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"Tart" assessment: Dan Rather's riff on Katie Couric is deemed "sexist" by his old boss

All things seemed possible when Bob Schieffer passed the CBS Evening News torch to Katie Couric. CBS president Leslie Moonves, who hired Couric, can be seen beaming on the far right.

Disgraced and then deposed, Dan Rather is hardly disposed to be nice to CBS News.

He's pretty much kept his opinions private, though, until diving this week into his old boss's chopper blades. On Monday's edition of MSNBC's Scarborough Country, the host asked Rather whether CBS perhaps "tried to re-brand the Evening News in a way that Americans just didn't want to accept."

This time Rather took the bait after first dutifully calling Couric "a very nice person."

"However," he added, "it was clear at the time and I think it has become even clearer that the mistake was to try to bring the Today show ethos to the Evening News and to dumb it down, tart it up, in hopes of attracting a younger audience."

Rather, who now has a weekly program on Mark Cuban's Dallas-based HDNet, also upbraided The New York Times for recently putting a Paris Hilton story on the front page. And he noted that the Evening News' new executive producer, Rick Kaplan, has tried to "harden up the broadcast in recent days."

But CBS Corporation chairman Leslie Moonves, who hired Couric and blessed the eventual dumping of Rather, seized on the words "tart it up" during a public appearance Tuesday in New York. He branded them "sexist" and said that Couric deserves a break from critics. He also again stated his belief that the evening newscasts "will die" if they don't lure more viewers under the age of 60.

Actually, they won't. In fact they easily could live long and prosper by lapping up all of the land's mushrooming 60-plus population while letting everyone else go cuckoo for Coco Chanel. Or Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Anna (still dead) Nicole Smith and Nicole (what a waste) Richie.

Rather really didn't say anything that bad, especially compared to what some of the CBS News old guard said about him during his dying days in the Evening News "Chair." He often uses the term "tart it up," and it really has no sexual or sexist connotation. It's simply Rather's way of saying that celebrity gossip, not old-school hard news, increasingly is winning the day. Old Man Rivers knows he's swimming upstream, but doesn't want to be entirely drowned out.

Moonves on the other hand has a huge financial investment in Couric. So he often bristles when her ratings or the makeup of her newscast are broached.

"I think the perception comes from the fact that she's a woman," Moonves told a small group of TV critics at a January "press tour" party in Pasadena, CA. "Charlie (Gibson) can do a softer piece and Brian (Williams) can do a softer piece. But when Katie does it, they say it's a softer newscast. We don't feel it is."

Couric actually hasn't endured that much criticism. It's her ratings that usually are written about. And in the latest ratings week (June 4-8), the Evening News trailed ABC's No. 1 World News with Charles Gibson by 1.71 million viewers according to Nielsen Media Research.

A year ago at this time, when NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams led the pack, the gap between first and third was 1.06 million viewers. But Bob Schieffer's No. 3 broadcast trailed the second place World News by just 330,00 viewers. In the latest ratings, the Evening News is 1.43 million viewers behind the No. 2 Nightly News.

CBS News president Sean McManus, in an interview with unclebarky.com at the January press tour, said he wasn't sure whether Couric's gender had anything to do with how many people were watching her newscast.

"There are probably people out there, both men and women, who perhaps are uncomfortable having a woman anchor the news," he said. "But on the flip side, there probably are some people who like a different approach and like the fact that Katie is not the 'traditional' anchor. So how much that balances out, I don't know."

Couric does, however, have to "worry about a lot of things the male anchor doesn't have to worry about," McManus contended. "How she looks or what she's wearing or how her makeup is or how her hair is. She's under enormous, enormous scrutiny on the peripheral elements of what she does."

She's had the job since Sept. 5. Despite what Moonves says, that's time enough for most Americans to have reached a verdict. Here's a guy who OK'd the cancellation of the Ray Liotta/Virginia Madsen drama Smith after just three episodes on the grounds that viewers already had rejected it.

In contrast, Couric will be given more time to dig a bigger hole for herself while ABC's increasingly avuncular Gibson inexorably pulls away from the field.

Maybe he's guilty of "uncling up" World News with his cozy, cardigan-ready persona. But in the battle of two former morning show personalities, it's Gibson who has the common touch while Couric can't seem to put her fingers on the pulse of anything.

When you get right down to it, Angela Lansbury might have worked better for the CBS Evening News. Comforting, experienced, nobody's fool. And news background or not, I'll bet she wouldn't have stood for any Paris Hilton stories.