Rather Attacks Couric: 'Dumb It Down, Tart It Up'

As already noted on NewsBusters, former CBS anchor Dan Rather appeared on Monday’s edition of "Morning Joe" and lobbied for a "a strategic withdrawal from Iraq." He also found time to twice bash his "Evening News" successor Katie Couric for dumbing down and tarting up the news. After giving the standard caveat that Couric is a "nice person," he went in for kill. Speculating on the program’s declining ratings, Rather complained to MSNBC host Joe Scarborough that "the mistake was to try to bring the ‘Today’ show ethos to the evening news and to dumb it down, tart it up in hopes of attracting a younger audience."

Rather vociferously derided the media’s obsession with celebrities, in particular the hyperbolic coverage of the Paris Hilton affair. (This is a fair point, but it’s a little odd to be making it on MSNBC, one of the worst offenders in Hilton overkill.) For a second time in the 7:30am hour, he attacked the "superficial changes" made in his absence:

Dan Rather: "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."

The MRC has documented Dan Rather's long history of liberal bias. A collection of "greatest hits" can be found here.

A transcript of the exchange, which occurred at 7:37am on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," follows. You can also download the video of Rather's remarks.

Update 0:37 by Matthew Sheffield. Ann Althouse makes a good point about how one could easily classify Rather's remarks as sexist:

1. Is Rather insinuating that having a female newscaster is part of the process of "tarting up" the news? I know he doesn't precisely make that connection, but, to me, it's just glaring that the word "tart" means prostitute.

2. Why on earth does it matter what time the news is on? If something is wrong for the evening news, why isn't it just as wrong for the morning news? I think what is unstated is that only women are watching those morning shows, so the standards are lower. We don't even call the evening news a "show," do we? It's not a show, it's a program!

The transcript:

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’ show 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."

Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock
Scott Whitlock is the senior news analyst for the Media Research Center and a contributing editor for NewsBusters.org