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Open Memo to Les Moonves

Advice on where CBS should go from here.

11:00 PM, Jan 19, 2005 • By HUGH HEWITT
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To: Les Moonves, President, CBS

From: Hugh Hewitt, New Media Evangelist

I ghosted a speech for you on September 23, 2004. You didn't give it. Now, four months later, you haven't even hit bottom yet. The old playbook--bring in couple of graybeards to poke around and name the fall guys, or in this case the fall gals--doesn't work anymore. Your brand is toast. I don't have the across the board ratings, but the stuff I have seen tells me, and the rest of the world, that you have huge problems keeping your old audience or attracting a new one for product from the CBS News division.

They say you are trying to get Katie Couric interested, or perhaps invite Jon Stewart on to the set for commentaries. Why not go whole hog and designate Jon Lovitz as Dan's heir and be done with the idea of news credibility once and for all?

But if you are interested in rebuilding your news brand, start by asking yourself who consumes the news and what they want. Regardless of ideology, they want facts, analysis, and great pictures. That's all. Some of the analysis can be center-left to way left. That's fine with me and millions of other center-right folks. It is interesting to see what the other side thinks. (Thinks, by the way, not shouts.) But I want center-right and way right represented in at least equal doses as their counterparts, and I want an umpire who is both smart and working overtime to be fair.

This "smart" part got lost somewhere along the way. Reading a prompter isn't that hard. Asking the right questions is. That takes brains and catholic tastes when it comes to sources. Like most news consumers, you have been watching Brit Hume for the past few years. Special Report is the future of the news format. The names may change, but that's the format. It is watchable. It has good reporting. And it has a very good set of regular panelists in Fred Barnes, Mort Kondracke, Mara Liasson, Juan Williams, Charles Krauthammer, Michael Barone, and Jeff Birnbaum. That's the payoff. First the facts and the pictures. Then the analysis.

You just need the right people, and that means some hard choices. Start by asking the audience: Who do they want to see grappling over the headlines every night? A couple of folks I know would represent the center right well are the Wall Street Journal's Paul Gigot and PBS and the Hoover Institute's Peter Robinson. Both have extensive television experience. If they, or folks like them, are on the set every night, I'll trust the program to be at least worth watching through to the end.

Provided, of course, that they get a chance to talk and that the questions and agenda are fairly arrived at. Which brings us back to the question of moderator.

Who to put at that anchor desk?

To start with, you have the greatest reality show possibility staring you in the face, right? "So You Want to be an Anchor" could debut the day you pry Dan's death grip from his laptop. Try a dozen different faces. Try five dozen. It isn't that hard to read copy, and the audience would tune in just to see who was up next. You want folks to sample the product? You want them to try the news equivalent of a free night's stay at a hotel that had an outbreak of Legionnaire's Disease? Or to eat at the chain that served up some amazing cases of food poisoning? Then you had better make it worth their while. Tylenol didn't get back into medicine cabinets by telling people to forget about it, problem fixed.

Find a bunch of genuinely smart and charming and--crucially--large-souled people and work them out, on camera, for all the world to see. These next few weeks are the equivalent of the NFL's combine. You can't know how it will work out long term, but you sure can prevent the obvious mistakes. You may even find that "revolution not evolution" you've been talking about.

Or you could just hire Rudi Bakhtiar.