When Connie Chung was given one of the most powerful jobs in America, she didn’t ask questions. She took it. She didn’t care that she was made coanchor of the CBS Evening News mostly because CBS wanted to beat NBC to the punch of hiring a woman. She never said, “That’s the wrong reason to hire me.”

Ratings were at stake. She took advantage.

When Chung chased a sleazy skater named Tonya Harding halfway around the world, desperate to be first to interview her, she made no apologies. She didn’t say: “This isn’t news. It’s beneath someone of my position.” She was right there, sucking up.

Ratings were at stake. She took advantage.

When Chung did specials such as “Life in the Fat Lane,” when she went on her husband Maury Povich’s tabloid TV show to promote herself, when she jackhammered her last shred of integrity by promising “just between you and me” to Newt Gingrich’s mother, then airing her comments anyhow — she showed no hesitation. She thought it was hot stuff.

Ratings were at stake.

She took advantage.

So why on Earth should anyone feel sorry for Chung, after CBS last week booted her off its news and left Dan Rather to go solo? Chung cried foul. She said it was sexist.

But it was all about ratings.

Which got her the job in the first place. Executive journalists

What a joke this network news business has become. As Andy Rooney said,
“It’s four-and-a-half minutes’ worth of reading.” I listen to Chung and Rather debate journalism and I have the same reaction as most lesser-paid, harder-working members of this business: When was the last time those two got their hands dirty?

When was the last time Rather or Chung had to scrounge with the pack for an interview, or pore through phone books for sources, or badger police to get a quote?

The handful of times Rather and Chung leave the CBS building, it’s with an armada of producers, previously arranged interviews, and luxury hotels.

So the whole notion that any of this is hard work is ridiculous.

Still, within the framework of that, Chung takes the cake. Dan Rather — who reportedly is as egotistical as the best of them — at least once upon a time did some serious correspondent work. Chung, outside of a brief stint covering Washington in the ’70s, made her ascent through anchoring local TV news — in LA and New York — and local TV news is the most cosmetic of media, always more concerned with the right blend of sex, race and age in its announcers. Chung was a jackpot. She moved up fast.

Sure, once she got to the top, she could have made an impact. But Chung seemed more interested in becoming one of the celebrities she profiled. She made People magazine’s cover with her desire to have a baby, yet it’s hard to think of a single important story she helped unearth at CBS, or a single probing interview — unless you count the time Marlon Brando jerked her around.

Sure, much of the fluff she chased was what her bosses wanted at CBS. Fluff is ratings. It’s ironic that the weekly “Eye to Eye” — her attempt at substance — failed miserably against “Seinfeld,” a show that will do a half hour on chicken soup.

But such is American TV. Last week, Liz Smith, the gossip columnist, penned a heartfelt “open letter” to Chung. In it, she suggested, “Go back to being Connie Charm. Do your jokes, do your interviews . . . leave the serious stuff to Dan and the news division. . . . There is so much bad news these days. . . . You, Connie, could be the antidote.”

Liz Smith advising Connie Chung. Perfect. Ratings rule television

Now, this whole little drama is hardly new. Remember Deborah Norville? NBC rushed her sexy looks into the “Today” show in place of Jane Pauley — Norville didn’t object, by the way — then later dumped her.

Norville, who maintained that she was hired for her intelligence and reporting skills, soon tumbled into oblivion. She now hosts “Inside Edition.”

Which she insists “is not a tabloid show.”

Geez. You want them all to put a sock in it. In Britain, the people who read you the news each night are called “news readers.” They are not famous. They are not celebrities. They read off a TelePrompTer and that is all they’re given credit for. No more, no less.

We lack that sensibility. And so Chung’s story is some big deal. It shouldn’t be. She didn’t get where she was by being an expert in foreign affairs, nor by writing books, nor by grilling false icons the way Edward R. Murrow once did to Joseph McCarthy.

Chung got there because her ratings were good. And she is out because the ratings were bad.

The only mystery is why that is hard for her — of all people — to understand.

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