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Two Stars Vanish in a Blink of the CBS Eye

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Industry pundits may have dubbed it Bad Day at Black Rock, but by the time it was all over at CBS’s mid-Manhattan headquarters, the wreckage looked more like a shoot-out at the not-so-O.K. Corral. In the latest installment of in-house network wars, a miniscandal and a shake-up had touched both a venerable old-timer and one of CBS’s once most fervent Great Young Hopes. First came word that 60 Minutes’ resident grump, 12-year veteran Andy Rooney, 71, had been suspended without pay for three months over allegedly racist remarks made to a national gay advocacy magazine. Then, even before that dustup had settled, an equally jarring announcement was made: Kathleen Sullivan, 36, co-host of the struggling CBS This Morning, was being canned. Nine months before her scheduled contract renewal, Sullivan was expected to hand over Morning’s frayed reins, most likely to Paula Zahn, 33, ABC’s early-morning news co-anchor.

For a beleaguered network that in recent years has weathered takeover bids, shattering layoffs, withering budget cuts and a bitter 1987 writers’ strike, these latest fissures at Black Rock (the industry’s nickname for CBS’s foreboding headquarters) couldn’t have come at a worse time. Amid persistent rumors that CBS may partially merge with Ted Turner, the once hallowed network is trying to bear up under an ignominious ratings slump. CBS This Morning is perennially in last place (and a risky slot for women; see box on page 32), and the network is third in the prime-time race as well. Equally as damaging is the erosion of the network’s once vaunted journalistic reputation, from the recent controversy over allegedly doctored news footage from Afghanistan to the fall from first place of the nightly news.

Ironically, the announcement of Sullivan’s surprise departure came just as This Morning, after a revamping by new producer Erik Sorenson, was showing a 20 percent ratings rally over the last year. As recently as last December, Sorenson sang Sullivan’s praises, calling her “different from the other women on TV in the morning. Kathleen…is not a peroxide special.” Sullivan herself may have been more prescient. Last fall she told the Donahue audience that “the ax is right there. If we don’t get viewers, my days are numbered.”

A former Salt Lake City newscaster who moved to an anchor slot for Ted Turner’s fledgling CNN in 1980, Sullivan made her first big network score as a sports commentator for ABC during the 1984 Olympics. She was always highly thought of by ABC execs. But after her move to Washington, D.C., as co-anchor for ABC’s World News This Morning, she drew fire from staffers for having a slim news background. “She was kind of a dunce, a pretty face who read the news,” says one source. “The other correspondents didn’t look at her as a peer.” Adds one producer: “If she said, ‘Shouldn’t we be saying that Gorbachev’s wife is wearing the latest Chanel suit?’ you’d have to say, ‘Yes, Kathleen, that’s true. But what’s more important is that Gorbachev is proposing arms cuts.’ ” Still, he says, there were stressful times when Sullivan shone. “She went on cold when Andropov died, and she did fine.”

Sullivan, however, occasionally rubbed CBS brass the wrong way. In 1985 she apologized to viewers for an open-mike expletive and last September referred to her employer as the “cheap broadcasting system” on an in-house closed-circuit TV.

A quick temper often directed at fellow staffers was another knock against her. One frequent talk show guest saw Sullivan upbraid CBS This Morning crew members during a commercial break for making “some minor, minor noise offset. She wasn’t like Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest, but she could be quite difficult with subordinates.”

In recent months, say co-workers, in addition to changing her hairstyle and losing weight, Sullivan learned to ease up. “At the beginning it was a much dicier relationship with the staff,” says one This Morning source. “But in the last six months she’s been happy. [At news of the firing] nobody was saying, ‘Hallelujah!’ ”

Ultimately, Sullivan’s demise seemed to have less to do with her behavior than with the sudden availability of what CBS sees as hotter network talent. When Deborah Norville’s NBC contract ran out last year, CBS reportedly made a play for her, setting off the Today-show ruckus that led to Jane Pauley’s departure. CBS could be luckier with Zahn, who has risen to prominence of late as a sub for the chirpy Joan Lunden on the top-rated Good Morning America.

For now, sources speculate that Sullivan will stick with CBS, most likely as part of its 1992 Winter Olympics coverage team. But in the meantime, in a year that saw not only her parents’ near-fatal car crash but also the bitter end of her four-year marriage to Palm Springs architect Michael Kiner, 36, colleagues can only wince at this latest CBS shuffle. “I have a feeling she’ll take this pretty hard,” says a friend. “She’s going through a lot.”

Sullivan was not the only high profile to get trimmed at CBS. In that network’s biggest brouhaha since sportscaster Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder was fired two years ago over racist remarks, CBS News President David Burke announced that Andy Rooney, 71, was being suspended for allegedly telling The Advocate that “blacks have watered down their genes, because the less intelligent ones are the ones that have the most children.”

Rooney, who won a 1968 Emmy for a documentary on black history, denies the charges. He claims that the subject of his discussion with The Advocate reporter was the education of poor people, black and white, and that by printing only his quotes on blacks, the paper made him look racist. “I said if you go to West Virginia or Georgia you find the same thing,” says Rooney. “A lot of white kids are dropping out, and the kids with the least education are having the most babies. I can see how that treads the ragged edge, but I made it clear [to the reporter] that my statement has nothing to do with race. It’s a class statement.”

This isn’t the first time Rooney has riled minorities. In a CBS year-end special, he observed that “many of the ills which kill us are self-induced” and included “too much alcohol, too much food, drugs, homosexual unions, cigarettes.” In response to protests from homosexuals, Rooney drafted a letter of apology this month but, according to sources, failed to include in it several additions ordered by his bosses. “CBS management believes Rooney, but they were displeased that the letter that appeared was not the one they had approved,” suggests one CBS source. “It’s believed around here that he didn’t say things in a racist tone. The real source of management’s distress is what they view as insubordination by Rooney.”

As the network’s prickly self-styled maverick, Rooney has come precariously close to the unemployment line before. In 1986 he publicly criticized the network after a brutal wave of layoffs, and in 1987 he was suspended without pay for refusing to cross picket lines in a six-week writers’ strike. In this latest bout, only the intercession of colleagues Ed Bradley, Mike Wallace and 60 Minutes Executive Producer Don Hewitt prevented him from being fired outright by Burke. Says Rooney: “They saved my job.”

In the wake of the flap, CBS received over 2,600 calls of support for Rooney, (versus 45 against him), and his colleagues are putting the best spin possible on his suspension. “My fondest wish is that he is back with us as fast as possible,” says Hewitt. But even that support cannot guarantee Rooney’s future. “How can you put somebody who has officially been declared a liar and been suspended back on the air?” asks former CBS News President Richard Salant, a friend and supporter of Rooney’s.

In the meantime, perhaps the wisest commentary of all about the Rooney imbroglio came not from outsiders but from a syndicated column written by the curmudgeon himself. “For all the hurt to me, I am even sorrier for the hurt to gays, blacks and CBS News,” he wrote. “None of them needs more trouble.”

—Susan Schindehette, Katy Kelly in Washington, D.C., Alan Carter and Lee Powell in New York City