To hear Dan Rather tell it, he was more surprised than Connie Chung to find out she’d been dumped from the CBS Evening News after two years. ”While I’d been told that Connie and her agents were in negotiations about her future,” says Rather, ”I knew nothing about what was going on until two newspaper people called me late Saturday afternoon.”
If that’s true, Rather may have been the only one in the news biz who didn’t see Chung’s departure coming. Insiders say the death knell for the 48-year-old anchor sounded three months ago when CBS broadcast president Howard Stringer, her longtime champion, left the network and was succeeded by Peter Lund. Lund apparently had no allegiances to Chung (who was still under fire for her talk with Newt Gingrich’s mom) and no compunction about removing her from the floundering Evening News.
Chung’s firing has since turned into an ugly story. ”While I was still saying how hardworking she was,” relates Rather, ”my friends were saying, ‘You sound silly saying wonderful things about her when her people are taking jibes at you.”’
His former coanchor, who declined to comment for this story, hasn’t fared much better. Instead of meekly accepting CBS’ offer — anchoring on weekends and occasionally subbing for Rather — Chung is charging sexism and asking to be released from her contract. The lack of support for her accusation, however, is conspicuous. Two veteran women broadcasters who survived similar skirmishes refuse to comment because they believe Chung’s downfall stems from her recent on-air gaffes and her percieved shaky hard-news credentials.
”She got the shaft, but it’s not because of the gender issue,” says Emily Rooney, who resigned after clashing with Peter Jennings when she was executive producer of ABC’s World News Tonight. ”It was unfair that CBS recruited her. They liked her entertainment flair and wanted a lighter touch, then wanted her out for the same reasons.” Chung’s old friend Don Hewitt, exec producer of 60 Minutes, agrees. ”I told Connie to get off the sexist thing, it doesn’t fly,” says Hewitt. ”This may have been mismanaged from the start, but it’s not because she’s a woman.”
What’s next for Chung? At press time, she was apparently negotiating with CBS for the remaining $2 million on her contract, but it’s not clear whether she’ll get it. According to sources close to the network, Chung’s contract doesn’t contain the usual news-anchor proviso that if she gets fired, she still gets paid. Her agent, Alfred Geller, refused to comment. Meanwhile, there’s widespread speculation that Chung could land at Fox, which has been looking for an anchor. No matter where she goes, Chung will need a lot of what Rather wished her on the May 22 Evening News broadcast — ”good luck and Godspeed.”