Van Gordon Sauter

UPDATED 05/30/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/30/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

For several years, whenever Van Gordon Sauter has moved to a new office, he has taken with him a framed copy of the anti-TV diatribe that the demented newscaster Howard Beale spewed out to his audience in Paddy Chayefsky's movie Network. It reads in part: "So listen to me! Television is not the truth! Television is a goddamned amusement park...a circus. But you people sit there—all of you—day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds.... You're beginning to think the tube is reality and your own lives are unreal. This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God's name, you people are the real thing! We're the illusions!"

Sauter reverently refers to this as "a beautiful piece of writing." Now, if he were in reality the laid-back English department eccentric he appears to be with his flowing beard, corduroy pants, V-neck sweater and boat sneakers, this would not be at all interesting. But in fact, this fellow Sauter is the president of CBS News.

That's right. President of the most relentlessly uncircuslike operation in electronic journalism; an empire with an annual budget of more than $200 million and some 1,500 employees; a temple that once echoed with the august throat clearings of William L. Shirer, Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid and Walter Cronkite.

Van Gordon Sauter is not just president of all this, he's a good one. In the 18 months or so since he started throwing his considerable weight around, CBS News has rounded into its best shape in years. Of course, 60 Minutes is still the No. 1 prime-time show, as it was before Sauter arrived. The previously anemic CBS Morning News has gotten a full hands-on transfusion from Sauter, who brought in the ineffably affable Bill Kurtis to set off the iron smile of Diane Sawyer, and though the show is still shaky, for the first time ever it has caught NBC's increasingly bloodless Today show in the ratings. Sauter also created Nightwatch, an all-night news program that sprawls through the ordinarily thrown-away hours of 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. Nightwatch draws an average of one million viewers, not all drunks and burglars. "Besides night-shift workers and perfectly sane insomniacs," says Sauter, "we are being watched by thousands of young married people who have tuned in because they're up feeding babies. That's a very desirable audience." So suddenly, CBS News under Sauter is responsible for seven and a half hours of network programming weekdays.

Of those 450 minutes, none are more important than the 22 allotted to The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather, the spine, soul and showcase of CBS News. After 15 years of being No. 1 with Cronkite, the Evening News was wobbling shortly after Rather took over in March 1981; both NBC and ABC actually moved into first place for a number of weeks. "We were not in deep trouble, but I could see where we might be," Rather recalls. "I was struggling to articulate my concerns. Van was able to define clearly what I was finding hard to say. He has a strong sense of command. He is a master motivator. He revitalized this place."

First, Sauter goosed the news bureaus to give Rather's needs priority over other news programming. Then he appointed Welsh-born Howard Stringer, 41, as the new executive producer of the Evening News. In Stringer, Sauter saw more than just a bright and artistic producer of prize-winning documentaries. Says Stringer, "When Van offered me the job, I had about 100 reasons why I shouldn't take it. He just said, 'Shut up.' Van is a whirlwind. He created uneasiness and conflict, but he made a lot of changes without stirring up an internal revolution. The fact was, there had been no sense of momentum around CBS News for a time and now there is."

The most dazzling result of Sauter's high-handed style of management and innovation is that the Evening News has moved decisively into the No. 1 position, with a full 6 percent greater share of the total network audience than ABC's sagging World News Tonight and an 8 percent greater share than NBC's ever-dimmer Nightly News. "I would walk on broken glass for Van Sauter," says Rather, not surprisingly.

Sauter was born in Middletown, Ohio, "son of a second-generation fireman," 47 years ago. "I wanted to be a cop," he says, "but my third-grade teacher told me that was an over-romanticized profession, so I decided to be a boxer. Then I discovered girls. When I realized that lust was a meaningful alternative to pain, I walked away from boxing and all other forms of physical adversity."

After graduating from Ohio University, he tried advertising and print journalism. In 1968, when CBS-owned WBBM-AM in Chicago became one of the nation's first all-news radio stations, Sauter was hired as a correspondent and quickly moved up to news director. So good was he that the network summoned him to New York to run special events for the radio side of CBS News. In 1972 he returned to Chicago as news director at WBBM-TV, his first television assignment. "The only thing I knew about TV then was that if you turned the knob to the right, it got louder," says Sauter. Soon he learned more than volume control, including the painful fact that he was in no way cut out to be an onscreen star. "Things were going great until I got the idea that I would make a fine anchorman. I duly appointed myself and hired another guy as news director. After eight months the guy I had hired had to fire me." But Sauter recovered nicely, surfacing several months later in Paris as a radio and TV correspondent for CBS News. "I covered everything from Henry Kissinger at Geneva to the new Beaujolais," he says.

In mid-1976 Sauter was tapped to fill one of the strangest jobs in broadcasting: the CBS censor. Those were the days when sex and violence on TV had triggered a national crusade. Sauter's thankless task: Eliminate the dishonest, disgusting or dirty. "I viewed dozens, hundreds, thousands of shows and commercials, constantly scrutinizing the area between the waist and the knees for any slight movement that might look dirty," he recalls. As censor, he turned down Three's Company for CBS ("I knew it was going to be a hit, but it wasn't our style"), spent hours discussing the violence on Daniel Boone ("We debated a lot over how many times Daniel could punch an Indian"), and got immersed in the Great Wet Diaper Shoot-Out. Two paper-diaper makers had commercials claiming their products were "most absorbent." Sauter had to decide which really was. "Each company brought in a ton of research on how much urine a six-week-old baby would expel and at what velocity. We were up to our hips in baby urine for days."

Somehow, he emerged with his sense of humor intact and his career still on the rise. He was sent to manage CBS-owned KNXT in Los Angeles in November 1977. The ratings skyrocketed. So did Sauter's reputation for being a super troubleshooter—and a certifiable flake. While running KNXT, he wore the rags of a beach bum to the office, lived on a 45-foot cabin cruiser, commuted to work in a much-dented Jeep and referred to himself as Maximum Leader.

It would be tempting to dismiss Sauter's style as little more than artful self-promotion. But that would be wrong, says Ron Powers, a Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic, who wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times when Sauter was at WBBM there: "Sauter has successfully transplanted the old Chicago print style—hit them between the eyes and disregard the niceties—into TV news. Chicago newspapermen dress that way, informally. There's a rumpled aspect and, studied or not, it strikes deeper chords in people than market research suggests."

During his L.A. period Sauter had a blind date (dressed in bow tie, blue blazer, khaki pants and deck shoes sans socks) with one Kathleen Brown, a woman he knew mainly as a contentious member of the Los Angeles school board. They had clashed over KNXT editorials (read by Sauter) in favor of serving junk food in school vending machines. Eventually, love conquered Twinkies. The couple were married in the summer of 1980, and Sauter found himself up to his beard in California politicians: Kathleen Brown's father is former Gov. Edmund and her brother is former Gov. Jerry. Kathleen and Van live in Manhattan with two of her three children, Hilary, 17, and Zeb, 11. Sascha, 13, lives with Kathleen's first husband, a lawyer, in Chicago. Sauter has two grown children by a previous marriage, Mark, 23, and Jeremy, 20. Kathleen attends Fordham Law School and limits her politics to neighborhood crusades. They lead a sedate life, with a tendency to read and study together, though they've never resolved the junk food controversy. Says Kathleen, "Van insists that food is inedible unless it is wrapped in plastic or comes in a can."

About the time of his marriage to Kathleen, Sauter took over the troubled CBS Sports operation in New York. Sports? Even after a year in that job, Sauter said, "I really don't know anything about sports. And I don't even want to know. What I do know about is television." But in little more than 16 months as president of CBS Sports, he managed a notable upswing in morale and momentum. In the mid-'70s, before he took over, the division had been racked by a miniscandal involving four "winner-take-all" tennis matches in which the losers took part of the "all." CBS Sports had also lost the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness to ABC. CBS was under caretaker management whose orders were to keep out of trouble. Sauter's strong, innovative personality alone would have been an enormous boost, but it didn't hurt that he also was given access to bags and bags of network money. Thus, CBS Sports was able to buy its way into the college football and basketball packages. When he left for CBS News in November 1981, CBS Sports was alive and well again.

Within two months of his arrival at the network's news division, Sauter changed 20 of the top jobs. The point was indelibly made: Beneath his eccentricities of dress, decor and candor lurks a corporate home-run hitter, a man of power, action and swift decision. "He'll ask you exactly what it is you need to do your job better," says Rather, "and when you tell him, he'll get it for you. But remember to be damned careful what you ask for, because he will get it, and then you are accountable for it. To him."

Sauter's immediate predecessors were very different individuals. Richard Salant, a lawyer, ruled for 16 years like a Supreme Court Justice—while Bill Leonard, who followed Salant in 1979, was a shirt-sleeved manager of day-to-day news gathering. Van Sauter is neither imperious nor workaday. He tends to delegate routine decisions, but after every Evening News program he conducts a private and not infrequently volatile critique with Rather, Stringer and the crew.

By far the prickliest public problem that Sauter has faced at CBS News is the Gen. William Westmoreland libel case. In a much-disputed documentary, CBS claimed there had been a conspiracy to distort reports to Washington on the number of enemy troops flooding into South Vietnam prior to the Tet offensive of January 1968. Sauter had nothing to do with the original production, but he has fielded the flak since. After charges were made that the program was slanted to prove the conspiracy theory, Sauter demonstrated integrity by ordering an internal CBS News investigation, which suggested CBS may have been less than absolutely objective.

His office in the former milk-bottling plant that CBS News occupies on West 57th Street in Manhattan is found behind an unmarked door. It is about the size of a modest room in a freshman dormitory, and is similarly decorated. There is a hatrack loaded with farm hats: Red Pouch Tobacco, Quaker Boy Turkey Calls. Cartoon-strewn walls. The Network speech. A framed stained-glass replica of a $2 bill with the CBS eye centered over the legend IN NIELSEN WE TRUST. Books from Dreiser and Dickens to John Naisbitt's Megatrends. And there is Van Sauter—rumpled and portly, irreverent and effervescent—seated at an antique rolltop desk before the grinning teeth of an Underwood typewriter, circa 1905.

Does he find the Evening News a satisfactory show? "Yes, for what it is—a snapshot. No more. There is undue reliance placed on TV news. TV didn't ask to be in this position. We wish we could offer a larger, richer album, but there's no sign that we will get any bigger very soon."

Given that rigid limitation, how can TV news improve? "The word Dan and I kick around a lot is 'compassion.' Tell the day's stories in terms of people and make our audience feel that we are bringing them the news with a sense of compassion. I think these daily evening news shows—on all three networks—can be a way of binding this country together. At the hour these shows go on, a huge proportion of the population is focused on them. It's a kind of national hearth where millions gather to hear the day's experiences distilled for a whole society."

And what next? Few consider the CBS News presidency to be the end of the network line for this ambitious and talented fellow. Indeed, there are many—including former CBS News President Fred Friendly—who predict that Howard Beale's anti-TV diatribe will someday hang in the 35th-floor office of the president of CBS Inc.

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