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Newhouse Breakfast: Moonves Slam Rather, Defends Couric

The battle of the sound bites rages on.

Leslie Moonves, President and CEO, CBS Corporation, called former CBS News anchor Dan Rather’s comments that the CBS Evening News has been "tarted up" under new anchor Katie Couric, "sexist" and a "cheap shot."

Speaking Tuesday at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School breakfast conversation series, Moonves said he has "a great deal of faith in (Couric)" to reverse the show’s declining ratings trend.

Rather’s remarks came during a phone call on Joe Scarborough’s MSNBC program Monday.

"The mistake was to try to bring the Today show ethos to the Evening News and to dumb it down," said Rather, "tart it up in hopes of attracting a younger audience."

Speaking generally, Moonves said the amount of negative press generated by Couric’s move from morning TV to the old boys network of evening news has been "pretty startling."

"I’m surprised at the vitriol that has come out against (Couric)," he said.

While Moonves conceded that the show’s early attempt to distinguish itself by loading up on feature segments backfired, he countered that Couric has attracted a younger audience.

"They tried to put on a different kind of news show …to attract a different kind of viewer," he said, adding that under executive producer Rick Kaplan, who came aboard in March, the newscast has reverted to its hard news roots.

But with the average broadcast news viewer, "north of 60," said Moonves, it’s imperative that the format find a way to attract younger viewers. And while prognosticators are predicting the demise of the evening news, Moonves reiterated the company’s commitment to the format.

"I would be very disappointed if there ever came a day when CBS didn’t have an evening newscast," he said.

Moonves also addressed the New York Court’s recent reversal of the FCC’s ruling against Fox for "fleeting profanities" uttered during the Golden Globes.

"I was very very pleased at that," he said, adding that it’s "absurd" that a television network should be fined for a derivation of the same word Dick Cheney uttered on the Senate floor.

"The FCC has overstepped their boundaries," said Moonves. "I think this ruling is a very good thing for CBS and for everyone in the media."