A Dubious Marking of Rather's 15 Years

It's March, an anniversary month. Dan Rather has been anchoring the "CBS Evening News" since 1981. So someone at his network decided to use the occasion to throw him a media parade.

Not that 15 years on a job confers anything approaching elder statesmanhood, but no question that it's a nice run as well as a nice, round figure that attracts attention. Thus, this was an opportunity to get Rather some positive headlines, which could be expected to rub off on his newscast, still third in the ratings behind ABC's "World News Tonight With Peter Jennings" and "NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw," half hours headed by a couple of greenhorns who each had been their networks' chief news anchors a measly 13 years.

Whether the celebration was Rather's idea, he went for it and accepted the role of point man for himself, and soon calls from CBS publicists had generated stories about him and his newscast in such newspapers as the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, to say nothing of his own medium, television. So naturally. . . .

"This afternoon I talked to Dan about the present and the future of television news."

The authoritative voice, the hair mop of wavy cotton. It had to be, it was: Jerry Dunphy, dean of local newsreaders, co-anchoring the 4 p.m. Friday segment of "Action News" on KCBS-TV Channel 2, the CBS station responsible for delivering a paltry Los Angeles audience to Rather's network newscast.

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Rather promised to remain on the job "as long as his health permits," Dunphy informed his co-anchor, Linda Alvarez. "Well, good for him," Alvarez said. "You bet," Dunphy said. "We look forward to that," Alvarez said.

Right, sure, absolutely. Just as we look forward to the demise of hollow anchortalk.

On the other hand, why not Rather? The more you see him beside the spring buds of TV news, the better he looks. At age 64, he is, after all, a member of that fast-shrinking club of newscasters who not only are experienced reporters themselves but also care about TV news as serious journalism. And even though you may not always share his news values, it's comforting to know that at least he has some--that doing good work, not just self-promotion, is important to him.

Rather no doubt was having similar chats on large CBS stations across the nation. Yet Dunphy has been around so long that he may have already calcified to his TelePrompTer, which his bosses will probably retire, bronze and have mounted on a pedestal when he leaves. So when he has a reader-to-reporter, icon-to-icon chat with Rather, you don't miss it.

"Do you like what you see?" Dunphy in Los Angeles asked Rather in New York about today's newscasting in a satellite interview on tape.

What he didn't like, Rather replied soberly, was the "acceleration of the swamping of news values by entertainment values," the irony being that he was at that moment appearing on one of the most entertainment-swamped-and-accelerated stations on the planet when it came to news.

"Action News" graphics ("ONLY ON 2," "THEY SHOT MR. PEREZ") have grown so enormous that there's just barely enough room on the screen now for humans. And crossing the line? Throughout Monday's 4 p.m. newscast, "Action News" ran teases for some video-snooping dung about a recent angry argument that dashing John F. Kennedy Jr. appeared to have had with his girlfriend in Central Park, something that already had been shouted about that afternoon on "Day & Date," the trashy Channel 2 program produced by Westinghouse, the new owner of CBS.

Stringing along viewers for 50 minutes, "Action News" belatedly got to the "confrontation that shocked JFK Jr. watchers," lifting the first half of the lengthy "Day & Date" piece and its loopy background music largely intact except for a retaped voice-over by Alvarez ("We do not like to repeat rumors, but JFK watchers are speculating . . ."). "Confrontation," Part 2 was promised for Tuesday.

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It was "bullfeathers," to borrow one of Rather's favorite Texas expressions.

Just as boggling as the "entertainment values" decried by Rather is the deep permeation of gratuitous crime stories, no matter how inconsequential. Choppers have expedited the tabloid trend.

"BREAKING NEWS" was the Channel 2 graphic Monday. Cut quickly to Bob Tur in "Chopper 2" above . . . above, well, above something. "We believe we have an officer-involved shooting here," Tur reported. "We don't know why officers were called to the scene." In other words, we don't know what it is, but here it is, live. Then back to the studio.

Not that crime over-coverage is exclusive to local news. The three network newscasts aired a record number of crime stories in 1995, according to a study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. Those 2,574 reports--roughly a third of which were about the O.J. Simpson case--outnumbered stories about Bosnia, the U.S. economy and the federal budget combined.

"We kinda went berserk on the O.J. Simpson thing," Rather said by satellite on CNN's "Larry King Live" Monday night. Kinda.

King was in Los Angeles, noting "this historic month" in the life of his guest, who was liking everyone and everything that evening, feeling honored and flattered and unworthy. The adulation, the celebrity, the verbal ticker tape. Why, it was overwhelming, almost too much for a modest drawl of a Texan to comprehend. Said humble Dan: "I get more praise than I deserve, I get better press than I deserve, I get more money than I deserve." You were moved. But there was more. "I dream of being a great reporter," he said. "I haven't achieved it yet."

And more. He told a caller he was "up here" in New York "because the buffalo are here," but that he could be Associated Press bureau chief in Alpine, Texas, "and be very, very happy." Moreover, when King reminded viewers that Rather had "replaced" Walter Cronkite in 1981, humble Dan would have none of it. "I succeeded Walter Cronkite," he corrected his host. "Nobody replaces Walter Cronkite." You felt moisture forming in your eyes.

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Yet, you know, funny thing. No one appears to be forcing Rather to endure this painful ego massage. No one shackled him to the self-promotion circuit the way he had himself lashed to a tree in Panama City, Fla., last fall so he could report from Hurricane Opal and not be blown away by 140 mph winds. This time he was supplying some of the wind.

You might think that, if Rather were all that humble, he wouldn't be out and about, as he is, making himself available to be praised, aw-shucksing his way through interviews that he wouldn't be doing if he didn't want to. If the 10-gallon hat fits, wear it. If the humility were genuine, would Rather have been eagerly filling the role of sage know-it-all by answering questions on King's show about the China/Taiwan crisis, about Bosnia, about Fidel Castro and Cuba, and about presidential politics?

And wasn't the fact that he was doing it evidence that, in the tradition of the man he "succeeded" and anchors everywhere, he was inflating the messenger by helping anoint himself as the gleaming centerpiece of his newscast, even while giving credit to his supporting editorial staff?

CBS once had a tradition of mobilizing its talent for an annual "parade of stars" to impress gatherings of its affiliate stations in Los Angeles, with a waving Cronkite himself being run across the stage behind a Carol Burnett or the star of an obscure new sitcom, just one more celebrity among many.

So this is Rather's "parade of stars." Up next, King announced after his anchor guest's segment, was James Brown.

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