Kiss and television

This ... Is CBS: A Chronicle of 60 Years, by Robert Slater. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall. 354 pp. $19.95. Prime Times, Bad Times: A Personal Drama of Network Television, by Ed Joyce. New York: Doubleday. 561 pp. $19.95.

Who Killed CBS? The Undoing of America's Number One News Network, by Peter J. Boyer. New York: Random House. 361 pp. Illustrated. $18.95.

Whether the subject is journalism, broadcasting, corporate management, mass media in general, or television news in particular, discussion is likely to fan out in two directions. On one hand, there's speculation and theorizing about external factors - broad, environmental changes in culture, technology, and economics that may influence the course of events. On the other, there's the ``inside story'': gossip about the people, the personality conflicts, the in-house politicking, and the power games that also seem to influence what happens.

George Steiner's handy ``Tolstoy or Dostoevsky'' formula applies rather neatly: Are the major players on the stage of history merely borne along on a tide much larger and deeper than they can control (as Tolstoy claims of Napoleon at the conclusion of ``War and Peace''), or does individual choice play a significant role in determining the course of history (an idea implicit in Dostoyevsky's faith in free will)?

As we greedily, sometimes guiltily, devour books purporting to give us the ``lowdown'' on decisions in high places, we may indeed be indulging in a tendency to personalize everything: to forget ideas and larger issues in our fascination with personalities. But it's also true that most of us feel, contra Tolstoy, that individuals do make things happen, for good or ill, and we want to know who did what to whom - and why.

In examining the history of CBS, Robert Slater's chronicle of 60 years, Ed Joyce's detailed memoir of his experiences at CBS News in the 1980s, and Peter Boyer's astute account of the troubles that started before Joyce's tenure in office and went on well after his departure, all emphasize people and internal politics more than the wider cultural questions.

``This ... Is CBS'' offers a panoramic view of the network, from its early radio days to its recent problems, when, threatened with takeovers by Ted Turner and by Jesse Helms's conservative coalition, the network threw itself into the arms of businessman Lawrence Tisch, whose massive cutbacks in the news division were quite as devastating as anything the network might have feared from Turner.

Slater takes note of external factors influencing the course of CBS history. By having to compete with the already established NBC, the fledgling CBS network developed a more popular, commercial style in contrast to NBC's more highbrow, public-service offerings. On the entertainment side, this led to programs like ``The Beverly Hillbillies.'' Yet CBS also developed a distinguished news division, whose values came to be symbolized in the person of Edward R. Murrow. As told in these pages, the CBS story is firmly linked to individuals and their choices, especially to William S. Paley, who made the company a broadcasting giant, fostered its legendary news division, and (Slater contends) damaged the company by clinging too long to his own power when he should have been choosing a worthy successor.

Ed Joyce was in the thick of the action. He served as executive vice-president of CBS News, under the presidency of his close friend Van Gordon Sauter. According to Boyer's book, he was widely perceived as Sauter's henchman.

When Sauter moved up the corporate ladder, Joyce became news president. He kept a file of daily happenings, which must have been a rich source for his gossipy, self-justifying, but illuminating memoir, ``Prime Times, Bad Times.'' Joyce presents himself as more committed to real journalism than was Sauter - or Dan Rather - both of whom eventually turned against him. (He also points a finger of blame at Gene Jankowski, president of the CBS Broadcast Group, who installed the Sauter-Joyce duo in the first place.)

How did a news organization that once set the standard for broadcast journalism slide (as producer Richard Cohen and anchorman Dan Rather would phrase it in an Op-Ed article for the New York Times) ``From Murrow to Mediocrity''? Peter Boyer's answers to the question ``Who Killed CBS?'' (meaning CBS News) are more complicated than can be summarized here, but they are clearly and ably explained.

Boyer examines a number of factors, from the growth of cable competition to the ``spoiled child'' status that the news division had too long enjoyed within the larger corporate structure. He also understands that the lines between ``good guys'' and ``bad guys'' are not always clearly drawn. Yet he does not equivocate when it comes to calling the shots as he sees them. He places the largest share of the blame on Van Gordon Sauter, whose credo of ``form without substance, style without meaning'' elevated entertainment values over news values.

Boyer, a seasoned media critic, demonstrates a sure grasp of the underlying problems that plagued CBS News in the post-Cronkite era (and before then). Yet he also shows us how dangerous it can be when people in power use the notion of trends to justify shoddy practices instead of bucking the trends and resisting the tempting tendency to seek out the lowest common denominator.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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