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The Big Story "dumbed down and tarted up"

Reported by Chrish - June 13, 2007 -

Much ado is being made about Dan Rather's criticism of journalism and TV news in particular, and much that's been written and said about his comments proves his point. Many sites and reports are accusing Rather of saying that Katie Couric "dumbed down and tarted up" the CBS Evening News, and some are incensed at his alleged sexism, but that's not what he said or meant. John Gibson had Jennifer Pozner from WIMN (Women in Media and News) as a guest to discuss the conversation, or more precisely, the spun version.
With video.

The full transcript of Rather's comments to Joe Scarborough, called in to "Morning Joe," is posted below. The relevant comments are

JS: "There was, it seemed to me this terrible miscalculation by Rome Hartman and a couple of CBS News execs that they were going to soften up the news and that way they could expand their viewership. I would think, if I am sitting down at 6:30 to get the news to see what’s happened today, I don't want fluff stories. Do you think that that is one of the problems that the Katie Couric’s had coming in is that maybe they tried re-brand the evening news in a way that Americans just didn’t want to accept?"

DR: "Well, I totally agree with you, Joe. I want to make clear that I have nothing against Katie Couric at all. She’s a very nice person and I have a lot of friends at CBS News. However, it was clear at the time and I think it has become even clearer that the mistake was to try to bring the ‘Today’ ethos to the evening news and to dumb it down, tart it up, in hopes of attracting a younger audience.

DR (later): "I do want to say that, I think, under Rick Kaplan, that they have tried to harden up the broadcast in recent days, but that is a relative phrase, harden it up. That, you know, the trend line continues, as I say, dumbing it down, tarting it up, going to celebrity coverage rather than war coverage. "

After CBS chief Les Moonves called Rather's remarks "sexist" Rather responded in an interview with David Asman, well worth watching here.

The segment on the BS fell under the "Big Showdown" banner, with chyron reading "Rather vs. CBS," and fire-fanner Gibson said "the feud is getting even uglier."

Gibson asked Pozner what was so bad about Rather saying CBS tarted up the evening news, and would it have been worse if he had said they were feminizing it? Posner said it would be worse, and that while she thinks the phrasing was inappropriate and sexist, she agreed with what he was saying about the evening news being dumbed down by bringing in morning news people whose mainstay is celebrity gossip and Hollywood entertainment stories.

Gibson asked if she was agreeing or disagreeing with Rather, and she quickly replied "People can have two thoughts at once." She agreed with Rather that the news is being dumbed down, and said Christiane Amanpour or Laura Flanders might have been more solid choices. Gibson said that CBS' and the American people's tastes run more to Katie Couric, but Pozner denied that and cited Couric's poor ratings that indicate people want more hard-hitting news.

Gibson scolded her, saying she is substituting her judgment for news executives, that's not her job and she doesn't get to make that call. (Why was he interviewing her, if she didn't get to express her view?) HIS point was asking Pozner if she was criticizing "Katie" the same way Rather was? (Remember, Rather was not criticizing Couric.) Pozner caught that, and said she was criticizing not Couric but CBS for choosing personality over substance. Gibson jumped on that, saying "you're saying "Katie"'s not substantive?" She replied that Christiane Amanpour is more substantive, and noted that she also thinks Charles Gibson is not substantive, coming from a morning show where they shill products and interview AI rejects.

She reiterated her dismay at the unfortunate phrase "tarting up" as it is degrading to women and fended off one last attempt by Gibson to get her to say something demeaning about Couric.

Gibson returned to the subject at the end of the show in his My Word segment, where he not so subtly accused Rather of planning the "Katie-bomb" to stir things up and get attention for his new show on satellite TV.

Below the video is the transcript of Scarborough and Rather


Joe Scarborough: "You know, Dan, the thing that Chris Licht was talking about, maybe you read it in the Times or, I don’t know where you read it– There was, it seemed to me this terrible miscalculation by Rome Hartman and a couple of CBS News execs that they were going to soften up the news and that way they could expand their viewership. I would think, if I am sitting down at 6:30 to get the news to see what’s happened today, I don't want fluff stories. Do you think that that is one of the problems that the Katie Couric’s had coming in is that maybe they tried re-brand the evening news in a way that Americans just didn’t want to accept?"

Dan Rather: "Well, I totally agree with you, Joe. I want to make clear that I have nothing against Katie Couric at all. She’s a very nice person and I have a lot of friends at CBS News. However, it was clear at the time and I think it has become even clearer that the mistake was to try to bring the ‘Today’ ethos to the evening news and to dumb it down, tart it up, in hopes of attracting a younger audience. And I just don't think that people at 6:30, or seven o’clock at night or even 5:30 in the central time zone , six o’clock when it’s seen, that that is what they want. This is a continuation of a trend that we've talked about before, Joe and Mika, and John, and that is the combination of what I call the corporatizing of the news has led to the trivializing of the news. If you notice, it isn’t just anybody's evening news. That the front page of the New York Times took space the other day to talk about, I know we don't mention her name, so I will call her Rome Marriott. This woman, Rome Marriott, Paris Hilton, on the front page of the Times. And then, today’s Washington Post has a big spread, a multi-column spread on the front page about celebrities. And the belief runs strong in the corporate towers of almost every news organization, print or over the airwaves these days, that if you go to celebrities, uh, it increases your audience. There is no empirical evidence to indicate that. But even if it were true, I think that those of us in journalism are going to have a lot to answer for when you put Paris Hilton on the front page and put developments and celebrities on the front page and put developments such as the splintering of the coalition of the Anbar Province in Iraq, which has been helpful to us, but is now splintering apart and the fact that, what, 12 or 13 people were blown up and killed at a police station on Tikrit, when you put the war on the inside pages and Paris Hilton and other celebrities on front pages, it tells you that we have got a lot to answer for in journalism."

Scarborough: "No doubt about it. And, again, with CBS News and with Katie Couric, so many people are trying to kick Katie around. But I think that you're exactly right. I think that the big problem here was a miscalculation that at beginning, you that somehow you're going to bring in 35-year-old viewers if you gave ‘em celebrity, if you gave ‘em, again, the 'Today’ show ethos, and that’s just not working. And Rick Kaplan is over there now, and from all I understand, Rick is trying to bring a harder edge of news to it, but a lot of people watching you and then watching Bob Schieffer have already left. And it seems to me like it's a great challenge."

Rather: "Well, it is a tremendous challenge for her. There are other factors. You know, she tried to change networks, which is always difficult and change the programs at the same time. They've done all of the usual things. They changed the set. They changed the executive producers. They changed the graphics person, lately, forced out a guy who had been there, Ned Steinberg, for many, many years, they make all those kind of the superficial changes. I do want to say that, I think, under Rick Kaplan, that they have tried to harden up the broadcast in recent days, but that is a relative phrase, harden it up. That, you know, the trend line continues, as I say, dumbing it down, tarting it up, going to celebrity coverage rather than war coverage. I couldn't feel stronger, Joe, and I know from listening to you, that you feel the same way, this war, it's a terrible war. We’ve let the people who are fighting the war down. I spent the weekend sort of brooding, and brooding something not my nature, as Mika will tell you, brooding about the fact that we’ve put these young people in the position in Iraq every day where they face dangers, unspeakable dangers. They're out there in the wind and sand, you know, and in the mud and the rain, and we let them down, and the idea that in news that the war is inside, inside news, not front page news is border-line criminal."