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Rather Declines Nomination to Debate Panel

Times Staff Writer

Even though nominated, CBS anchor Dan Rather chose not to serve as a panelist on the second and final presidential debate Thursday in Los Angeles, CBS said Tuesday.

Rather, the only anchorman of the major networks not picked as a panelist for either the first presidential debate on Sept. 25 or last Wednesday’s vice presidential debate, declined to be interviewed about his decision.

Soon after CBS issued Rather’s prepared statement, the sponsoring Commission on Presidential Debates said the panel would include Andrea Mitchell of NBC, Ann Compton of ABC and Margaret Warner of Newsweek. Bernard Shaw of Cable News Network will be moderator.

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The 90-minute debate between Vice President George Bush and Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion will be aired live by the three networks and Cable News Network at 6 p.m. Thursday.

In his statement, Rather said, “I appreciate the request by the candidates” to serve on the panel.

However, he added: “I also believe that the procedures they have developed are not the best. Honestly feeling that, I prefer to report on the process than participate in it.”

Rather did not make clear what “procedures” he was referring to--the way the panelists are picked or the way the debates have been held. He has referred to them as “joint appearances” by the candidates, rather than debates.

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The anchorman became part of the election-year story on Jan. 25 in a tense, combative live interview with Bush on the “CBS Evening News,” in which he abruptly cut Bush off as the program ended.

Needled Rather on Absence

During that interview, the GOP candidate needled Rather about his much-publicized absence from his anchor’s post in September, 1987, when a tennis telecast cut into the start of Rather’s program. Rather’s absence forced CBS to “go black” for six minutes, an eternity by network standards.

Despite that confrontation, Rather subsequently has interviewed Bush without incident on several occasions.

There has been speculation that the Bush camp, instead of opposing Rather as a debate panelist, actually wanted him on the panel for Thursday’s debate, feeling that he would be harder on Dukakis than Bush to show his fairness.

The panelists for the two presidential debates and last week’s vice presidential debate between Sens. Lloyd Bentsen and Dan Quayle are picked under ground rules agreed on by the two parties.

Each party and the nonpartisan commission producing the debates can nominate 10 journalists as prospective panelists. Then each organization can challenge and dismiss eight prospects from each list.

The commission then chooses the three panelists from the six finalists. ABC anchor Peter Jennings was a panelist on the first presidential debate, while NBC anchor Tom Brokaw served on the vice presidential debate panel, as did ABC correspondent Brit Hume.

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