Anchors Away

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

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.

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.

Jump to comments
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.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

What Is the Greatest Story Ever Told?

A panel of storytellers share their favorite tales, from the Bible to Charlotte's Web.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In