied to it. They wanted to beat the report by Thornburgh and Boccardi. I think that anybody would have to believe in the Tooth Fairy not to think there was linkage between the announcement and the investigation. I think it was entirely appropriate that he stepped down because at the end of the day there may be producers involved in stories and maybe editors and executive editors, but the person whose face is on camera, who is mouthing the words, who is reporting the facts, that's the correspondent and he or she has to take responsibility for what they broadcast.

KURTZ: Rather did tell me that the timing of his announcement was directly impacted by the forthcoming report, but Frank Sesno, he made a mistake, he made a big mistake. Does that warrant him losing his anchor job?

FRANK SESNO, FORMER CNN BUREAU CHIEF: Well, I think it warrants the changes taking place. Not just because of the mistake he made, but because he became part of the story, Howe. I mean, he has been a lightning rod for a long time. The fact of the matter is that the man 73 years old who is planning a change anyway, it's the timing here that has been changed. It's the timing that has been accelerated. That's appropriate at any corporation and a CEO would have said to a COO or any other star of the organization, if you've become part of the problem you're going to have to take one for the team. That's what Dan did.

KURTZ: And on that point, Marvin Kalb, you worked with Dan Rather many years ago, did he dig himself a far deeper hole by doggedly defending the story for ten days after just about everyone, including a lot of bloggers could see the documents in question were apparently bogus.

MARVIN KALB, FORMER CBS, NBC CORRESPONDENT: What that said to me was that Dan was protecting people. Dan understood what he understood and he didn't understand what everybody understood. Because he's the anchor. As you know yourself, Howie, a lot of things are fed in to the anchor.

KURTZ: So you're saying he was deliberately taking the hit to protect his ...

KALB: I think he was deliberately taking the hit to protect any number of people, yes. Dan is a very unusual person. I think that we talk about him and many of us don't really know him. He's a most unusual man, he's prepared to take a hit. He's incredibly patriotic and he believes in what he's doing and he's a first class reporter.

SESNO: One of the problems, if I may, is not just defending others, but by alleging that those who were the critics were mounting some kind of political campaign ...

KALB: He used the word "partisan."

SESNO: That's right. And that dug the whole hole deeper.

KURTZ: Bob Zelnick, why has Dan Rather over the years been such a big, fat target among the big three anchors, especially for conservatives?

ZELNICK: Well, I think his intensity, I think it goes way back to the exchange, the famous exchange with President Nixon down in Houston. "Are you running for office?" "No, with all due respect, sir, are you?" There have been other controversial reports. There was the exchange with George H. W. Bush that was mentioned. I think Dan rather also epitomized at the beginning of his anchorship the power and glory of network news.

It was big, fat target. He ran first among three for seven years and then when he started to decline, CBS declined faster than the other two the last ten years and that made him an even more inviting target for conservatives and other critics of his work. I think, again, at his best, he exemplified the power and at worst the weakness and vulnerability of the network operations.

KURTZ: If this is at least in part about the National Guard story and the fact that Rather is 73, once this report comes out and presumably it is less than flattering everybody, how can Dan Rather continue as a full-time "60 Minutes" correspondent, which is going to be his game plan after giving up the anchor chair?

KALB: I think that's a terrific question, Howie and I don't know the answer to that. I think if will be very difficult but Dan couldn't sever his ties to journalism and to CBS.

KURTZ: Why not?

KALB: Because ...

KURTZ: People retire.

KALB: No, people do retire and he's absolutely ...

SESNO: It's who he is. It's who he is.

KALB: He is the kind of guy who simply cannot give up if he is -- if he feels he's in the middle of a story, and his whole life he feels he's in the middle of a story, he's always in the middle of a story. And when you ask the question, why is he a target of conservatives? Because, because he is the kind of person that he is. It is almost impossible for Rather to duck a challenge. He takes on challenges. The Republicans didn't like the idea that rather was the White House correspondent at a time -- Bob's point is so right -- at a time when CBS was at the very top. Everyone was looking towards CBS and rather was the White House correspondent. He's the kind of tough guy, so he asked tough questions of the president.

SESNO: He does journalism the old fashion way and remember his roots and what he grew up in. We heard that a moment ago in the introductions.

KURTZ: Sam Houston State Teacher's College.

SESNO: That's right. And it was the civil right's movement and it was Vietnam and it was a time when journalism saw itself as comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable and journalism's job was to expose -- and to expose corruption and expose unfairness. That's kind of gone out of fashion a little bit, but Dan Rather was the traditional, dogged, hardcore newsman. And it may be a lightning rod kind of job now, but that's what he did and that's how he pursued it.

KURTZ: Bob Zelnick, do you think this National Guard story that Rather played so prominent a role was just the reckless pursuit of a scoop. This thing was rushed on to the air five days after CBS obtained these disputed documents or fueled by the desire to get President Bush?

ZELNICK: I think it was more the former. There may have been among one or more people working the story the particular desire to get Bush, but I think it was a legitimate story trying to get the president's Air National Guard records. But I maintained at the time and I maintain now that that story should have never aired.

There was no story except for the documents that alleged that he defied an order from a commanding officer to take his physical and then that officer was under pressure from his superiors to sugarcoat it. Without the documents, there was no story there and he should have retracted it as soon as those documents became suspect.

KURTZ: No question they waited too long. Let's pull back the camera just a little bit. Dan Rather is a guy who went to Afghanistan 24 years ago disguised as Gunga Dan, who broke the Abu Ghraib prison story, interviewed Saddam. Is there a danger that all of those accomplishments, and some of them were controversial, are being overshadowed by this National Guard debate.

KALB: Absolutely. And that's why I think the news about Dan's retirement from the anchorship came out before the independent panel's report comes in because, as you said yourself there is no doubt that Dan is going to take a big hit when that report comes out. But, please, let us not forget all of the good things that he did as a first class reporter. And I have a feeling that if you go back to trying to explain why it is that people on the right went after Rather, it is because at that time that Rather was almost at the height of his career as a White House correspondent and an anchorman, he took on issues that were not favorite issues for the conservatives in the United States.

The resignation of Nixon, the loss of the Vietnam War. These are things that the conservatives sort of associated with Rather, but it wasn't his fault.

KURTZ: Of course, also, he has been the anchor for nearly 24 years.

KALB: Yeah. Absolutely.

ZELNICK: May I interject?

KURTZ: Please, Bob.

ZELNICK: Marvin, I think with all due respect, that the conservatives will put Dan Rather's record in perspective and forget about the National Guard story at the same time liberals put Richard Nixon's record in perspective and forget about Watergate.

KURTZ: OK, I've got to jump in here because we need to take a break. When we come back, how will the "CBS Evening News" and "NBC Nightly News" deal with the younger faces at the anchor desk? Before we go to break, a look at one memorable moment in Rather's career. His 1988 confrontation with then Vice President Bush over the Iran- Contra affair.


RATHER: I don't look to be argumentative tonight but ...

GEORGE H. W. BUSH, FORMER VICE PRESIDENT: This is not a great night because I want to talk about why I want to be president, why those 41 percent of the people are supporting me. And I don't think it's fair ...

RATHER: Mr. Vice President these questions are ...

BUSH: ... to judge a whole career - It's not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran.


KURTZ: Welcome back to this special expanded edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. Frank Sesno, the next CBS anchor -- and sources tell me the frontrunner is White House correspondent John Roberts ...

SESNO: Who was here with us a couple weeks ago.

KURTZ: ... is the front runner and Rather's principal substitute on the evening news will have no where near the stature of Dan Rather. How much of a disadvantage will that be?

SESNO: That's a big disadvantage. The fact of the matter is when Dan Rather ascended to the throne in 1981, there were the three networks. CNN was in its infancy then, there was no Internet then. The anchormen were the pivot points of American culture and that just doesn't exist right now and whether it's Roberts or anyone else the network nightly newscasts do not even command the bulk of the audience every day now. Cable does.

KURTZ: Now, NBC, Brian Williams faces the same problem and he takes over this coming Thursday for the retiring Tom Brokaw after 22 years in the anchor chair. But people forget that in the early '80s Brokaw was no Tom Brokaw. In fact, I want to play a clip, he was on our program just a couple weeks ago. Let's hear Tom Brokaw addressing that very question.


TOM BROKAW, NBC ANCHOR: It was true for Dan, it was true for Peter and it was true for me. When we first began we were deemed not worthy. We were too young or too inexperienced or not appropriate for those jobs.


KURTZ: Pick up that point.

KALB: I think he is absolutely right.

I remember very vividly I was at NBC at that time and when Tom came in everyone knew him as a young, very aggressive reporter and he had done the "Today" program and could he really fit the bill, could he really have the seriousness. And the answer was no, he couldn't. But obviously now he does. And it is going to be the same thing if John Roberts replaces Dan Rather.

SESNO: Since that ascendancy, the network nightly newscast audience has shrunk by half. Doesn't that have an impact?

KALB: It has a huge impact.

KURTZ: But it is still one of the bigger gorillas out there in the jungle.

KALB: But Dan replaced Walter Cronkite.

KURTZ: A tough act to follow.

KALB: I mean, the toughest act to follow.

KURTZ: Could it be argued, Bob Zelnick, that CBS and NBC and eventually, when Peter Jennings steps down, ABC will be better off with younger anchors in the chair to appeal to a younger audience.

ZELNICK: I'm not sure if they're better off with younger anchors or older anchors. The audience that watches the evening news is approximately 60 years old so maybe they've found a comfort level, but, what I would like to see is that the glorification of the anchor pulled down a peg or so. Dan Rather earned, according to published reports, about $10 million a year. This is at a time when CBS News declined by 37 percent during the last ten years of his stewardship.

I would like it see the networks get back to more working journalists like the CNN and the cables do where an anchor may get $2 million a year instead of $10 million and they use the extra money to have more reporters in the field and possibly more bureaus producing real news.

KURTZ: These guys do make a lot of money. Now, this is equally a question for CNN, Frank Sesno, which had another management shake up in the past week, former CBS executive Jonathan Klein taking over as the president of CNN U.S. He talks about the need for more news personalities. Why is one man - the person that sits in front of that camera so crucial? And a news division is a collection of reporters and producers and technical people.

SESNO: Sure. It's both, but people watch people. And now, especially when you have 100, 200, 500 channels out there that you can choose from now when you have not one, two, or three but a dozen channels you can go to for news or entertainment, you're going to connect with a person you know, you like and you trust.

You're also going to connect with a person who's knowledgeable and I think that's what is overlooked here. At the end, it's the idea. At the end of the day it's about someone's intelligence, their credibility and their experience and what they convey to the viewer and they do that in 100 ways every time they look into the camera and open their mouths.

KURTZ: You said that so concisely you should be making $10 million a year.

SESNO: My wife would agree with that, actually.

KURTZ: Marvin Kalb, Frank Sesno, Bob Zelnick in Boston. Thanks very much for joining us.

Up next, a check of the hour's top stories from the CNN news room and then Tom Brokaw marks his final "Nightly News" in three days. That and more ahead on RELIABLE SOURCES.


KURTZ: Welcome back to this special one-hour edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Ted Koppel have been among the anchor heavyweights who've dominated network news for decades. Now Rather is stepping down in the face of an outside investigation into whether he recklessly made charges about the military record of the president of the United States. Brokaw is stepping down under calmer circumstances on a long-planned semi-retirement. And there's speculation, prompted by a "Wall Street Journal" piece about how long Koppel and "Nightline" can survive the late-night wars.

Joining us now in New York, "Newsday" TV Critic Verne Gay. In Philadelphia, Gail Shuster, television columnist for "The Philadelphia Inquirer." And here with me in the studio, "Washington Post" reporter Paul Farhi. Welcome.

Verne Gay, five years from now, when we look back at Dan Rather's rather long career, will this whole National Guard controversy be seen as kind of a blip?

VERNE GAY, NEWSDAY: I think it will -- it will definitely not be seen as a blip, and I don't think it will be seen as representative of Dan's career either. I think it's an extraordinary disaster for CBS, but I hope for Dan's sake that it will be a blip, that people will forget about it and they'll remember really a brilliant journalist whose 50 years of work I think outweighs that.

KURTZ: Gail Shuster, brilliant he may be, but what is it about Rather that has long made him the most controversial of the big three anchors?

GAIL SHUSTER, PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER: I think that he's always getting himself into goofy situations. The part with "what's the frequency Kenneth," his propensity for hanging by flag poles during hurricanes. He is an unusual, controversial guy. I think it's in his DNA. I think he's not your typical anchor, in that he shows up in situations that other anchors don't. So he seems odd, and his speech mannerisms have gotten him a lot of press over the years. His corny -- they call them Danisms. So he does stand out, and it's partly his personality, and partly the situations he puts himself in.

KURTZ: Right. Is the National Guard story, Paul Farhi, in keeping with Rather's pushing of the envelope?

PAUL FARHI, WASHINGTON POST: I think it is. But that often pays dividends when you are covering the Nixon White House and you're pressing to find out about Watergate, when you are covering Afghanistan, when you're covering the presidents that you covered.

KURTZ: Because you're seen as aggressive and confrontational.

FARHI: You're seen as aggressive, and you're outfront, and it's also good for your newscast. What's Dan got tonight? But of course, it backfires when you go over the top, when you aren't looking as closely as you could, when you get sloppy, which is what happened with Dan Rather.

KURTZ: And refused for a period of crucial 10 days to apologize for a story that clearly was flawed.

Verne Gay, this coming Wednesday, Tom Brokaw signs off for the final time on "NBC Nightly News." What would you say is his legacy? He obviously has the relative luxury of going off to his Montana ranch without a journalistic posse pursuing him.

GAY: Well, it will be interesting to see if his legacy is literary as opposed to television. He, as you know, wrote "The Greatest Generation." It was a best seller. There were two subsequent books. And I think "The Greatest Generation" was a terrific book, and Tom would say that that was his legacy. He's going to, as you know, go off and do other books. He seems to have sort of found this unique role as the -- as the journalist of the generation of World War II veterans, and because, as I say, "The Greatest Generation" was a terrific book.

I think the other part of his legacy is he, Dan and Tom are going to be the last three big guys that hung down these shows. These shows, for all intents and purposes, are going to be small, diminished, and the guys that are going to step into their roles are going to be, I think, small and diminished by comparison, as well. So...

KURTZ: We'll get into that in the next segment, but I want to ask Gail Shuster, what it is about Brokaw. He had some sort of South Dakota knack for delivering the news without making it about him.

SHUSTER: Well, I'd like jump in here, too, to answer the previous question.


SHUSTER: I think of the three main anchors, I think Brokaw will have the easiest transition out of daily television. I think he's got so many deep interests in his life. He's a passionate outdoorsman. He's very dedicated husband and father, and he's really, really serious about the environment, in addition to first class writing.

And I think he doesn't need to be on television in a way that a lot of other anchors do.

KURTZ: So, no post-anchor syndrome therapy for Tom Brokaw.

SHUSTER: I think he will go through an initial sense of withdrawal, like all the anchors will, and then after that he has a very deep life. He'll be happy.

KURTZ: OK, let me come to Paul Farhi. It's been a pretty smooth handoff at NBC, but will people desert "Nightly News" when Brian Williams takes over?

FARHI: I don't think so. I think that's the reason for the transition and the long run-up. And what's interesting about CBS is they had no successor in mind, which really does cast a cloud over the announcement of why Dan was leaving. And, of course, the investigation into the National Guard story is the thing that that everybody says may have prompted him to be pushed out, or to have jumped.

But at NBC, they have been preparing for this for a good couple of years, and people know Brian Williams. He's substituted for Tom Brokaw many times. It will be much easier for them than it will be for CBS.

KURTZ: All right, Verne Gay, I want to turn now to "Nightline." We're running a little short on time. The executive producer, Leroy Sievers, his contract was not renewed. The ratings are down. There was a "Wall Street Journal" piece suggesting that maybe the Disney- owned network was running out of patience with Ted Koppel. Isn't it hard for that show increasingly to compete in that 11:30 time slot?

GAY: It is, but to quote Dan, our friend Dan, the Sievers departure doesn't smell right. It's a dog that I don't think will hunt. Why didn't Tom, Tom Bettag, the senior executive producer, stand in the way of his departure, and why didn't Ted? So I think there are some unanswered questions there.

And meanwhile, ABC has they vigorously said, we stand by that show. But of course, CBS said very vigorously, we stand by the September 8th show.

So, who knows?

KURTZ: And ABC was not quite so vigorous a couple of years ago when they almost dropped "Nightline," Paul Farhi, for David Letterman. So he's up against Leno and Letterman every night. That's a hard position for a news show.

FARHI: Yeah, but "Nightline" does something that Leno and Letterman doesn't. It gets the news audience, and it gets a fairly sizable news audience at that hour. It's not like this isn't a profitable show. It isn't an unsuccessful show. It's quite successful in that sense.

Could they be more successful with entertainment? That's what ABC is right now going through the analysis of. But "Nightline" has been a great profit center for them and a great prestige center for them.

KURTZ: I have another question, Gail Shuster, on ABC. Peter Jennings is starting to run promos that talk about "trust is earned." Let's take a look at what he had to say about when he might be stepping down. This was in April on "LARRY KING LIVE."


PETER JENNINGS, ABC NEWS: There comes a time when doing a daily broadcast is perhaps not as rewarding as it is to me now. You can see by my excitement that I love doing these specials and I am deeply grateful to ABC that I am one of the few people who has the opportunity to do them.


KURTZ: Gail, as long as Jennings is in that chair, will he -- will ABC benefit from having him as the only veteran anchor still standing?

SHUSTER: I think that there is a tremendous window of opportunity for ABC now, with movement at NBC and with movement at CBS. I think they are going to increase their promotion dramatically and position Jennings as here's the guy you've known for 21 years, and he's the guy who's paid his dues in ways that the other anchors, the new anchors have not. And he's the guy you're going to trust.

But as far as the retirement issue goes, I asked him the same thing recently and he said to me, why should there be a retirement timetable for journalists? His father, who was one of the founders of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, died when he was 65, and Jennings pointed out, I've already lived longer than my father, which is a big issue for a lot of people. And he has no interest in walking away at this point. It would be in ABC's best interest for him not to walk away for a while and take advantage of this window of opportunity.

KURTZ: Still in place for senior citizens on the evening news.

All right, still to come, in an age of around the clock media saturation, why do we need the big evening newscasts anyway? And later, a look at the coverage of that much-replayed NBA brawl. Don't go away.



Paul Farhi, with all the focus on Rather and Brokaw and Brian Williams, haven't these newscasts, with their shrinking and aging audiences, pretty much become either dinosaurs or at least headed for "Jurassic Park?"

FARHI: Well, it's interesting when you talk about dinosaurs. And Howard Stringer, who used to run CBS, said the networks are dinosaurs, but what people forget about dinosaurs is they ruled the Earth for hundreds of millions of years. So, I don't know about hundreds of millions of years, but I think the networks are going to be around with their newscasts for a long, long time. Even with a diminished audience, they're still incredible powerful, in fact more powerful than any other news source in America right now.

KURTZ: Gail Shuster, would you agree that there will never be another Rather or Brokaw, for the simple fact that their successors are having to share the audience with 500 cable stations and a million Web sites and even satellite radio?

SHUSTER: By definition, I don't think you'll see the kind of power and gravitas that the anchors have had with the three traditional anchors, and also because of the actual mathematics. When you look at it, they're competing for a smaller piece of the pie.

The other factor is that I don't think you'll see the kind of longevity that these anchors have enjoyed. I just don't think you're going to see a 20-year tenure anymore at this level, because who knows if the newscasts are going to be around for 20 years, and I just don't think you'll see the loyal audience that you see now.

And the other thing is, with the age of the news viewers skewing so old, you can argue that every time somebody dies network news loses a viewer. And they're not being replaced by younger viewers.

KURTZ: Verne Gay, nobody waits until 6:30 anymore to get the news. If you can hear me over the track that we're playing here. Will all three of these network newscasts be around 10 years from now, or five years from now, in the same form?

GAY: Oh, I think it pretty much will be around in the same form. They'll keep doing more of the same. The audiences will keep getting older, and I think the audiences will continue to diminish.

I don't think there is any magic formula to fix this. It is what it is. You don't suddenly put an extra leg on a dog. These things just aren't going to change. So it's really going to be incumbent I think on the three anchors that ultimately take these shows into the future. But you're really looking at a very much smaller show.

And who's to say in 15 years three million viewers each night isn't a big audience? Maybe it's a nice size audience in 15 or 17 years.

FARHI: But you have to fit the nightly newscasts into the scheme of the entire ecology of network and broadcast television. The stations that are affiliated with the networks have no other capacity to get the foreign news, to get the big national package, unless they get it from the networks. So the nightly newscasts and the news divisions of the networks will always be able to feed these stations what they need, and they are necessary as a result of that.

KURTZ: They're a distribution system. Gail Shuster, what about breaking the white male monopoly? Is it possible that CBS, for example, might go outside the network and bring in a Diane Sawyer or a Lester Holt or somebody who's -- either a woman or a minority?

SHUSTER: Well, actually, I was holding out for Jon Stewart, but the problem with him is that he is already too liberal. So I think that might hurt him.

I've heard the name Diane Sawyer bandied about. I think there has definitely been a glass ceiling, call it what you will, what you want -- of course you had Connie Chung come through, she wasn't the sole anchor.

I don't know what CBS is going to do. I think they're -- I think they're not in good shape, because they haven't been developing a bench. KURTZ: Well, I bet we can get a few votes for Jon Stewart if it were a popularity contest. Gail Shuster, Verne Gay, Paul Farhi, thanks very much for joining us.

Still, more to come on this special edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. Up next, two sports columnists weigh in on media coverage of basketball violence, like last week's brawl in Detroit. That's next.


KURTZ: Welcome back. You've seen it at least as often as Janet Jackson's breast bearing. Members of the Indiana Pacers charging into the stands of the Detroit Pistons Arena, slugging fans who had thrown beer, and, in one case, a chair at them, and touching off one of the most appalling near-riots in professional sports history.

Have the media been too tolerant of this kind of behavior, and are they whipping up things now?

Joining us now from Detroit, sports columnist Drew Sharp of "The Detroit Free Press." And here in the studio, "Washington Post" sports columnist Mike Wise. Welcome.


KURTZ: Mike Wise, I happened to be watching the game and was as stunned as everyone else. But if you look at recent years -- Latrell Sprewell chokes his coach, comes back, he's treated like a star. Jayson Williams shoots a limo driver, he's acquitted, he's treated like a star. Kobe beats the rape rap. He's now back to stardom.

Haven't the media failed to blow the whistle on some of these thug players?

WISE: Blow the whistle, it's hard to say. I think the dearth of coverage, the way we go about, I guess getting -- finding things we like about these people before we go after them, sort of serves to the public to think, well, let's give them the benefit of the doubt, let's not judge them for this one act.

KURTZ: Drew Sharp, do you believe that journalists are giving violence-prone players at least an easy ride?

DREW SHARP, DETROIT FREE PRESS: I don't believe so at all. I thought that the coverage for the most part, at least the initial stages of it, were pretty much anti-Ron Artest. I got the impression after the first 24 hours that this one episode was underscoring a growing problem of violence overall in sports.

KURTZ: Well, since you mentioned Ron Artest, he's the member of the Indiana Pacers who first charged into the stands and started punching fans after being hit with a cup. He has been banished for the rest of the season. Other players getting lesser suspensions. Let's take a look at what he had to say on "The Today Show."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In your opinion, does the punishment fit the crime?

RON ARTEST, INDIANA PACERS: First I want to say, you know, I wish that situation would never happen, you know. It wasn't good at all. You know, for anybody. I don't think it was fair, you know, that many games.


KURTZ: Mike Wise, you spoke to Ron Artest for a front page piece in today's newspaper. He seems to find the media portrayal of him unfair, at least one-sided. Why?

WISE: Well, I think what he feels is that everybody is taking this act that they've seen 108 on television and dissecting it and deciding you are the good guy, you are the bad guy, instead of saying -- instead of asking themselves a simple question, what would you have done at that moment? Whether you were at the supermarket, whether you're an NBA player, what would you have done in that split second?

KURTZ: But he is a professional athlete making $6 million a year. It's very different for him to go into the stands than for you and I to get into a street fight.

WISE: You're preaching to the choir. I mean, it's unconscionable and a lot of -- anybody who says it's a defensible act, well, maybe when a guy comes onto the court. I can't see going after a guy in the stands.

KURTZ: Drew Sharp, Ron Artest in the past has been repeatedly suspended. He's attended anger management classes. Do you think that that influenced the coverage here?

SHARP: You know what? I think it's very convenient for people like Ron Artest and the people hanging around him to blame the media for this perception that he's getting, but it just underscores the problem that people have difficulty grasping the simple word no. Some things just are not allowed. But athletes, for the most part, when it looks like they're going to be -- when they're 10 to 12 years old, it looks like they have developed a special type of skill in football and basketball, all of a sudden they have people, you know, congregating around them and constantly telling them what they want to hear. And now you see the result of this, is that in Ron Artest's case, he is living in strict denial right now. He's going to blame everyone else except him for the situation that he's in.

KURTZ: Drew Sharp making the point that professional athletes have heard yes their whole life, because they're favorite people, and so it's easy for them to blame everyone else.

Let's pull the camera back a bit, Mike Wise. The tattoos, the fights, the drug busts, the occasional instances of domestic violence. Are the media helping the NBA market this as a kind of an in-your- face, hip-hop sport? WISE: I mean, you can make an argument that we're as guilty as somebody for inciting people on talk radio, going on shortly after on all sports cable networks and proclaiming a lot of these guys justified for their behavior, and we do the same thing. I thought that was real irresponsible on the part of some of my peers. I do think we play into that. And there's for whatever reason now, there's this thing out there where you have to have edge now. Grant Hill, Tim Duncan, those people can't get endorsements as well as Allen Iverson.

KURTZ: They're not controversial enough?

WISE: Exactly. You know, if you haven't choked your coach or got a restraining order against you, you're not marketable anymore, it seems.

KURTZ: Drew Sharp, on ESPN after the brawl at the Detroit Arena, you had some analysts like John Saunders, former player, defending the players and calling the fans punks. Well, some of them clearly were punks, but these multi-million dollar athletes, shouldn't they be held by those of us in press to a higher standard of conduct than some guy who gets dissed on the street?

SHARP: Well, they are held to a higher form of conduct, without question. But I thought that -- this is what happens when you have former athletes serve in the role of the media, is that their immediate reaction after what happened Friday night was to respond as an athlete would. And some of these players might have had stuff thrown at them at games, and I think that kind of percolated to the point where that became part of their justification for Ron Artest's action.

KURTZ: Do you believe, let me just jump in, do you believe, Drew Sharp, that there is a racial tinge to some of this coverage because the players involved are African-American?

SHARP: Well, anything involving the NBA when your sport is what, 80 percent African-American, yeah, there's probably going to be a tinge of a racial element in there, especially from the standpoint I think from the fan, athlete, from a disconnect between the fan and the athlete. I think a lot of the fans today, more so in the NBA, they do not like the fact that these players making all this cash seem not to have an appreciation for what they're able to do and the lifestyle they've been able to create for themselves because of this money.

KURTZ: No question about that. Let me just finish up with Mike Wise, I got about 30 seconds. You mentioned talk radio, where athletes are described as losers and punks and clowns. Do you think that that whole media climate contributes, at least indirectly, to the kind of violence that we saw at the Detroit Arena?

WISE: I think what you have seen, Howie, the last week and a half is the examination of this new fan. How emboldened are you when you go out there -- how much does an $85 ticket entitle you to? I think a lot of that comes from the venom that's spewed on a lot of shows, and we're part of it, whether we want to admit it or not.

KURTZ: That will be the last word. Mike Wise, thanks for not spewing any venom.

WISE: Thanks, Howie.

KURTZ: Drew Sharp, excuse me, thank you very much for joining us.

SHARP: Thank you, Howie.

KURTZ: When we come back, two lions of print journalism head into semi-retirement. That's next.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw aren't the only prominent journalists who are lightening their work loads. David Broder, a Pulitzer Prize winner who's covered politics for "The Washington Post" for four decades is giving up daily reporting for the paper, but will continue to write his syndicated column. And he'll do some reporting there as well.

And William Safire, the former Nixon White House aide turned columnist, is giving up his coveted spot on "The New York Times" op-ed page in January. Safire, who's also a Pulitzer Prize winner, will keep writing his "On Language" column for "The Times" magazine. He told me he felt it was time to move on. So if I made any grammatical errors here, I'm sure we'll hear from Safire.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz, thanks for joining us. Join us again next Sunday morning at our regular time, 11:30 Eastern, for another critical look at the media. Up next, "LATE EDITION" with Wolf Blitzer, which begins right now.


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