By Felix Gillette
On the evening of Monday, Feb. 1, Katie Couric, anchor of the CBS Evening News, was wearing red. For the next half-hour, she tore through the headlines. There were allegations of bigotry among the federal air marshals in the U.S., an American church group accused of trafficking children in Haiti, faulty gas pedals in Toyotas, a suicide bombing in Baghdad, a massacre in Mexico and a bodybuilder in Latvia with a rippled back like a map of Switzerland. “Thank you for watching,” Couric said at the end of the broadcast. “I’ll see you here tomorrow.”
Many of Couric’s viewers would return the following night. Much of Couric’s staff would not.
It had been a rough day at CBS News. Four years earlier, CBS chief Les Moonves had joked in The New York Times Magazine about bombing the news division. And now, among the seasoned veterans of the newsroom, there was a sense that the detonation had finally gone off. Earlier that morning, CBS News executives and bureau chiefs, led by senior vice president Linda Mason, told their employees that 2009 had been a disastrous year in the ad market. They had no cable operation to buoy the sinking revenues. It’s not you, was the message, it’s us. Dozens of employees—including staff members in D.C., San Francisco, Miami, London, Los Angeles and Moscow—were being let go. The changes were effective immediately. There would be no buyouts. According to one longtime staff member, the network had long ago negotiated away most of the severance clauses in staff members’ contracts.
Word of the layoffs had first surfaced the previous Friday afternoon in the L.A. Times. Over the weekend, CBS staffers vacillated between acceptance of the situation and cautious optimism. Maybe it wouldn’t be as bad as reported? After all, the company was already lean. Where would top brass find 100 or so people to let go? Perhaps there was some stash of employees hidden on the digital side, some long-forgotten deal between, say, 60 Minutes and Yahoo!, that would provide some bodies to lessen the blow?
But in the end, the cuts were surprisingly deep. By Monday afternoon, staffers from Washington to L.A. were sputtering in disbelief as they heard of top producers on the chopping block—particularly Mark Katkov and Jill Rosenbaum in D.C. and Roberta Hollander and Barbara Pierce in L.A. These were seasoned veterans, part of the old school known back in the Dan Rather days as “the diehards.” Over the years, they had somehow managed to outlive every big buzzsaw to cut through the newsroom. They knew how to get more from less. Each diehard thought of himself as worth five producers at ABC News. Their theme song was Merle Haggard’s “Holding Things Together.” It was hard to imagine what the already third-place morning and evening news operations would look like without them.
The most disturbing news for many observers was that Larry Doyle would no longer be working for CBS News.
Doyle, according to CBS News legend, joined the organization some 40 years ago, when then D.C. bureau chief Bill Small found him working as a bellhop at a Washington hotel. Small promptly made Doyle the bureau’s go-to “dogcatcher”—the guy you sent into nasty situations to stare down snarling subjects and get the job done.
For the time being, no on-air reporters or anchors have been asked to leave. But according to multiple sources, the network did inform a handful of veteran correspondents, including Randall Pinkston in New York, Sandra Hughes in L.A. and Sheila MacVicar in London, that they were being reassigned from prominent network jobs to reporting for CBS Newspath.
Historically, the Newspath—a news-gathering service that provides coverage for local CBS stations—was a steppingstone for correspondents on their way from regional station jobs to the big time at the network. Going from network to Newspath is generally seen as a major demotion. Some sources speculated that the move was made as a passive-aggressive attempt to chase off salary-heavy talent. It had the appearance, as one source put it, of “a slower form of death.”
On Tuesday, CBS staffers were still on guard. Word had it that executives from the news division were still on the move, meeting with staffers at bureaus around the country, bringing more bad tidings.
Reporting on the death of CBS News is an age-old discipline among TV writers. Books have been written on the subject. (See, Boyer, Peter; 1988; Who Killed CBS?) But as the names of the laid-off began to circulate, it looked less like the end of days and more like the end of an era. The final vestiges of the pre–Katie Couric regime were finally leaving the network. “It’s like we’re Lehman Brothers,” one longtime staff member said, “and the JPMorgan guys are finishing moving in.”