Picks and Pans Review: Prime Times, Bad Times
For CBS television, the 1980s have been dramatic enough to merit a portentous documentary with stentorian Walter Cronkite narration. There have been, among other crises, the Ted Turner takeover attempt, the $120 million Westmoreland libel suit, the 1986 ascent of Loews Corporation mogul Laurence Tisch, who presided over the biggest cutbacks in the CBS news division's history, and the decline in the network's ratings. These authors, in sifting through those events, may be grinding axes. Boyer is a former CBS media critic; Joyce was president of the news division from 1983 to 1986. They each had reasons to become unhappy with the network—and vice versa—before they got around to publishing these books. But their viewpoints are certainly worth considering. Giving evidence of prodigious reporting, Who Killed CBS? (Random House, $18.95) is slick new journalism and a fast read. Boyer, now TV correspondent for the New York Times, implies that the network's major villain was Van Gordon Sauter, a flamboyant self-promoter who was president of CBS News for almost two years up to 1983. Sauter's decision to focus CBS resources on the Evening News and Dan Rather, writes Boyer, "undermined the organizational strength of the institution." But Sauter, who succeeded in turning the Evening News into a winner again after Walter Cronkite retired and Rather was desperately thrashing to stay afloat, may have been merely the messenger of the bad news. After Tom Wyman became chief executive officer in 1980, the news budget was devastated. Sauter, in any case, seems one of the more likable players, innovative and his own person. In Prime Times, Bad Times (Doubleday, $19.95), Joyce, who succeeded Sauter, gives readers a far more dispassionate view of what happened to CBS, although even he describes Sauter as a "bearded chameleon who could be Falstaff one moment and lago the next." He also dishes out some surprises. One is about the libel suit that Gen. William Westmoreland filed against the network in 1982 and withdrew after an 18-week trial in 1985 in a nonmonetary settlement. Joyce writes, "In the opinion of our own lawyer, a man whose skills were universally respected, we would have had a less than 40 percent chance of being found truthful." Both these books offer lots of asides about network stars. One of their prime targets is Evening News anchorman Dan Rather, who comes off as a small-town bully in a big-city job. He is petty, vindictive and paranoid in both authors' portrayals. Boyer says, "Rather...exuded inner turmoil, and his era at CBS News would come to seem like one long, ceaseless storm." One of the few personalities who comes across favorably is that portly dolphin among the greedy sharks, Charlie Kuralt, who seems to be the same intelligent, sweet-natured man off-camera that he is on. Even when Kuralt was publicly critical of Sauter, then still at CBS News, Joyce urged Sauter not to retaliate: "It'll be like fighting Santa Claus."