After months at the center of a media storm and years as one of the most polarizing figures on the American news scene, Dan Rather will sign off this week as anchor of “CBS Evening News.” But to paraphrase one of his homespun Rather-isms, don’t bet the trailer money that he’ll disappear.
“I’m not retiring, I’m changing jobs,” the 73-year-old newsman insisted in a phone interview. Still, his voice caught when he was asked what he could yet do in his career to make viewers forget about his role in a flawed story last year on President Bush’s military service.
“I can’t,” he said softly. But he added quickly that he believed Americans would eventually reach what he considered the right verdict about his legacy.
Rather’s reputation is hardly the only thing left unresolved. Coming six months after the Bush report, the anchorman’s messy exit encapsulates much larger problems at CBS News.
Hailed for decades as the home of broadcast giants such as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, the legendary division is struggling to redefine its mission. “CBS Evening News” is in third place in the ratings and has no permanent anchor (after Rather signs off Wednesday, veteran “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer will fill in for an unspecified interim). The future of CBS’ prime-time newsmagazines also is unclear.
Nagging questions remain about the investigation CBS commissioned on the Bush story, and the former executive producer of “60 Minutes Wednesday” -- who was asked to resign after the panel issued its report -- still has not left the company and has hired a lawyer.
CBS Chairman and Chief Executive Leslie Moonves openly speaks of a “revolution” in the news division, prompting further anxieties internally. But he’s not saying much about Rather; he declined to comment for this report.
“Morale is not very good right now,” Schieffer said in an interview. “I think our credibility was hurt by” the Bush story. “But we’re going to turn a page. We’ve simply got to move on.”
CBS’ problems on the eve of Rather’s departure from the anchor chair are all the more stark when contrasted with the situation at NBC, which after years of careful planning successfully transferred Brian Williams into Tom Brokaw’s position on the No. 1 rated “NBC Nightly News” in a burst of publicity last year.
Rather, meanwhile, is leaving the field to catcalls from some of his own teammates.
In a New Yorker article this week, “60 Minutes” co-editor Mike Wallace is quoted calling Rather’s on-air persona “uptight” and “occasionally contrived.”
Wallace and former “60 Minutes” executive producer Don Hewitt confessed that they preferred to watch Rather’s competitors. Cronkite, who maintains an office and a small staff at CBS News, told the magazine that Moonves should have been tougher on Rather and CBS News President Andrew Heyward.
Some insiders blame Rather not just for his tangled role in the controversy, but for the larger problems in the news division. Executives were too deferential to him for too long, according to this line of thinking. They did not prepare for a smooth succession at the anchor desk; they permitted Rather to spread himself too thin. And above all, they allowed him to languish in the ratings for a decade.
The level of anger is so high that many of the top newspeople willing to pay tribute to Rather’s career are competitors.
“It is not right to judge an entire career [by one error], as awful and systemic a failure as this was,” said NBC’s Williams. “One error does not a career make.”
But the error for the moment has overshadowed Rather -- and CBS.
Less than two months before the election, Rather, a correspondent on “60 Minutes Wednesday,” presented a report that suggested Bush received preferential treatment while serving in the Texas Air National Guard. It was based, in part, on documents that could not be authenticated.
The panel that CBS commissioned to investigate condemned the report with strong language. The network, investigators said, was in such a rush to air the Sept. 8 story that it failed to heed its own standards for accuracy and fairness -- and then refused to acknowledge its own mistakes.
CBS News arrived at this point, insiders and rival newspeople say, at least partly because of the complicated, decades-long dance between Rather and his various network bosses. The scene was set even before he ascended to the position of “CBS Evening News” anchor in 1981, replacing Cronkite, “the most trusted man in America.”
Having worked his way up as a correspondent in Dallas, Vietnam and the White House, Rather battled hard for the anchor chair.
According to Peter J. Boyer’s 1988 book “Who Killed CBS?,” Rather repeatedly elbowed rivals out of the way in his ascent through the network ranks.
In 1969, when CBS was looking for an anchor for the Sunday “Evening News,” Rather beat out correspondent John Hart by angrily reminding his boss of all the holidays and kids’ birthday parties he’d missed while chasing down stories for the company. A few weeks later, Rather was told he’d landed the job, Boyer wrote.
Ten years later, when it appeared that the network would replace Cronkite with Roger Mudd, Rather gained leverage by threatening to flee to ABC or NBC, according to Boyer.
Rather eventually won the job, although it was still unclear whether he ever reconciled himself to the realities of being a newsreader. Despite a salary widely reported to be $7 million, he pounds the pavement like a cub reporter with something to prove. He describes himself as a reporter first, an anchor second.
“I’m convinced,” Schieffer said, “he never really enjoyed anchoring the news.”
The CBS-appointed panel investigating the Bush story noted that Rather had relatively little time to vet sources and documents because he was busy covering Hurricane Frances in Florida and other stories.
“I think Dan’s great strength is also his weakness,” Schieffer said. “He was willing to go anywhere, anytime, to cover a story. I think Dan’s downfall is that CBS expected too much of him.”
Despite “CBS Evening News’ ” poor ratings, the network kept renewing Rather’s contract, leading some to suggest that the network’s leadership was intimidated by Rather.
The anchor’s relentless hustle on big stories may have deprived potential successors of necessary seasoning -- again in sharp contrast to NBC, where Williams underwent an extended apprenticeship, anchoring his own newscast on cable sibling MSNBC and getting plenty of face time on big network stories before taking Brokaw’s place.
Perhaps because of the long-range planning habits of its corporate parent, General Electric Co., NBC has made a point of mapping talent deals for years in advance, signing “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert to a 12-year deal in 2000, and announcing last year that Conan O’Brien would replace Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show” in 2009.
Many news veterans are puzzled that CBS did not do more to prepare for a post-Rather era.
“It’s hard to figure out what happened there,” said Tom Bettag, a Rather friend and former CBS News producer who oversees ABC News’ “Nightline.”
He suggested that management may have been reluctant to be seen as putting Rather out to pasture because he had come to symbolize CBS News and to represent continuity, even as the network went through years of changing corporate masters. During Rather’s tenure as anchor, the network has been overseen by four bosses: Founder William S. Paley, Wall Street investor Laurence Tisch, Westinghouse Chief Executive Michael Jordan and, since 1999, Viacom Chief Executive Sumner Redstone.
When Tisch forced steep cuts on the news-gathering budget during his reign from 1986 to 1995, Rather stepped up to defend the division, Bettag said.
Moonves and Heyward decided last summer -- well before the Bush story aired -- that it was Rather’s time to go. They may have been emboldened by their handling of Hewitt, the legendary “60 Minutes” creator who had finally stepped aside last year as executive producer after years of resisting Heyward’s attempts to broach the issue of retirement.
Rather says he would have preferred not to leave now. He told his bosses he wanted to stay until his 25th anniversary in March 2006.
“They said, ‘That would be nice, but it was a little far out -- probably not,’ ” Rather said. “There was general agreement that I would leave sometime this spring.”
The Bush story fiasco probably hastened the process. Rather now has embarked on the difficult process of rehabilitating his reputation -- a subject about which his bosses have little to say publicly.
On Wednesday, CBS will devote an hour of prime time to a special, “Dan Rather: A Reporter Remembers,” featuring clips and reminiscences of his coverage of the civil rights movement, the John F. Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, Watergate, the Challenger space shuttle explosion -- and the Bush story. The only person interviewed besides Rather is his former CBS producer, Howard Stringer, now the chief of Sony America.
From here on out, Rather’s toughest job might be convincing his conservative critics that he’s not a liberally biased journalist. Bloggers and columnists have cited his run-ins with Republican presidents as evidence of his political agenda.
“It goes with the territory,” Rather said of the criticism. “I don’t have a political agenda.... If you’re going to cover the president and cover important national issues, this is going to put you face to face with controversy.”
Those sympathetic to Rather see a connection between his plight and that of the network. The anger and resentments kicked up by the Bush story may take years to repair.
Producer Mary Mapes, who had worked closely with Rather, was fired. Two other senior CBS staff members who were immediately asked to resign did not leave until two weeks ago -- and only then after lawyers got involved.
“It was such a searing experience for everyone that until Dan is no longer seated as anchor, [the problem] remains,” said Marvin Kalb, a former CBS correspondent who serves as a senior fellow at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University. “Perhaps it will remain as long as Dan is an active journalist. I hope that’s not the case.”
When asked who he believes his successor should be, Rather demurred, saying only that there are plenty of viable candidates inside and outside the company. But he made it clear that management wasn’t consulting him.
“I don’t know what the plan is for making innovations at CBS News,” he said.
In any event, Rather has no intention of slinking off into retirement. He said that even if the network canceled the low-rated “60 Minutes Wednesday,” his newsmagazine base, he would move to working full time at the Sunday flagship “60 Minutes.”
That might be news to his bosses, who have yet to make such an announcement.
“I have a passion for doing this work,” Rather said. “Anchoring in television, if you aren’t careful, can degenerate into an ego-centered practice.
“I’ve tried my best not to succumb to that. It’s not about me, it’s about the news, and it’s about CBS News.... I have been ... their choice and I’ve been proud to do it, proud to be it ... the emblem, the symbol, if you will, of CBS News for quite a long time.”
As for the Bush Air National Guard story, he hopes Americans will ultimately remember more his decades of journalistic accomplishments.
“I’ve learned to trust the audience,” he said. “The harshest critic could not be nearly as hard on me as I am on myself.”