CBS’ Dan Rather Is Mad as Hell At Political ‘Fogging Machines’

“I’m a journalist. I’m news. I’m looking for news,” Dan Rather said. “I wish it otherwise, but there is not much news here. This is a week-long political infomercial.”

Mr. Rather was standing on the hot asphalt outside the CBS News trailer park at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. It was late on the morning of Monday, July 31, and the veteran anchorman was responding to complaints that the major broadcast networks–including CBS–had shirked their civic duty by cutting back on their prime-time convention coverage. Mr. Rather wasn’t about to apologize. If the parties and pundits want some coverage–well, give him some news, he said.

“The parties have designed these conventions, both of them, to be marketing tools–not news events, but marketing tools,” Mr. Rather said. “And I’m not comfortable with trying to sell the audience on the idea that they are something other than what they are. The argument that somehow we have a ‘moral responsibility’ to carry the political parties’ fogging-machine infomercial–I don’t buy it.”

Mr. Rather insisted he wasn’t angry, or even irritated, by the erosion of prime-time coverage. He said he was proud of the fact that CBS was still running at least some prime-time coverage every night of the Republican convention, calling it a by-product of the network’s “sense of public service.” It was clear that he hadn’t given up yet, even on this week’s proceedings. “There will be a few interesting moments, [such as] Governor [George W.] Bush’s speech on Thursday,” Mr. Rather said. “I think for a lot of people who haven’t seen or heard him before, it will be interesting and perhaps informative for them.”

But then the 68-year-old Texan got going again. “But until the parties decide that they once again want to have something of importance decided at the conventions, they are going to get less coverage and not more–and they should…. I think if they don’t change in the future, you can see all of this [convention coverage] go on the Internet.”

CBS News colleagues describe Mr. Rather’s dedication to the network’s convention coverage as legendary. That morning, in fact, Mr. Rather had arisen in his Four Seasons hotel room shortly after 5 a.m. to do a string of radio interviews with 25 network affiliates. Later, he did the same thing for the CBS television affiliates.

“Dan probably knows politics better than anybody else that we have,” said Al Ortiz, CBS’s executive producer for special events. “He is always attuned to the nuances and has a good sense of what’s being shown, what’s not being shown, and what’s happening behind the scenes. He gets very revved up about that.”

But it’s obvious that the lack of convention spontaneity has begun to eat at the network’s signature newsman. While admiring their dedication, Mr. Rather likened the convention delegates to “extras” in a television show. He joked that General Colin Powell–one of Monday night’s opening speakers, “for whom I have the greatest respect”–gives up to three speeches a week. “And we don’t cover those,” he said.

“One of the things journalists try to do is separate brass tacks from bull feathers,” Mr. Rather said. “And the brass tacks are that a lot of people see this election as the drab versus the dreary. I would think they would be working to make things like the convention more relevant. To make them the important ritual that they once were–to make them a key part of the dance of democracy.

“Instead of that, they are moving the other way. Every four-year cycle, it gets to be a bigger and bigger Super Bowl of schmooze. And what it’s about is money. That’s what’s going on here. Money.”

Still, Mr. Rather said there was a light at the end of this micromanaged convention tunnel. “I do think the election is important,” he said. “I keep coming back to that, because some people have committed themselves to overcovering this thing, buying big ads and talking to people and saying the conventions are still important. Oh yeah? Tell me why. How? The conventions are not important. The election is important.”

Tonight on CBS, the voyeur-TV hits Survivor and Big Brother lead into CBS News’ prime-time coverage from the Republican National Convention . That ought to give Dan a nice little bump. He deserves it. [WCBS, 2, 10 p.m.]

Thursday, Aug. 3

Just because there isn’t a lot of news to be found at the conventions doesn’t necessarily mean that the TV journalists are allowed to slack off. Dan Rather certainly isn’t. Neither is ABC News president David Westin, who has let it be known to staff that he wants to lead the way in Philadelphia.

“I have said very clearly that this is a major story,” Mr. Westin told NYTV. “We have decided that it’s a major story–therefore, it is a major story. That’s not something we should spend any time thinking about or debating.”

Still, Mr. Westin acknowledged that in such a tightly controlled atmosphere, news breaks are tough to find. “When the news is this highly managed, you have to look a lot harder for stories. And there isn’t any big natural story that we are devoting all our resources to, so we’re looking harder.”

One thing that pleased Mr. Westin was ABC’s success in getting Monday Night Football ‘s preseason debut pushed forward one hour so the network could be the only major broadcast outlet on the air during the convention’s opening night. “That was an important [issue] and a challenging one, but [Disney president] Bob Iger, in particular, was committed to doing everything we could to make sure we could be on in prime time.”

Obviously, Mr. Westin was thrilled to be the only broadcast network with a full hour of coverage on Monday night. But still, he acknowledged, it was kind of strange being the sole ship in the sea. “It’s a striking fact, no question,” he said.

On another front, Mr. Westin said that ABC News isn’t planning to dramatically scale back its coverage of the New York Senate race now that Clinton v. Giuliani has become the comparatively lower-watt Clinton v. Lazio. At the same time, he pledged not to go overboard.

“We have to remember that’s one Senator,” he said. “It’s not the same as the President, and I think we all have to be a little careful that we keep a sense of proportionality.”

Tonight, Regis and Who Wants to Be a Millionaire lead into ABC News’ coverage of the Republican Nationa l Convention, otherwise known as Who Wants to Try and Fill Two Hours of Prime Time Without Everyone Going to t he Cartoon Network . [ABC, 7, 9 p.m.]

Friday, Aug. 4

If there was a belle of the ball at the 2000 G.O.P. convention, it was Comedy Central. The smartypants humor network was a hit among the political punditry and other assorted media types, who crammed inside the Grand Hall at Drexel University Monday night to celebrate Comedy Central’s Indecision 2000 campaign kickoff.

Sad-eyed comic Jon Stewart sat at a second-floor table above the party’s dance floor. Below him, a gaggle of well-scrubbed twentysomethings scuffed up their Kenneth Coles to Eminem and 70′s disco. Mr. Stewart was exhausted. The host of Comedy Central’s popular news satire, The Daily Show , he had been under siege for most of the convention, attacked by swarms of journalists just looking for anything–anything–to supply their editors.

Not that he was thinking of himself as any kind of political-scene rock star. “There are 15,000 people covering it [the convention] as a news event and there are 90 people covering it for gags,” Mr. Stewart said. “And so, in that respect, we stand out.”

Still, Mr. Stewart wasn’t about to praise the press pool for busting their behinds in Philadelphia.

“I don’t think there is a newsperson here who says to themselves, ‘I want to find out what they [the Republicans] mean by “Renewing America’s Purpose.” That’s exciting to me,’” he said. “There’s a certain cynicism [to the media]. I’m not sure they even know why they’re here.”

Mr. Stewart apologized for being so wiped. In less than an hour, he would slip out a side exit to go grab some shuteye. Elsewhere at the party, as Harry Shearer gabbed on the Grand Hall’s front steps with Arianna Huffington and Carl Bernstein repeatedly plugged his Voter.com Web outfit, South Park co-creator Matt Stone stood on the edge of the dance floor, puffing on a cigarette. The lanky, fuzzy-haired Mr. Stone, who was dressed in a black T-shirt and jeans, said he wasn’t planning on sticking around for the rest of the convention. “I have no interest in politics,” Mr. Stone said. “I just came down from New York for the booze.”

Mr. Stone was asked if he had any reaction to reports that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was sick with cancer and may be close to death. Mr. Hussein, of course, was one of the stars of Mr. Stone and Trey Parker’s animated hit South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut . “My thought on that is that I hope he’s happy and I hope he dies decently,” Mr. Stone said, taking a drag on his cigarette. “He’s a motherfucker–and you can quote me on that.”

Later, Mr. Stone was seen making out with some woman on the Grand Hall steps.

Tonight on Comedy Central, the hopefully refreshed Mr. Stewart hosts the Daily Show. [COM, 45, 11 p.m.]

Saturday, Aug. 5

CNN correspondent Jeannie Moos called NYTV from inside the cable network’s 40-trailer nerve center on the First Union Center parking lot. It was Tuesday morning, July 31, and Ms. Moos sounded a little tired of trailer life.

“I keep comparing the thing to the Waco compound,” Ms. Moos said. Not that Ms. Moos was sitting around the newsroom like a Branch Davidian, scarfing down all that free licorice CNN supplies to its convention staff. The energetic New Yorker, who specializes in softer, slice-of-life stories, had been a one-woman tornado since her arrival in Philly, filing stories on everything from the convention’s army of golf carts to all the red-white-and-blue bunting placed around the city. (The strangest places Ms. Moos found bunting and other convention decorations: a junkyard, a funeral home and a Kentucky Fried Chicken.) She hadn’t been to a single party yet.

“I didn’t finish work until 10 p.m. last night,” she said. Though she said she’s had a fun time in Philly, Ms. Moos sounded somewhat relieved that she won’t be going to Los Angeles for the Democratic National Convention. She hasn’t gotten on a plane in eight years, and at one point, there was talk at CNN that she would be assigned to take a four-day train trip across the country to attend the event. That idea was ultimately dropped. “I was thankfully saved,” she said.

But there were still three more days left in Waco. Ms. Moos was asked, if the CNN convention compound did in fact resemble Waco, who was David Koresh? Network news president Rick Kaplan? Ms. Moos guffawed. “There is no Koresh,” she said. “Kaplan is not Koresh.”

Tonight on CNN, Larry King Live . He’s no Koresh, either. [CNN, 10, 9 p.m.]

Sunday, Aug. 6

Hey G.O.P.: Draft Carson Daly! MTV is in Philadelphia, too. The music network dispatched a six-person “Choose or Lose 2000″ Street Team to the Republican National Convention to bring some badly needed hip factor to these middle-of-the-road proceedings.

NYTV sat with Street Team members Gideon Yago and Jason Bellini to get their take on the G.O.P. hoedown. The big surprise? MTV (or at least the 22-year-old Mr. Yago) thinks George W. Bush is kind of … rad. “He’s a really, really charismatic politician,” Mr. Yago said.

Okay, who’s been spiking the Hi-C on the Choose or Lose Tour Bus?

But Mr. Yago defended his characterization. He recalled his first interview with the Texas governor, a fireside chat during a New Hampshire snowstorm. He figured he’d get two or three questions off and that would be it. But Mr. Bush sat and answered all three sheets’ worth of questions that MTV had prepared.

Mr. Bellini, who worked previously at CNN, said that one of the nice things about working for MTV was that he could be himself on the air.

“We aren’t afraid to relate our own excitement,” he said. And what made him excited? He mentioned all the free food to be found around the convention corridors.

Indeed, both Mr. Bellini and Mr. Yago were impressively unjaded about the convention affair. And neither is a slouch on the issues or the candidate. At one point, Mr. Yago perked up in his chair and pointed. “Hey–that’s Jerry Nadler!” he said as the New York Congressman–a Democrat–strolled by. It was perhaps the wonkiest thing ever uttered by an MTV personality.

Tonight on MTV, Road Rules .[MTV, 20, 10 p.m.]

Monday, Aug. 7

Outside of the MTV Street Team, it would be hard to find an outfit in Philadelphia more fired-up than the Fox News Channel. This is the cable network’s first-ever convention, and executive producer Marty Ryan sounds like he’s trying to make up for lost time.

“If you are a news division, this is a big story for the year,” Mr. Ryan said. Mr. Ryan, who is based in Washington, said he had been traveling to New York for several months to outline the network’s inaugural convention coverage. Initial planning for the coverage began more than a year and a half ago, he said.

Mr. Ryan was asked about the perception that Fox is a network more sympathetic to conservatives than its competition–if that perhaps gave Fox a leg up during the G.O.P. convention week. He dismissed that perception altogether. “I don’t even buy into that premise,” he said, adding that the channel planned to have Democratic responses to major Republican announcements throughout the week.

In fact, Mr. Ryan claimed that for much of the campaign, Fox’s Democratic sourcing has been superior to its Republican sourcing. Go figure.

Tonight on Fox News Channel, The Edge with Paula Zahn. Ms. Zahn dug those frozen mochaccinos from the Starbucks inside the Philly Marriott, we’re told. [FNC, 46, 8 p.m.]

Tuesday, Aug. 8

Okay, we know, enough with the politics. How about a cat chasing a mouse over and over again? Tonight, Tom and Jerry on the Cartoon Network. Funny stuff. [CAR, 22, 9:30 p.m.]