A talk with CBS News chief-to-be Van Gordon Sauter
New York — As CBS News goes, so goes television news.
For many years that has been a maxim founded on the reputation of such household names as Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid, and Walter Cronkite, now reinforced by a new generation of such stalwarts as Bill Moyers, Dan Rather, Charles Kuralt, Bill Leonard.
Now there is a new name to consider: Van Gordon Sauter, the man who will soon take over officially as president of CBS News. Is he up to the standard?
The last time I saw Sauter we were both serving on a panel on TV morality for the National Academy of TV Arts and Sciences in 1977. He was then vice-president of CBS program practices - in other words, the network censor. His biographical data indicated that after graduating from the University of Missouri School of Journalism he worked on newspapers for a decade, after which he joined CBS as a news director, serving as CBS news bureau chief in Paris before his current job. Then, I read that he had been made general manager of the CBS affiliate in Los Angeles, soon to become president of CBS Sports.
I recalled him as a tough, gruff, bearded man with a hearty sense of humor, casually dressed in cowboy boots and, even if he didn't actually have one, wearing a figurative ten-gallon hat. So it was quite a surprise when the new button-down shirted ''Van'' greeted me at his office door, quite a bit stockier but still bearded. The ten-gallon hat, literally or figuratively, was nowhere in sight.
The conversation, however, offered no surprises -- Sauter was now talking executive-ese. But at least it was good old-fashioned, CBS-News-above-all executive-ese. He was not about to rock the boat, although he made it clear that he is fully prepared to dip his oar into the water as soon as he takes over in a month or two.
Is the new top CBS news executive satisfied with the way the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather is going? Right now it is in top spot, with the highest ratings it has had since Cronkite left. Some people attribute the strength to the recently added presence of Bill Moyers in the role of commentator.
''I think Dan is in the right place at the right time. He is quickly learning the skills of the anchorman and growing comfortable in that role. Moyers has been doing excellent opinion pieces that add a lot to the program. And soon we will be having pieces from Charles Kuralt as well.''
Sauter insists that - despite forecasts to the contrary - the morning CBS news program will remain a hard-news show, without resorting to soft interviews. ''But that doesn't mean we won't be doing science news, consumer news, entertainment news. . . .''
When the interviewer's eyebrows rise just a little, Sauter continues. ''I don't understand this insistence upon making news either hard or soft. So many things could be considered both. All I can tell you is that the CBS Morning News will retain a primarily news orientation. . . .''
Now for The Big Question: How about extending the evening news to an hour? CBS has already asked the FCC to let the network offer a half-hour more news in the evening.
He shrugs. ''We would certainly like to broadcast an hour of news in the evening. But whether or not that is in the cards, I don't know. That is not in our control. The FCC and the affiliates have a lot to say about that.
''How would we handle it? Probably with more of the same, just each story done in more detail. But I have spent no time at all dealing with that topic because it is not relevant to the task we have in front of us right now.''
How about a ''Bill Moyers Journal''? Moyers wants to do it and CBS executives seem to have promised him the show. Will that actually come about?
''That's something we're working on, and it will be something we'll want to advance. I think it is important that we try it on prime time.''
How does Sauter, former head of CBS Sports, react to the criticism that too many sports people are getting into key spots in network news, that the sports-entertainment mentality is taking over?
He roars and slaps his own stomach, slipping out of his perfect-executive posture for just a moment.''This physique does not speak of a lifetime of activity in sports. I did sports for 18 months in my life. I was the censor for 18 months. I ran a television station for two years. But outside of that, I have spent all my time working in news, working on newspapers, on radio, on television. The vast majority of my life has been spent in news.''
So it seems when Sauter takes over the CBS News operation in a couple of months, he will find CBS News still in good shape, still in the No. 1 spot, in some people's minds still the symbol of responsibility in network news. Is he uneasy about that responsibility?
The smiles, shakes his head slowly, scratches his beard, starts to make a bold comment, then holds himself in check, executive-like. ''No. The ultimate indicator of what we do, good or bad, will be in the broadcasts. I[and this time there is no ''we'' about it] would like to think I'll come out of this with successful broadcasts which will be recognized for their journalistic quality.''
It is clear that, for the time being at least, as Sauter goes, so goes CBS News.