Anchors Away

CBS's Ed Joyce airs his disputes with Dan Rather and his gripes with the network at large in a 1988 memoir

Ed Joyce was the president of CBS News for two years in the early eighties. He stands somewhere in the obscure second rank of players in the great drama that began when General William Westmoreland sued the network for libel and culminated when Laurence Tisch took control of CBS, in the fall of 1986. Joyce presided over the first wave of layoffs at CBS News, in 1985—the ones that seemed shocking at the time but don't anymore, because there have been so many subsequent layoffs at CBS.

With the publication of this book Joyce is not going to be a mostly forgotten figure anymore. Either he took copious notes on his day-to-day activities when he was running CBS News or he has an extraordinary memory, or both. Also, he feels ill enough used to have abandoned completely the corporate executive's usual code of silence about the unstatesmanlike aspects of his reign. He has produced a juicy and undiplomatic insider's account of what it's like to run a network news division, written with a real flair for dialogue and characterization. It is the kind of book from which any clever publicist should be able to dribble out several weeks' worth of tidbits to the New York gossip columnists.

For example, the Westmoreland case revolved around CBS's contention that the general had, for bureaucratic reasons, ordered his subordinates to falsify estimates of enemy troop strength; while it was in court, the CBS Broadcast Group ordered Joyce, for bureaucratic reasons, to lower the budget estimates of CBS News, and the head of the television network to raise his estimates of advertising revenues.

There are many little image-deflating anecdotes about the on-air stars of CBS News. Dan Rather, Joyce's special target, once took an entourage in a chartered bus to East Hampton for the weekend to watch as a doctor taught him voice-relaxing exercises (CBS paid the bill, which was $20,000). Another time, driven into a fugue state by insecurity over the prospect of being at a small parry where the NBC anchor, Tom Brokaw, would also be a guest, Rather, who cultivates his image as an earthy Texan, walked in and gave Joyce a kiss. Phyllis George, when she was a co-anchor of the star-crossed CBS Morning News, once asked her producer to set up an interview for her with Indira Gandhi. Told that Gandhi had recently been assassinated, George said, "Oh. . . well, somebody like her." Mike Wallace wanted to cover up the CBS internal report on the Westmoreland documentary. Diane Sawyer hastened her departure from the Morning News by leaking to the press that she was going to move to Sixty Minutes, before CBS was ready.

Joyce was brought in as executive vice-president of CBS News in 1981, as part of a package with the new president, Van Gordon Sauter. Both Sauter and Joyce had started their careers as journalists but rose within CBS as general managers of local stations. Having demonstrated their ability to improve ratings locally, they were now supposed to rescue Dan Rather from a shaky start as anchorman.

The Sauter-Joyce team was on the whole a success. Rather's Evening News, with a snazzier look and a new executive producer, Howard Stringer, got a solid grip on first place in the ratings. The Morning News floundered, but it had always floundered. Sauter and Joyce became close friends and worked well together, in a Mr. Inside-Mr. Outside way. Sauter, who talked in the hip slang of an advertising executive and dressed like a professor (a professor who wears a billed cap advertising Red Man chewing tobacco, anyway), developed a high profile in the press, played nursemaid to Rather, and politicked at corporate headquarters, while Joyce did the administrative work. Then Sauter, hoping to rise to the presidency of the entire CBS Broadcast Group, left for an executive's job in the CBS corporate offices, and traded in his tweeds and pipe for pinstripe suits and cigars. Joyce succeeded him as president of CBS News.

Soon Joyce ran afoul of Dan Rather. By promoting Howard Stringer to executive vice-president of CBS News, he took Rather's executive producer away. He waged war, in person and in the pages of Variety, with Rather's agent, Richard Liebner. He renegotiated Rather's salary in a way that kept his compensation down (yes, down) to $36 million over ten years, which was much less than CBS had been prepared to pay. Accused by Rather of shifting CBS News resources from the Evening News to other broadcasts, Joyce wrote a memo convincingly rebutting the charge, which embarrassed Rather. When CBS was put "in play" on Wall Street through the efforts of Senator Jesse Helms, Ted Turner, and Ivan Boesky, Joyce was ordered to make layoffs. Rather, or maybe Liebner acting through Rather, shrewdly realized that the mood of crisis at CBS News had provided an opportunity to mount a power play against Joyce. Sauter, whose new job wasn't panning out, sided with Rather. Forced to choose between Rather and Joyce, the president of the Broadcast Group, Gene Jankowski, concluded, as he told Joyce, "There are lots of presidents. There's only one Dan Rather." Joyce resigned, and Sauter returned to CBS News for a second term as its president (only to be fired himself less than a year later).

TV news has now reached the point where TV entertainment programming was twenty years ago: the dominant sentiment about it is nostalgia for a past golden age. The golden age of news was sometime late in the Walter Cronkite era, when anchors were still former print reporters, when "entertainment values" didn't hold sway, when news divisions were completely independent of corporate headquarters. The blame for bringing the golden age to a close is usually placed on people like Sauter, Joyce, and Roone Arledge, of ABC—smoothies who care more about ratings and budgets than about the First Amendment. When Joyce was forced out, there was cheering inside CBS News, where his nickname was the Velvet Shiv.

Joyce never breaks from his story for long enough to lay out a real argument about the state of TV news; still, his book constitutes not just a self-defense but also an alternative theory of what's wrong. He presents the prevailing anti-executive view as the result of a successful disinformation campaign waged by the news stars and their agents, who are the real villains. Joyce is nostalgic too—nostalgic for the days before Rather's 1979 contract as anchor, which raised salaries by a quantum leap and made Liebner a major power within CBS News. Since then, as Joyce tells it, the stars have been pushing for goals that are essentially theatrical, not journalistic: more air time, better billing, constant adulation. They have used their supposed commitment to hard-news values as a smokescreen to cover a takeover of control of the news divisions from their titular (and rightful) heads. Entertainment values, if they mean better presentation of the same news, are good, and if they mean using softer stories and misleading, worked-up presentation techniques, then the stars haven't really fought them. Layoffs are necessary simply because the payroll for talent has risen so rapidly over the past decade.

Because Joyce implies all this without arguing it, he can get away with inconsistencies. For example, while condemning Rather and Liebner at every turn, he sneaks in a presentation of Sauter that pretty much supports the standard criticisms. Sauter, not Joyce, insisted on hiring Phyllis George, and wanted to stop doing Edward R. Murrow-style issue-oriented documentaries, which always got low ratings. Sauter liked cutting budgets, whereas Joyce, contrary to his image inside and outside CBS News, cut them reluctantly and only to protect his people from even deeper cuts. Joyce, at least by his own account, functioned as Sauter's journalistic conscience: it was Joyce who was most horrified by CBS's excesses in the making of the Westmoreland documentary, Joyce who fought for more air time for class acts like Bill Moyers and Charles Kuralt, Joyce who was decent to the legendary CBS correspondent Charles Collingwood in his dotage.

Obviously, Joyce was not a disinterested witness to the changes at CBS News. He grinds his ax joyously—lucky him, that the institution where he was ill treated was CBS, one of very few companies for which there would be an audience eager to read the kind of score-settling anecdotes about divisional vice-presidents that most business executives can't even tell their own families, for fear of boring them. He almost never says that he made a mistake (I counted two such admissions in a long book), and he seems to have put in some scenes just to make someone squirm, such as the ones in which Stringer, who is now the president of CBS News, makes fun of Rather behind his back. Still, this is the only totally incautious look at CBS News from the inside that we're ever likely to get. It has a feeling of veracity. Joyce is a smart, conscientious man—that he wrote a tell-all book doesn't mean that he is automatically in the literary league of Judith Exner. His work deserves to be taken seriously, which means that his not-quite-stated plaint about TV news ought to be judged according to whether his own evidence bears it out.

Presented by

Nicholas Lemann

"The Atlantic has a national constituency of readers who are interested in high-quality writing about what's going on in the country and in the world," says Nicholas Lemann, "not just in politics and economics but also in their own personal lives. The Atlantic is a single source they can really trust to give them what they want."

Over the years, Lemann has written cover articles on the underclass, the War on Poverty, and the history of standardized testing in the United States. The articles on the underclass were "field tests," he says, for his best-selling book The Promised Land (1991), which received virtually unanimous acclaim from a spectrum of sources. The book established him as a sought-after commentator on race relations and other fundamental aspects of American society. "Thanks to Lemann, white America will never be able to think about the ghetto poor in quite the same way again," Esquire observed.

Lemann joined The Atlantic Monthly as national correspondent in 1983. His first cover article, "In the Forties" (January, 1983), introduced a striking portfolio of photographs that, Lemann wrote, "have the power to suggest the finality with which the life of the nation changed in a generation."

Lemann has also written numerous pieces in The Atlantic Monthly on subjects spanning national and local politics, education, television, and biography. He has contributed numerous book reviews and, in the Travel section, has guided readers through the past history and present beauty of the Catskill Mountains.

Lemann was born and raised in New Orleans. He attended Harvard, graduating in 1976 with a degree in American history and literature. Before joining the staff of The Atlantic Monthly, he worked at The Washington Monthly, Texas Monthly, and The Washington Post.

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