Dan Rather exits CBS with a push

Times Staff Writer

In their announcement Tuesday that Dan Rather is leaving CBS News after more than four decades, network officials stressed the longtime anchor’s legacy and devotion to his craft, heralding his “singular role” in shaping broadcast journalism.

But their respectful tone did little to blunt the fact that network executives effectively pushed him out by declining to renew his contract as a full-time correspondent for “60 Minutes.”

The move -- coming just more than a year after Rather stepped down from the anchor desk of the “CBS Evening News” -- was viewed by many of his media kin as ill treatment of one of the lions of television journalism.


“I think it’s outrageous,” PBS’ Jim Lehrer said on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday. “I think the man deserves better than this.”

Rather himself released a statement Tuesday saying that “after a protracted struggle” CBS officials “had not lived up to their obligation to allow me to do substantive work there.”

“I leave CBS News with tremendous memories,” he wrote. “But I leave now most of all with the desire to once again do regular, meaningful reporting.”

CBS News President Sean McManus declined to discuss the negotiations over Rather’s departure, but disputed the notion that the 74-year-old newsman had been ignobly treated.

“We just couldn’t come up with a schedule of assignments on ’60 Minutes’ that was satisfactory for both him and CBS,” McManus said in an interview Tuesday. “There’s nothing disrespectful whatsoever in that we’ve tried to do this in a very fair and equitable way, knowing that we couldn’t come to an agreement on a contract extension. It was an ongoing process that from our perspective was as cordial, lengthy and respectful as we could have made it.”

Rather’s final report for CBS -- a profile on Dick DeGuerin, Tom DeLay’s attorney -- aired on “CBS Sunday Morning” this weekend. His exit marks a turning point for the news division, which has seen a broad makeover of its top positions in the last year.

“I’m really going to miss him,” said evening news anchor Bob Schieffer, who succeeded him in March 2005. “Dan was larger than life, and sometimes his mistakes were larger than life, as were his successes. But what I always admired about him was his great instinct for news and his dogged determination that whenever a story happened, he wanted to get there. That’s really the core of journalism, and that’s what Dan Rather was really about.”

According to sources familiar with the internal thinking, CBS executives knew their decision would spark criticism but concluded in recent months that enduring the reproach was necessary to end the network’s 44-year relationship with Rather, a colorful figure whose relentless drive for the story both shaped the news division and triggered one of its stormiest episodes.

Their move was not directly tied to the furor that erupted in the fall of 2004, when Rather reported a story questioning President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard that was immediately picked apart by conservative bloggers, according to these sources. An independent panel eventually determined the piece was based on unsubstantiated documents and Rather apologized for the flawed reporting.

Still, even though CBS executives feel the news division has largely recovered from the controversy, the incident has shadowed Rather’s reputation and complicated the question of his post-anchor role. This season, he was one of nine correspondents on “60 Minutes,” an arrangement that proved awkward for all involved.

In an interview last week, Rather expressed frustration that he was only allowed to do eight pieces this season and that his requests to cover major stories like Hurricane Katrina and Iraq were turned down. He was seeking a guarantee of a more substantial role for next season.

But with Katie Couric taking over the evening news in September, network officials wanted to signal a fresh start for the news division and shift attention to a new generation of broadcasters, sources said.

Rather’s departure comes as a sour end note for the veteran newsman, who had sought to remain at the network where he anchored the evening news for almost a quarter century.

His last day at CBS has not been set -- officials said it was up to him -- but it’s clear he will leave long before his current contract expires at the end of November.

In his statement Tuesday, Rather said CBS had offered to let him stay on in a post with an office but no specific assignments.

“It just isn’t in me to sit around doing nothing,” he said. “So I will do the work I love elsewhere, and I look forward to sharing details about that soon.”

One offer on his plate is from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who has invited Rather to do a weekly news program on his high-definition television channel, HDNet, available in about 3 million homes through cable and satellite providers.

“We hope to do a deal where he produces a show that uncovers news,” Cuban wrote on his blog Monday, describing the program as “information with a payoff.”

“You may think you know what Dan Rather and HDNet will do together,” he added. “But you don’t. You have no idea. I will tell you that there won’t be any corporate considerations. No earnings per share issues. No worries about advertisers and what they might think.”

Rather did not return a call for comment Tuesday and has not said whether he will take the offer, but noted in his statement that “too much is made of anchors and their personalities, their ups and downs.”

“The larger issues -- the role of a free press and of honest, real news in a democracy, the role of technology in supporting a free press, the ‘corporatization’ of news and its effects on news content -- all deserve more attention, more discussion and more passionate debate,” he said, adding: “I’ll see you soon.”

CBS officials said they planned to produce a prime-time special that would air this fall about Rather’s career at the network, which he joined in 1962 as Dallas bureau chief. He went on to cover the White House during the Johnson and Nixon administrations and serve as bureau chief in London and Saigon.

Rather, who was born in Wharton, Texas, studied journalism at Sam Houston State Teachers College, now known as Sam Houston State University. CBS said Tuesday that it was making a contribution there in his name.

McManus, who has never met formally with Rather since he was appointed to head the news division last fall, is scheduled to have lunch with him for the first time today to discuss the retrospective on his career.

“It’s not as if we’re taking away the key and locking the door,” the news president said. “In a difficult situation, we’re trying to do this with as much respect and recognition of his enormous legacy at CBS as we can.”