At CBS News, hopes for a resurgence

October 27, 2005|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

A year after a flawed 60 Minutes report about the military career of George W. Bush forced the resignation of longtime anchorman Dan Rather, CBS placed the future of its struggling news division yesterday in the hands of Sean McManus, the president of CBS Sports. McManus, 50, will officially take over CBS News from the embattled Andrew Heyward on Nov. 7, while continuing as president of CBS Sports.

The Duke University graduate, who inherits a news division ranked behind ABC and NBC, steps into his new job at a time when network television, faced with competition from cable stations and the Internet, is attempting to redefine how news is covered.

"I've seen him take CBS Sports from an also-ran to what I consider the pre-eminent network in sports," said Leslie Moonves, chairman of CBS. "He's a great leader. He's very smart. He has great taste in hiring people. He has great loyalty among his people. He's a perfectionist when it comes to production. And I think all these skills will translate when he heads news."

Beyond ratings woes, the network's reputation was severely damaged in September 2004, when CBS News proved unable to authenticate documents used in the 60 Minutes report on the president's military career. The debacle led to Rather's departure from the anchor desk and the firing of three news executives. The dismissal of Heyward, who became president of CBS News in 1996, has been expected since the 60 Minutes documents came under attack.

Known as an imaginative negotiator, McManus, the son of legendary ABC sportscaster and Monkton resident Jim McKay, acknowledged the battles ahead. He also mapped out a plan for success that includes luring big-name talent to the network.

"The first challenge is to learn from the mistakes that were made last year and make sure they are not repeated," McManus said. "I want people to realize there's a fresh slate and that we are going to put better news programming on the air."

McManus, who has spent his career in sports, said his vision for news coverage was shaped greatly by his father's mentor and boss, the late ABC broadcasting pioneer, Roone Arledge. The legendary news executive, who in the 1970s and 1980s transformed a struggling ABC News into an industry leader, is the only other person ever to oversee network sports and news divisions simultaneously.

Arledge, who died in 2002, taught him two things, McManus said. "One, that storytelling is the basis of all good television. Whether it's athletics, or the confirmation hearings on Harriet Miers, or the Tom DeLay potential indictment, it's all about telling the story."

But it is Arledge's second lesson that is most likely to create buzz: "Never underestimate the importance of on-air talent," McManus said.

"Look at what Roone did in bringing over people like Diane Sawyer, David Brinkley and Barbara Walters and making stars out of Ted Koppel and Peter Jennings. ... In the same way, I want the best people in the industry for CBS News - even if they are working somewhere else right now."

Though Arledge initially was criticized for his lack of news experience, industry analysts yesterday seemed willing to reserve judgment about McManus.

"You'd prefer someone with a strong and distinguished news background, " said Rem Rieder, editor of American Journalism Review. "The key is whether the person has strong news values and is committed to powerful and ethical journalism."

Moonves acknowledged challenges ahead. "All the network news divisions have to face the fear of becoming obsolete. For all three evening newscasts, the average age of viewers is 60 years old. We're being attacked by cable as well as the Internet with younger people getting their news from different sources," he said. "It's now a question of new leadership re-invigorating the place."

Pursuing stars has worked before for McManus, who at CBS Sports hired away from competitors such current on-air stalwarts as Greg Gumbel and Dick Enberg.

In 1996, McManus took over a sports operation devastated by having lost to Fox the right to broadcast NFL football three years earlier. By 1998, he had CBS back in the game.

Although his parents, James K. McManus and the then-Margaret Dempsey, met as reporters at Baltimore's Evening Sun, Sean McManus grew up in Westport, Conn. His father, who changed his name to McKay when he started in network television, regularly took his son to major sporting events.

At the 1972 Olympics in Munich, McManus watched Arledge guide the unprecedented live coverage of the terrorists who seized and killed Israeli athletes. And he saw his father, as anchor, transformed from sportscaster to a newsman with a global audience.

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