Howard Stringer spent his first week as acting chief of CBS News rehiring three former producers, reassigning five correspondents and briefing his temporary bosses about CBS' new morning project scheduled to premiere in January.
"Whew," Stringer said, laughing, when asked to sum up his life so far as the temporary successor to Van Gordon Sauter, who resigned Sept. 11, a day after the forced resignation of CBS board chairman Thomas H. Wyman.
Stringer, executive vice president of CBS News, was named to run the division pending a permanent selection by William S. Paley, the founder and now temporary chairman of CBS Inc., and Laurence A. Tisch, the company's acting chief executive officer.
Speculation about who will permanently run CBS Inc. has become something of a growth industry in broadcasting circles.
That also applies to speculation about CBS News' next permanent president. At last report, Stringer was a serious contender. At least five former or current CBS News figures--among them Bill Moyers and "60 Minutes" producer Don Hewitt--also have been mentioned in speculation, along with at least three other non-CBS news executives.
An 18-year veteran at CBS News, a respected documentary maker and former executive producer of Dan Rather's evening news program, Stringer has drawn Moyers' public endorsement for the division's top post. But Stringer picked his words carefully Thursday when asked in a phone interview from New York if he wants the presidency.
"The only way to answer that," he diplomatically replied, "is that I just have to not think about that and to get on with the work I'm doing now . . . it seems best to put the news division first, not personal ambition."
One of his first acts as temporary president was seen as part of an effort to restore staff morale and confidence that had suffered in the wake of last July's firing of 70 CBS News staffers as part of 700 companywide job cuts.
He rehired three veteran news producers who had been laid off--E.S. (Bud) Lamoreaux, formerly of the "CBS Sunday Morning News," and now assigned to a new, unspecified project; Shirley Wershba, who is returning to "60 Minutes" and James Clevenger, who is returning to the staff of CBS News' Paris bureau.
He also assigned five correspondents to new posts, moving Richard Wagner to London from Seattle; James McManus from Atlanta to Miami; Victoria Corderi from New York to Los Angeles; Steve Young to New York from Boston and Ned Potter to Boston from Chicago.
And, with CBS Broadcast Group President Gene F. Jankowski and Thomas Leahy, an executive vice president of the group responsible for CBS Entertainment, Stringer also helped brief Paley and Tisch Wednesday on the status of the three-hour morning effort scheduled to succeed the perennially low-rated "CBS Morning News" in January.
Sauter, who drew criticism from within CBS News for acceding to the axing of the 23-year-old, oft-revamped CBS News program, had called it a consistent money-loser that would have caused affiliate defections, had it continued.
In the weeks before his resignation, Sauter announced that CBS' new three-hour morning effort would consist of an opening 90-minute "hard-news" segment produced by CBS News.
That would be followed by 90 minutes of lighter fare and features from a non-news unit headed by Bob Shanks, a former ABC executive credited with helping development of that network's "Good Morning America," which is produced by ABC Entertainment.
Whatever action Stringer now takes on the new project will be watched with great interest, particularly by CBS affiliates, one of which--WAGA-TV in Atlanta--has replaced the "CBS Morning News" with its own programming until at least January.
All the affiliates still are awaiting final details on the new program. But it isn't known yet whether Sauter's plans still hold, or if there will be changes in his announced concept now that Tisch--a fan of hard news--and Paley are in temporary command at CBS.
One influential network source said there are three factions within CBS News who have their own ideas on what to do with the new project. The first group, "hard-core" journalists, want all three hours returned to CBS News, the source said.
Members of the second faction prefer the Sauter plan. They, the source said, "are relieved" that CBS News has been freed from responsibility for the entire time period and believe that the time of staffers could be better used elsewhere.
The third faction, which the source described as "the in-betweeners," want an additional half-hour returned to CBS News, giving the division air time from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. each weekday, with the last hour produced by Shanks' team.
Stringer, when interviewed, was noncommittal about his preferences. He said that his meeting with Tisch and Paley was just to review the pending project. He emphasized that no decisions have been made.
"I don't know what decision will come out," he said. "My guess is as good as yours. But no conclusion was reached (at the meeting), because the program still is in the planning stages."