Rather blasts CBS bosses over logo

TV: Anchorman faults decision to digitally deceive public by blocking out NBC's Times Square logo during New Year's Eve coverage.

January 13, 2000|By Gail Shister | Gail Shister,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PASADENA, Calif. -- CBS anchor Dan Rather, who had been silent on the subject until the story broke in the media, yesterdayblasted his CBS News bosses' decision to digitally alter the Times Square landscape behind him during the network's millennium coverage.

His supervisors, meanwhile, defended superimposing a CBS News logo over NBC's 30-by-40 foot Astrovision screen. The logo replaced the NBC screen during "CBS Evening News" on Dec. 30 and Dec. 31, as well as during Rather's news cut-ins throughout New Year's Eve.

The digital alteration "was a mistake, in my opinion," Rather said in an interview. "We at CBS News, particularly on the `Evening News,' are going to be much more vigilant to make sure this kind of thing doesn't happen again. Although it was discussed, we should have discussed it more.

CBS News President Andrew Heyward said he "didn't see this as a big controversial decision."

CBS President Leslie Moonves said, "I didn't think it was appropriate having Dan Rather, who is the symbol of CBS News, standing in front of the NBC News logo on New Year's Eve for the entire evening."

The CBS logo blocked out what usually runs on the Astrovision screen: "NBC Nightly News," live in its entirety, and promos for NBC programs. (The "Today" show also is shown live on the screen.)

"This was done for one reason -- to keep our competitor's logo from appearing on our air," said Rather. "I make no apology for that, but we probably should have figured out some other way to do it. ... At the very least, we should have pointed it out to viewers at the time. By not doing it, we run the risk of undercutting our credibility by giving the appearance that we're trying to deceive the audience.

"I'm to blame for that. I'm accountable for that. We made a mistake. This is not by way of an excuse. There is no excuse ... I try to be honest with the viewer. In this instance, I didn't do that, and I regret it. The ethical issue here is whether you level with the audience; whether the audience is getting on the air what they believe they're getting on the air."

Heyward said yesterday that he did not tell his anchor about the digital plan beforehand -- a decision he now regrets -- and Rather himself said he didn't find out what was going on behind him until after the "Evening News" broadcast on New Year's Eve.

"Dan knew we were up to something, but we didn't get into any ramifications," Heyward said in an interview. "In retrospect, I wish we had involved him in the debate. I didn't see this as a big controversial issue, or obviously I would have involved him. ... This was actively discussed amongst ourselves. There were people who raised legitimate questions, but I decided it was OK."

The practice of inserting "virtual" images is becoming increasingly more common in sports and entertainment programming. Since its Nov. 1 launch, CBS News' "The Early Show" has digitally superimposed its logo almost daily on buildings, fountains and other unlikely places around New York.

Heyward labeled that usage as "whimsical and creative," adding that anchor Bryant Gumbel often jokes about it on the air. During its millennium coverage, however, "we didn't consider disclosing it," Heyward said. "I suppose we could have said something in the credits or could have alluded to it. You have to be square with the viewers. If it's a graphic, fine. If it's deceptive, it's not fine."

NBC, ABC and Fox do not use such technology on their newscasts, according to spokespersons for their respective news divisions.

Moonves said, "In this instance, we did nothing ...in any way, shape or form to alter a news story. Any criticism like that is ridiculous. It's much ado about nothing."

To Heyward, CBS News' use of the virtual paintbrush "was an aggressive move, so naturally it's going to put some noses out of joint. I'm fine about that part of it ... . I see this as an extension of the evolution of electronic graphics and form of electronic signage. ... This is new territory, and we will navigate our way through it.

"If we had hung a CBS News banner over the Astrovision, no one would have had an issue. The fact that it was virtual is what makes it a subject for debate. We had no intention to deceive. Clearly, we have to be careful how we use this tool. As we go forward, we will vigorously debate the issues before we make a decision."

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