Anchors Away

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

Most of what Joyce has to tell us about running CBS News contains truth about corporate life in general, not television in particular; some large, submerged portion of CBS is just another big organization, whose folkways Joyce evokes well. There is a funny scene in which executives perform an intricate ballet on the CBS jet to maneuver into the seat next to Thomas Wyman, then the chairman, and another in which several underlings fool Wyman, who is devoted to eliminating perquisites, into believing that a fancy hotel suite where he is staying is actually a single room. Joyce and Sauter practice such timeless bureaucratic arts as jockeying over office space, making sure everyone knows that important mistakes were made on someone else's watch, speaking only in bland generalities at staff meetings, and react-ing to the threat of budget cuts by claiming they'll simply have to stop covering the news. The Joyce-Sauter relationship is itself a great example of the American male business friendship. Its high point is a scene in which Sauter awkwardly stammers out his feelings of affection for Joyce, after which both men fall into a deeply mortified silence. A few months later Sauter is stabbing Joyce in the back.

Even CBS's founder, William Paley, who inspires in CBS executives a total, abject awe and fear (one especially tough vice-president confides to Joyce that he doesn't "have the guts" to ask for an autograph on his copy of Paley's memoirs), is a fairly typical tycoon figure. Much of Joyce's own life at CBS was generically that of a big-time managing editor: the constant shuffling of people from job to job, the state visits to foreign bureaus, the high-level hooky-playing at London clothiers and choice fly-fishing streams. As the president of CBS News, Joyce was an important personage—he had his own car and driver, he had thousands of people under his command, he testified regularly in Washington—but he had surprisingly little power, if you define power as the ability to act autonomously and influence events, rather than temporarily fulfilling the duties that go along with a job title. He was relentlessly forced into balancing the demands of his staff, his superiors, and his customers.

There are, though, two ways in which CBS News is atypical of organizations in general and news organizations in particular. Neither peculiarity has much effect on CBS News's role as a purveyor of journalism. The first is that it is the object of intense, constant interest from the press. Dealing with reporters successfully—not reporters working for CBS News but reporters writing about it—is a crucial part of the repertoire of skills needed to thrive in the upper echelons of the news division. The best press-handlers, like Sauter, Stringer, Rather, and Sawyer, spend a significant portion of their working lives talking to reporters. (Stringer, according to Joyce, even went so far as to give a job in the CBS News Washington bureau to a man with no television experience, because he was a friend of The Washington Post's TV critic, Tom Shales.)

The real players at CBS News tell the press more about what's going on at CBS than they tell their own colleagues, and they use the press to communicate with corporate headquarters (which has no idea what's really going on) and to wage internal warfare. At the same time, the attitude of people at CBS News toward the press, as Joyce tells it, is generally one of contempt. The reason is that the reporters who cover CBS are, with few exceptions, pawns of their sources. They'll believe anything they're told, and they yearn for the approval of the big names in broadcasting. Rather, who often saunters in to work in mid-afternoon (according to Joyce) and whose real job is simply to read the copy he is given, is especially successful at making the press believe that he spends his days as a newspaper-style managing editor of the broadcast and as a watchdog of press freedom. Joyce says that Rather makes command decisions about story assignment and composition only when there's a newspaper reporter watching, and that he is, along with Sauter, a master of the art of leaking energetically to further his interests and then proclaiming himself to be shocked and mystified by the nonsense the press is publishing about CBS News.

The other difference between CBS and most news organizations—the difference that Joyce finds especially alarming—is that the reporters in the top echelon (along with one producer, Don Hewitt, of Sixty Minutes), are vastly better paid, and also more powerful, than the people running the organization. During the time that Joyce was the president of CBS News, Rather seems to have been making something like ten times as much money as Joyce was, and of course Rather was able to force Joyce out as well. Obviously, this situation is a headache for whoever is the president of CBS News, a headache that no editor of a newspaper or magazine will ever have to endure. The question is whether Joyce is just grousing or is sounding an important warning.

There is some temptation to dismiss Joyce's case even while thoroughly enjoying his book. His outlook stems from professional dissatisfaction, not, dispassionate observation. In fact, the opinions—even the character flaws—of each person in the book seem to grow out of his professional position: Rather is vain, Jankowski, the Broadcast Group president, is cautious, Sauter lusts after ratings. All managers in talent-based businesses, from book publishing to movies to professional sports, dislike aggressive agents. One wonders whether Joyce, if he had been given different responsibilities, would have developed different beliefs to go along with them.

Also, Joyce's sense of outrage about the excesses of the star system runs counter to the cynicism we've taught ourselves to feel about TV news. After Network and Broadcast News, after Rather's six-minute walkout and his spat with George Bush, after three rounds of major layoffs at CBS, we know that television journalism is a shark-infested world; knowing it is part of the fun of watching the news. Instead of being menacing, Dan Rather as Joyce portrays him is funny, a very big version of Ted Baxter, of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. His "personal vice president" at CBS News, his bodyguards, his habit of referring to himself in the third person—these are the marks of a pompous man but not a corrupt or dangerous one. It's as difficult to hate a person who can, after worrying day and night about his ratings, say with a straight face, "Ratings are not something Dan Rather knows a lot about," or who can, after plotting Joyce's downfall, sorrowfully say, "Ed, I just hope that someday, someone will explain to me how this all happened," as it is to hate the Duke and the Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn.

The proper course is probably to go about halfway with Joyce—to accept that he has a legitimate beef about the anchors without sharing his feeling that this problem is either new or the only thing wrong with TV news. The stars at CBS News have always made more money than the executives: if Edward R. Murrow was a saint, he was the first one to live on Park Avenue. Also, the executives, as well as the stars, have changed CBS News tremendously in the eighties. The demise of the Murrow-style prime-time documentary in favor of 57th Street and 48 Hours represents not just a response to ratings pressure from outside the news division but also the invention of a new, visually more dramatic style of TV journalism which is the product of the tastes of executives like Sauter, Stringer, and Andrew Lack, not of any of the on-air stars.

That Dan Rather could effect the sacking of Joyce is probably indicative of a new level of monarchic behavior by an anchor. Even if Rather has no journalistic agenda whatsoever, his behavior as Joyce describes it implicitly pushes news closer to entertainment. It encourages the network's inertial tendency in programming, which is to treat (and pay) the stars like stars but be ruthless the minute their popularity begins to flag, and not to get locked into a large permanent payroll for any show.

Inside the news divisions the mismatch between how much the anchors make and what they do creates a dissonant feeling—it makes the correspondents and-producers wonder whether their real job is to create an elaborate illusion of journalistic activity that will enable the anchors to maximize their wealth and power. The anchors' defense is that they are the guardians of TV's journalistic integrity: the more clout they have, the safer the crown jewels will be. If Joyce is right that this notion is nothing but a big lie, then it's hard to imagine how the anchors' stardom helps anyone but them.

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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