By the time Walter Cronkite retired from CBS News in 1981, the godlike reverence in which viewers held him combined with the legacy of Edward R. Murrow to make CBS the “news of record,” if not for most Americans, then certainly for those at CBS. News President Richard Salant guided the division’s rise to preeminence after 1961, but he always knew that Cronkite represented an untold part of his success. Nevertheless, author Peter Boyer illustrates how Salant and the news division demanded isolation from the pressures of the corporate hierarchy at Black Rock, CBS’s Manhattan headquarters, with the approval of CBS president and founder William Paley. From Paul White to Richard Salant, Murrow to Cronkite, CBS established its image as an elite news division which felt a responsibility to uphold the public trust.
Between 1979 and 1981, though, Salant, Cronkite, and even Paley all retired. Replacing them were G. Van Gordon Sauter, Dan Rather, and Thomas Wyman, respectively. Wyman’s non-broadcasting background (he came from Pillsbury Corporation), Rather’s middle-American anti-intellectualism and multimillion dollar salary, and Sauter’s preference for entertainment over good news reporting, Boyer believes, made the demise of CBS inevitable. Indeed, Boyer sees Sauter’s finger on the trigger and provides ample evidence for his views, such as the advent of emotional news “moments,” former Miss America Phyllis George as Morning News anchor, and Sauter’s impatience with documentaries, among many other things.
Boyer’s strong career as a journalist has prepared him to recount the rise and fall of CBS as a compelling story, a complex piece of investigative journalism replete with inside accounts from all levels of the CBS organization. Although the frequent leaps in time and myriad names can be dizzying, the puzzle pieces gradually fall in place and the case against the “new CBS” becomes unassailable. WHO KILLED CBS? is simultaneously a spicy expose of the lives of those who claim to mirror the world for viewers and a complex analysis of the forces which warp that mirror’s reflection.