Anchor Battle! CBS News Boys Go to Corners

With CBS anchor Dan Rather preparing to vacate his desk in March 2005, the campaign to replace him has been launched. Self-propelling are the network’s two youngish reporters on the verge, John Roberts and Scott Pelley.

Mr. Pelley let his slingshot loose first.

On Monday, Nov. 29, the 47-year-old flak-jacketed correspondent for 60 Minutes-a tough guy with a silver coif and sturdy underjaw-presented his own case: field-reporting chops trump anchor skills for the big chair on the Evening News.

“I think the audience can tell the difference between someone who is a brilliant reader of the teleprompter,” Mr. Pelley told The Observer, “and someone who has the experience and who has been in the field, who has covered the stories and knows what they’re doing.”

As No. 2 in a two-man race, Mr. Pelley didn’t have to breathe the name of 48-year-old White House correspondent John Roberts, whom CBS insiders widely believe is the front-runner for Mr. Rather’s gig-and whose precise and pretty features have pegged him, despite his time in the field and the White House, as Anchorman, in both the superhero and Will Ferrell sense.

Asked to comment on his own behalf, Mr. Roberts demurred. But in a brief telephone conversation, he sounded shocked to hear that Mr. Pelley had gone on the record talking about the anchor chair:

“Really?” he said, then passed the call to the CBS public-relations office. “Unless the brass signs off on it, I can’t do it,” he said later by e-mail.

And he didn’t.

Having built their own broadcast careers during Mr. Rather’s 24-year tenure, Mr. Roberts and Mr. Pelley have each staked out a claim on the CBS News legacy: Mr. Pelley is the mud-spattered field reporter who would gladly wrap his head in a turban if asked; Mr. Roberts, the handsome, smooth-as-silk, twinkle-eyed Canadian guy who keeps looking better as he gets older. Neither could be called with confidence “reporter-anchor,” the on-air Swiss Army knife that Mr. Rather embodied; on the other hand, if CBS wanted more Dan Rather, they could’ve had him for a while longer. Each man has covered hurricanes, wars, the White House. But neither has developed a recognizable persona.

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Mr. Pelley was thrilled to reel off his credentials: dusty adventures in the Sudan and Iraq, three sit-down interviews with President Bush, the Challenger disaster, Waco, the Clinton impeachment. “I was at the World Trade Center when the towers came down,” he said. “It’s the basket of experience that allows you to cover whatever is breaking, wherever it is breaking in the world.”

That’s the old CBS tradition, right out of Murrow-land.

But as it stands, the current management at CBS News-news president Andrew Heyward and his news chiefs, Betsy West and Marcy McGinniss-are said to favor Mr. Roberts. “If everything’s the same and it’s Pelley versus Roberts, Roberts is going to get the job,” said one prominent CBS News executive. “But I think people like Scott. Les likes him.”

Leslie Moonves, the president and chief executive of CBS, declined comment.

When NYTV explained to Mr. Roberts that the oddsmakers on the race for the anchor chair painted him as the desk man to Mr. Pelley’s reporter, he shot back: “Obviously, you’ll write whatever you want to, but [CBS News spokeswoman Sandy Genelius] will give you a little more of an explainer on my reporting experience, including five years at the White House, two years on the medical beat, and a decade of assignments that have taken me to wars, political hot spots and disasters around the world.”

Ms. Genelius sent along the official CBS bio sheet, which had all of that and more. But an associate close to Mr. Roberts told The Observer that “John would think it presumptuous” to discuss the anchor job “without sitting with the executive producer and management and the team that will comprise the future of the Evening News, to anticipate what would generate the best show.”

A number of CBS News executives were willing to campaign for Mr. Roberts-although none would be identified or break the silence asked for by Mr. Moonves, who wants to keep the process under wraps.

“He’s the most prepared to do it: He’s fast on his feet, he’s an excellent broadcaster,” said one CBS News producer. “The No. 1 objective is to have a great anchor. It’s the first skill, and he’s in the best shape of anybody involved. So that’s important. It’s the first reason he’s considered the front-runner, and that’s a good reason.”

Another CBS News executive said Mr. Roberts’ extensive live coverage as anchor for the Summer Olympics in Atlanta in 1996-when a bomb exploded during a nighttime concert-had earned him the confidence of the news division. “That was a major event for him,” said the executive. “It was a story that was totally breaking, and nobody knew what was going on there, and he was great.”

While Mr. Pelley may share more on-air traits with the “reporter-anchor” Mr. Rather, Mr. Roberts shares something potentially more important: Richard Liebner, the agent who represents Mr. Rather, and who orchestrated the anchor’s exceptionally smooth exit in the days before Thanksgiving.

Mr. Pelley may seem a bigger long shot than Mr. Roberts. But there’s an important wild card in the selection process: the internal investigation into the forged documents that rocked CBS News in September, led by the former U.S. Attorney General and former Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburgh. Some at CBS see Mr. Heyward taking the fall, with his logical replacement being 60 Minutes executive producer Jeff Fager. Mr. Fager, a CBS veteran and onetime executive producer for The CBS Evening News, has strongly indicated to colleagues his enthusiasm for Mr. Pelley as a replacement for Mr. Rather.

While Mr. Fager vigorously declined to entertain speculation involving his current boss-and has told his friends he’s not interested in Mr. Heyward’s job-he called the 60 Minutes correspondent “the best broadcast journalist of his generation.”

“I like Roberts, too,” Mr. Fager said. “They’re both incredibly strong. So that’s not an easy call.”

But Mr. Fager was effusive about Mr. Pelley’s strengths and his choice to cover the war in Iraq as an unembedded reporter. Mr. Pelley and his crew, he recalled, “were like Mad Max out there on the desert, with a couple of trucks they picked up in Kuwait, dragging a satellite dish.”

Meanwhile, current CBS Evening News executive producer Jim Murphy-also brought up as a post-Heyward candidate for news president-has indicated to associates that he favors Mr. Roberts as anchor. He declined to speak on the record.

Then there are the radicals: CBS News staff members who propose scrapping the Rather lineage altogether and putting in NBC’s Tim Russert, whom Newsweek reported was on CBS’s “wish list,” or NBC’s Matt Lauer. Mr. Russert is under contract at NBC until 2012. After working in a third-place news division for the greater part of a decade, some CBS News staff members said they wanted Mr. Moonves to give CBS News a steroidal injection and a clean break.

“The bigger question is: Does the company go outside for a big name?” said one CBS News producer, enthusiastic about that prospect. “That really will signal what the future of the Evening News will be. If they do attract a big name, I think that will say a lot about how the networks feel about continuing to do an evening news show.”

In yet another twist floated by Mr. Moonves at press time, both Mr. Roberts and Mr. Pelley could actually find themselves sitting side by side in a kind of Huntley-Brinkley Repor t model not seen since the 1970s. “We are exploring every possibility right now,” Moonves told Variety on Tuesday. “After the first of the year, we are going to come to a decision and, by the way, it could be more than one person.”

Mr. Rather told the Los Angeles Times that he hoped CBS would christen one of its own for the chair.

And, incidentally, so does Mr. Pelley.

“I would hope that someone with the CBS DNA would be the principle candidate for anchor job,” he said. “CBS News has a DNA, and those of us who have committed ourselves to CBS-who have worked nowhere but CBS in terms of networks-have that DNA. And we feel very passionately about the Evening News and 60 Minutes and upholding the standards of CBS News and correcting any mistakes that have occurred in the recent past.”

Mr. Roberts, who anchors the CBS Evening News Sunday edition, has logged more hours as the on-air fill-in for Mr. Rather than Mr. Pelley. But CBS News’ spokeswoman, Ms. Genelius, said that Mr. Roberts was by no means the “official” fill-in. “Scott’s schedule for the 60 s has him on the road a ton-and to far-flung places all over the globe,” she said in an e-mail, “so, in a very practical sense, his availability is simply much less than John’s. And several others have subbed for Dan, too.”

Mr. Pelley said he’d be thrilled to be offered the anchor chair, but hadn’t been called about it. Nevertheless, he presented himself as a loyal CBS News reporter who sent Don Hewitt a fan letter when he was 16 years old, and as an old-fashioned reporter who wrote his own copy. And unlike Mr. Roberts, who went to Iraq embedded with the First Marine Division, Mr. Pelley decided to go there as a “freelancer.”

He said-although he admitted his memory was hazy-that he was the first TV correspondent to report that the war in Iraq had begun.

“Dan jumped into the chair and said, ‘Scott Pelley says we’re shooting in Iraq!'” he laughed, recalling the Hellfire missiles shooting over his head. “I think we were on for the next 13 hours. That was another bit of flexibility we would not have had if we’d been within the military unit.”

Mr. Pelley said he was a reporter in the Dan Rather mold, a fellow Texan mentored by Mr. Rather, “a great teacher,” for 15 years. In keeping with Mr. Rather’s “mobile newsroom” concept, Mr. Pelley said he would recommend that CBS Evening New s broadcast more frequently from overseas. “We should do the Evening News from the refugee camps in Sudan. We should do the Evening News a helluva lot more from Iraq,” he said. “And not just Sudan and Afghanistan or Iraq, but Chicago! Lubbock! Duluth!

“Walk the ground, know the truth,” he said, bringing out one of Mr. Rather’s favorite phrases. “Let’s do the Evening News from the North Pole and do a global-warming series. You can do it! It’s possible! And that kind of thing really intrigues me.”

Ultimately, Mr. Pelley said, he was concerned about the “erosion” of network evening news, which meant relying too heavily on video pickups and Associated Press reports.

“Too much of television journalism today is bringing feeds in of pictures from faraway places and writing about them in your newsroom,” he said. “And that is a disservice to the audience. It is expensive, it is difficult, it is hazardous to go to these places-and yet there is no other way to do it.”

Mr. Pelley recognized that anchoring was the top of the job description, but he felt field experience was the bedrock of anchoring. “The acid test for the Evening News is, what do you do on that day that is coming when you are surprised,” he explained, “and there is no teleprompter because the news is breaking as you speak, and you have to cover the news and have to act essentially as a conductor of the entire ensemble of Evening News correspondents and producers.”

But Mr. Pelley said anchoring itself was only part of it. After all, the CBS Evening News is a 23-minute program, and the anchor is also the managing editor. “The anchoring part is not the important part,” he said. “The editing of the broadcast and the assembly of the broadcast are clearly the most important part, and then you get to talk about it at the end of the day.”

While both Mr. Pelley and Mr. Roberts work in Washington, D.C., Mr. Pelley maintains an office in the CBS bureau and Mr. Roberts reports from the White House. Mr. Pelley said he had occasionally run into Mr. Roberts at the local Safeway, near where they both live in northern Virginia, but that they never discussed the obvious. “We don’t see each other very much,” he said. “We have really not talked about it.”

While both men strategize for the next few months, it’s quite possible that Mr. Moonves could reach outside the company, spend a vast sum on a known superstar like Diane Sawyer, and crush the dreams of two dedicated reporters, each of whom sees CBS News’ salvation as his life’s dream.

“There’s always someone who’s disappointed,” said one CBS News producer. “Roger Mudd was disappointed when Dan Rather got the job. I do think Scott appreciates his role on both editions of 60 Minutes, and there might be something else in the works for John-who knows?”