Monday, October 5, 2009

Worldwide Pants down II: The fallout for CBS

As the David Letterman imbroglio sorts itself out in court and in public, the one undeniable victim in this tale of serial flings between a powerful boss and his apparently willing female subordinates is Letterman’s network and its reputation.

But this incident is just the latest of missteps large and insignificant that contribute to a disturbing sense that the shine is off the Tiffany Network.

Letterman’s escapades obviously reflect on him in ways that the king of late-night television will be explaining, to friends and family if not to the public, for some time to come. What’s worse from the standpoint of the network is the man accused of attempting to shake Letterman down for $2 million.

Robert Joel Halderman, a celebrated CBS News producer with considerable experience in a long and award-winning career at the network, is accused of extortion, and whatever the reasons for his possibly having committed this crime — a $6,800 a month alimony payment no doubt among them — the charges against such an honored member of the CBS family will not embellish the CBS brand.

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This, of course, follows the Sept. 29 resolution of former CBS News’ anchor Dan Rather’s long and acrimonious $70 million lawsuit against the network for unlawful termination in the wake of the Rathergate scandal. A New York appellate court ruled against Rather on all counts.

Rather had claimed that CBS violated his contract by marginalizing him after a controversial story he reported in 2004 about then-President Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War era. The network was forced into a defensive crouch after admitting that documents Rather cited in the story couldn’t be authenticated.

Though CBS won in court, pending an appeal that Rather has already promised is coming, the protracted nature of the lawsuit was at least a public relations distraction. Following after the end of the tenure of Rather’s predecessor, the legendary Walter Cronkite — also believed to have been forced out of the anchor chair — the Rather exit and its aftermath have fed into the narrative of CBS as unfeeling corporate machine.

These are the bigger body blows to the CBS image. Others are smaller matters:

When Katie Couric accepted an award from the Library of American Broadcasting at a luncheon in midtown Manhattan on Oct. 1, she defended herself against her critics, who have condemned her for a fluffy, insubstantial approach to the news. Couric did this in a way that clearly reflected a belief in a gender bias at work within her industry. “I’m convinced ‘gravitas’ is Latin for ‘testicles.’”

This followed something Couric said in a late 2006 interview with Tom Junod of Esquire magazine. Barely disguising anger at the magazine for a perceived editorial slight against her, she said, “You guys even take a shot at me. You have something in the November issue, something about how since I’ve become an anchor, you don’t know me anymore. You don’t know me anymore? Bite me.”

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“Testicles.” “Bite me.” It’s hard to imagine Edward R. Murrow or Walter Cronkite — or even Rather, who was known for going off the rails occasionally — saying such things for attribution, even in a fit of justified pique.

It's true, these are no big deal in the greater scheme of things; the “CBS Evening News” under Couric has been a consistent winner of Emmy Awards and … the Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in journalism. The newscast has been an award winner from almost the start of her time in the big chair more than three years ago.

But still. Quips like that just look bad. They don’t reflect well on the CBS News brand as a cut above; they can’t possibly reinforce the public perception of CBS as the class act we’ve come to know since the glory days of network television. They contradict the standards that the awards prove CBS deserves.

And now, with the Letterman/Halderman situation still unfolding, a media artichoke with layers we haven’t discovered yet … There’s the feeling that CBS — the network that gave us the incisive Murrow commentary that helped bring down Joseph McCarthy, the game-changing Cronkite analysis that helped end the Vietnam War, and “60 Minutes,” the indelible Don Hewitt program that effectively invented the TV newsmagazine — needs to seriously look itself in the eye.
Image credits: Letterman: CBS/Worldwide Pants. CBS eye: © 2009 CBS. Walter Cronkite 1963: CBS News.

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