Dan Rather On Les Moonves, The "Evening News," And Who Should Replace Katie When (Not If) She Goes

Yesterday, I spoke to former "CBS Evening News" anchor Dan Rather about the recent travails of the current anchor of that program, namely Katie Couric and the recent reports that she will be leaving her $15-million-per-year contract early. Rather gave us some thoughts on Couric and the future of CBS News, as well as his lawsuit against his former employer.

Last week I suggested that whether the CBS Evening News forges on will depend on Moonves - and whether he's got it in him to embark on yet another round of anchor auditions and putting all that effort into a pretty beleaguered little half-hour of television. What do you think? Do you think Moonves will step up - or do you think he's just looking for a reason to cut the program?

Do I think that the corporate side led by Les Moonves will do that? My answer is: I doubt it.

I doubt that he'll invest in reporting resources - what I would call the infrastructure - which is their big need. I always want to emphasize, because it's what I genuinely believe, that there are so many good people at CBS News. The strength of the organization and the strength of the brand has always been built on the cameramen and producers and tape editors and all the other staff who care - who really care - about quality journalism. Their numbers have been reduced, and there's been a systematic winnowing back and cutting out of that infrastructure. One man's opinion - that one man being me - the first step is in rebuilding that infrastructure, shoring up the infrastructure that remains - and a very good infrastructure still remains there, but it's been reduced to the point that it needs shoring up and rebuilding.

Do you think Katie's departure from CBS midway through her contract will give the program the chance for a fresh start - or do you think it's too late?

Number one it's unclear to me when her departure happens. I have my doubts that even they or she knows that at this moment. It does seem, given that what's been in the public print, that it's inevitable. So it's a matter of timing. At best it can be said that it gives the program a chance for a semi-fresh start.

It would be better in my opinion if they did it from the inside, and they have some people on the inside that given time would work to their benefit. There's no quick fix here, and it's gonna take some time.

Who do you think would be a good choice? Can I ask that?

I'm a Scott Pelley fan and I think Pelley given the right resources and the right amount of time would be very good at the job. But it isn't limited to him. John Roberts who was there before would also have been a good choice - he's very smart. I had spoken in support of both of them when I was there. He's no longer at CBS, he's at CNN, so not being inside...I think they'd be better taking someone from the inside. Pelley could do it. Now I have no idea what Pelley thinks of that - he might think he's better off where he is.

Have you found yourself thinking that, wow, this place where I spent over twenty years might not even exist sometime soon?

Well, I don't spend so much time thinking about that because I'm very busy here doing work that I enjoy very much. But have I thought about it, I do I think about it - of course I do. And I always start with the people there. And I don't mean to be corny about it, I really care about the people there and I know what they're going through. I know how much they care and how hard they work...when I was at CBS News I tried very hard to know the name and connect the name to the face of everyone who worked there. I'm not saying I was always successful but I did try. I know these people not just as a group of people but also as individuals. And when I think of what's happened there and what is happening there, I keep them in the forefront of my mind.

Whether he's looking for a reason to cut the program or not, I simply don't know. What I do know is from an overall corporate standpoint, their ratings are down, their stock price is down, and whatever Moonves decides it will be in the context, most importantly, of those two things. And by the way, the demographics are down even more than the ratings, I think. And the stock price is way down.

Have you or would you reach out to Katie over this?

Have I? No, I reached out to her right after it was announced that she was taking the job. Nothing ever came of that - I reached out to her and had a conversation with her and that was the last I've heard. I do want to make clear that I never have had, nor do I now have, any animosity toward her - I thought I could help her because frankly, I didn't think she had any idea that she knew what she was stepping into - all the problems with infrastructure that had been severely damaged over the past few years.

Then there's the question of owned and operated station lead-ins which Jacques Steinberg touched on in the New York Times the other day. How well anyone's newscast does depends mightily on the lead-ins to it. What you have between 3 and 6:30 p.m. when you come on - it's not the only factor but it's a major factor in determining whether you're competitive or not. This is particularly true where the station is owned and operated by the network itself.

Now on Moonves' shift both ratings and demographics on those stations have not done well. So I'm not sure she knew what she was getting into, that NBC has better lead-ins, that ABC has much better lead-ins, partly because some of those stations have Oprah at 4. I've only had one conversation with her and it's the one I've described, after she took the job. In the early going it's pretty clear she got peeved at me after my criticism of the broadcast - not of her, of the broadcast. They tried to put on the "Today" show in the evening and that didn't work, and I tried to call attention to the fact that it wasn't working. But it was clear that she was peeved.

She's a good person and a good pro - she's a very good television presence and can be a good interviewer. And I'll be as interested as the next person to see what she does next.

Regarding your lawsuit, last week some of the counts were dismissed. Does this mean you won't be able to explore the theory that the CBS suits were unduly influenced by the Bush Administration? (I know you were looking forward to that part of discovery.)

Everything that was open to us before the judge rendered his decision is still open to us. There's nothing closed off to us. Discovery on Redstone, Moonves, Heyward - all of that is still open. Keep in mind what [Judge Gammerman] ruled - he ruled that we couldn't go against them on a personal basis because they were operating in their capacity as officers as CBS. The major point here is, the judge said this suit will go forward. But within that everything that was open to us before in the way of depositions and discovery remains.

"I know you were looking forward to that part of discovery" -- I am. I know discovery has been proceeding along. The discovery as things now stand will eventually lead to depositions and one of the reasons I had reached the point where to get to the point of the story was to have people put them under oath and to have the court put them under oath. And I'm still looking forward to that.

ETP's conversation with Rather was wide-ranging and touched on a number of other subjects which we have published in the second part of the interview later this week. If we were a magazine, this would be the additional material that we'd direct people to the web for, but since we're on the web we're just going to make you wait. Update: Wait no longer! Here it is!