Whose Ambush Was It, Anyway? : Veteran Newsman Draws Heat Going for the 'Honest Answers'

Times Staff Writer

"We don't mislead people, we come straight at them," said CBS anchorman Dan Rather on Tuesday as he defended his controversial, combative live television interview with Vice President George Bush.

Surrounded by camera crews and reporters outside CBS News headquarters here, Rather denied Bush's claim that CBS misrepresented what the Monday night interview would be about.

"We did not mislead anyone," said Rather, who also has drawn criticism for his questioning manner during the 10-minute "CBS Evening News" segment and the curt way in which he ended the interview that dealt solely with questions about Bush's role in the Iran-Contra affair.

The program's executive producer, Tom Bettag, said of the abrupt finale, "I'm sorry it happened that way," but the program was running out of time and he had asked Rather to quickly end the interview.

The 10-minute interview, extraordinarily long for a network newscast, was preceded by a five-minute taped report. The report suggested that Bush, a candidate for the GOP's presidential nomination, had more of a role in the Iran-Contra affair than he has acknowledged.

Rather, in his impromptu sidewalk press conference Tuesday, said he respected Bush and the office of the vice president.

Nonetheless, the anchorman said, during election years "there are situations--they happen every day on the campaign trail--in which there are spirited questions and spirited answers."

And he added: "My job as a reporter is to ask honest questions and try to get honest answers. That's what I tried to do last night."

The way he did it caused the intense Texas-born anchorman to become part of the story and the object of criticism from viewers and at least one member of the CBS affiliates' board who called his conduct "unprofessional."

Neither ABC anchorman Peter Jennings nor NBC anchor Tom Brokaw would comment on Rather's interview.

However, two New York tabloids had a field day with Monday night's story. Tuesday's front page of the New York Daily News was split between President Reagan's State of the Union address and a photograph of Rather's back and Bush's face with the headline "In Livid Color." The New York Post devoted its full front page to headlines of the Rather-Bush video duel: "Rather Bushwhacks Veep."

Although calls from viewers flooded many CBS-affiliated stations and CBS headquarters here Monday night, CBS News officials professed Tuesday to have no immediate estimate of how many viewers called CBS headquarters.

But one mid-level executive said more than 6,000 calls had been logged by Tuesday morning, running 5 to 1 against Rather.

CBS News President Howard Stringer told reporters Tuesday that while the interview made some uncomfortable, "that is part of the political process."

The interview may also have made the network's sales department uncomfortable as well. A CBS source said the sales department had asked the news division for copies of the interview "because apparently advertisers who've signed for 'Campaign '88' (the network's election year campaign coverage) want to see this."

Richard S. Salant, president of CBS News when Rather had a much-publicized verbal exchange with then-President Richard Nixon in 1974, was among the viewers who saw Rather's Monday interview of Bush.

"I was very distressed to watch it," he said. "I think it's bad for everybody concerned."

The Rather-Nixon encounter of 14 years ago occurred during the Watergate crisis when Rather was CBS' White House correspondent. During a broadcast industry convention in Houston at which Nixon invited questions, Rather stood up. He was semi-jokingly asked by Nixon: "Are you running for something?"

Rather's response: "No, sir, Mr. President, are you?"

That made CBS affiliates "furious," Salant recalled in a telephone interview. Monday's much longer and more testy Rather-Bush exchange doubtless will do the same thing, he added.

However, interviews with two members of the CBS affiliates board, while yielding poor reviews for Rather's manners, showed a split on what, if anything, the board should say to CBS top management about the incident.

Paul Raymon, vice president of WAGA-TV in Atlanta, said he watched the interview in "sort of disgust," and said his station got 1,000 viewer calls about the interview, virtually all against Rather.

While he hasn't discussed the matter yet with his fellow board members, Raymon thinks they should send an "official communication" of some sort to Stringer or even CBS President Laurence A. Tisch about the interview.

It wasn't Rather's questions, Raymon said but "the demeanor and manner and rudeness with which he questioned him (Bush). . . . Whether or not you like Mr. Bush, he still is the vice president. He deserves a little courtesy.

"I just think there's no excuse for that kind of unprofessional conduct."

But former affiliate board president Phil Jones, while saying he was particularly bothered by Rather's curt ending of the interview, said he didn't think the board should try to raise the issue with CBS management.

"While I really don't think he (Rather) was right in how he conducted the interview," he said, "I think it is his right to do it that way. . . . I don't think it's the board's place to say, 'This is how we want you to interview: We want you to be a good guy. . . .' "

What he will suggest, should the board raise the matter, said Jones, vice president of KCTV-TV in Kansas City, Mo., is "to leave it alone and let it (the controversy) run its natural course."

Jones said his station received only 50 calls Monday night about the Rather interview, the calls running 3 to 1 against Rather. But on Tuesday, the interview and uproar it caused was widely discussed all around town on Tuesday, he noted.

"It's getting more attention than the State of the Union address, a situation I think is pretty pathetic," he said.

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