"The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather and Connie Chung" was supposed to have a local flavor for Baltimore viewers tonight. Chung was scheduled to co-anchor the broadcast from WJZ -- CBS' Baltimore affiliate -- to give the station a ratings boost on the final week of May sweeps.
Instead, Rather will be anchoring alone tonight, and it looks as if Chung is out of a job altogether.
CBS News President Eric Ober announced Saturday that, as of today, Rather would be anchoring alone. Furthermore, Ober said, Chung's future at the network was uncertain. CBS will announce its fall prime-time schedule today, and "Eye to Eye With Connie Chung" is not expected to be in the lineup.
In a public relations sense, it all seemed so sudden and awkward. One minute, Chung is the most visible woman in network news, co-anchoring a nightly newscast and serving as host of a prime-time newsmagazine. Then, comes a Saturday announcement that she appears to be history.
It seemed sudden, but it's been building for months -- in some ways, years. And, while much is going to be said about gender and ratings in connection with Chung's fall, it is not really about her being only the second woman to anchor a nightly newscast, or the slide of "The CBS Evening News" from second to third place since she came to the anchor desk on June 1, 1993. It is about credibility.
Go back to Jan. 7, at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel in Pasadena. Television critics and writers from around the country had gathered for the winter press tour.
Ober and Andrew Heyward, executive producer of the evening newscast, met with the group prepared to tell them about all the wonderful plans they had for CBS News in the coming months. But, instead of getting to make their spiel, Heyward and Ober spent a very unpleasant hour answering questions about Chung and the interview she had just done with Kathleen Gingrich, the mother of the speaker of the House.
One questioner summed up the feeling in the room: "But it's not just Connie telling Mrs. Gingrich, "just between you and me," is it? A lot of things have happened to her -- for example, her breathlessly chasing after Tonya Harding. Last night, Connie was a joke on Letterman's Top 10 list. Is it now an unavoidable concern that's she been damaged by all this?"
"There is a potential image problem there that obviously I'm concerned about," Heyward said.
Ober went one step further: "It is a concern -- an absolute concern."
The concern only grew in recent months.
The truth is that both CBS and Chung are to blame for the fact that her exploits as a prime-time newsmagzine interviewer made her seem too lightweight for the more serious evening newscast.
When asked about the source of her credibility problem, Ober said, "We did cause some of it ourselves -- absolutely."
But, while CBS urged her to get interviews with the likes of Harding and Faye Resnick to hype the ratings of "Eye to Eye," it is Chung herself who so embraced the tabloid sensibility and mindless celebration of celebrity. Never once in recent years did she question any of it. She was only too happy to be measured by what she and many other newsmagazine anchors call "gets" -- exclusive interviews with a Harding or a Resnick when they are hot.
So here's where it now stands for the University of Maryland graduate.
CBS News' official statement is a terse once: " 'The CBS Evening News' will return to a single anchor format with Dan Rather as anchorman and managing editor effective immediately. CBS News is having conversations with Connie Chung about her future."
Reliable sources at CBS News translate it like this: Chung quit on Friday after being told that she was demoted to weekend anchoring duties. Her agent asked CBS to buy her out of the last year on her contract. But executives of CBS -- which is in a vicious tailspin, losing tens of millions of dollars compared to last year because of plummeting ratings -- are telling Chung: "No play, no pay, we'll see you in court."
It could make for a very messy end to Chung's network career.
The CBS public relations machine is already starting to grind her up with faint praise and misinformation.
Rather, who has long been an off-the-record critic of Chung's tabloid tendencies, is now saying how sad he is to see her go and how much he hopes Chung will stay at CBS News. Others in the news division are pointing to the ratings as the reason for her demotion.
But there are many reasons for the ratings slide that have nothing to do with Chung -- affiliate switches to weak local stations and an overall ratings collapse in all day parts for CBS, which drags down the news.
Thinking the departure of Chung will magically boost ratings is crazy. All it will do is buy Ober and his lieutenants more time from CBS President and CEO Laurence Tisch to stop the bleeding before their heads roll.
Chung lost her job to bosses trying to save theirs. But, in the end, the reason she lost it is because she was willing to trade away her credibility for celebrity.