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Cbs' Sauter Addresses Top Staffers

August 25, 1986|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

In a speech reflecting uncertainty over the future ownership of CBS Inc., CBS News president Van Gordon Sauter said Sunday that CBS News' much-publicized problems are compounded by "nagging questions of who will own our company and who will run it."

"I don't know when this matter will be resolved, or how," he added. But he said that CBS News staffers are "spending far too much energy on gossip and speculation," that anger, anxiety and apprehension within CBS News also have "hatched an unbecoming strain of petulance and self-righteousness," and he urged an end to all this.

"Our ideals are secure. Our future is promising," Sauter said in a combination pep talk, dressing-down and status report during a meeting with 45 CBS News foreign and domestic bureau chiefs and executives at Park City, Utah, near Salt Lake City.

His status report included his first public word on what will happen when CBS' new three-hour morning effort succeeds the low-rated "CBS Morning News" in January. He said CBS News will run the first 90 minutes--from 6 to 7:30 a.m.--and offer "hard news."

A non-news unit will produce the remaining 90 minutes, which he said is intended for viewers who account for a "large part" of morning ratings, have time to watch the program to its conclusion and prefer "entertaining information" to straight news reports.

He also said that CBS News' flashy new "West 57th" newsmagazine series, slated to return to CBS' prime-time roster as a midseason replacement next year, is hiring 22 new employees and will soon announce the name of a fifth correspondent the program is getting.

CBS' July 25 decision to ax the 23-year-old "CBS Morning News" touched off controversy within and outside of CBS News. Some critics charged--and CBS denied--that this and earlier decisions affecting the news division were taking it away from the proud journalistic tradition that had been its hallmark since the days of Edward R. Morrow.

Among the critics was "60 Minutes" humorist Andy Rooney. After the decision to end the "Morning News" was announced, he wrote in his syndicated newspaper column that "CBS, which used to stand for the Columbia Broadcasting System, no longer stands for anything. They're just corporate initials now."

Sunday's meeting was an annual get-together that CBS News holds with its top staffers.

But that CBS is concerned about the morale of its news division was indicated by a question-and-session scheduled in Park City later Sunday between news staffers and CBS board chairman Thomas H. Wyman and CBS Broadcast Group Gene F. Jankowski.

All the meetings were closed to outsiders, although copies of Sauter's prepared remarks were given to reporters. Sauter, who CBS said later answered questions from his listeners for two hours, was not immediately available for elaboration on his public uncertainty on the future ownership or management of parent CBC Inc.

However, a CBS spokesman in New York said Sauter's remarks don't mean that any change is imminent. Such was widely rumored two weeks ago when Loews Corp. chairman Laurence A. Tisch increased his holdings in CBS stock to 24.9%.

Sauter was not hinting of impending change of CBS ownership or management, said the spokesman, George Schweitzer, when asked about Sauter's remarks: "It's not meant to say that at all. There's no hidden agenda there."

Speaking of the "Morning News," Sauter reiterated what he has told reporters before--that various approaches were tried and failed; that alternative proposals were rejected because they weren't acceptable to CBS News or were too costly, and that a radical change was necessary lest "staggering" financial losses continue and CBS affiliates defect.

Referring to the canceling of the "Morning News," he said, "I take full and unqualified responsibility for that decision." He asserted that what he did "will best serve the long-term best interests" of both CBS News and CBS Inc.

He also defended himself against critics of that decision and the elimination within a year's time of 218 CBS News jobs. The latter was done as part of a CBS-wide series of cuts and layoffs caused by flat advertising revenues and CBS' costly victory over Ted Turner's bid last year to buy CBS Inc.

Without naming names, he noted that "there are some who feel that I should have thrown my body" against his superiors to fight the cuts and to keep the "Morning News" and that "I didn't adequately represent the news division" in meetings with the top CBS brass.

However, he said, the problems facing CBS News--"expanding competition, the fragmented audiences, the declining revenues, the insistent cost increases . . . the issues of (CBS) ownership"--won't go away if new executives take charge of CBS or CBS News.

Those problems, Sauter said, "will be with us for years to come, bringing pain and frustration and awkwardness. But they can be solved and, in my opinion, are being solved."

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