Open Mic

Dan Rather, JFK, Edward R. Murrow and the Business of TV News, Part 3: Is a Dream a Lie If It Don't Come True or Is It Something Worse?

Chuck Ross Posted November 26, 2013 at 3:20 PM

[Today's entry is the final part of our series that we began last Friday. It ends as it began, with Dan Rather. We started our longish -- yet still abbreviated -- journey through the history of CBS News with documentaries made in the 1950s by Fred Friendly and Edward R. Murrow. Part 2 saw Howard K. Smith leaving CBS and the behind-the-scenes battle to replace Walter Cronkite as the anchor of the “CBS Evening News.” In tracing some of the history of CBS News thus far we’ve seen a number of major conflicts between the news division and CBS corporate. We begin today’s entry with the transition from Cronkite to Rather.]

As Walter Cronkite, the Most Trusted Man in America, ended his final broadcast anchoring the “CBS Evening News” on Friday, March 6, 1981, here’s what he said:

“This is my last broadcast as the anchorman of the ‘CBS Evening News.’ For me, it is a moment for which I long had planned, but which nevertheless comes with some sadness. For almost two decades, after all, we have been meeting like this in the evenings, and I’ll miss that.

“But those who have made anything of this departure, I’m afraid, have made too much. This is but a transition, a passing of the baton. A great broadcaster and gentleman, Doug Edwards, preceded me in this job, and another, Dan Rather, will follow. And anyway, the person who sits here is but the most conspicuous member of a superb team of journalists -- writers, reporters, editors, producers -- and none of that will change.

“Furthermore, I’m not even going away. I’ll be back from time to time with special news reports and documentaries, and, beginning in June, every week, with our science program, ‘Universe.’ Old anchormen, you see, don’t fade away, they just keep coming back for more.

“And that’s the way it is, Friday, March 6th, 1981. I’ll be away on assignment, and Dan Rather will be sitting in here for the next few years. Goodnight.”

As it turned out, when it came time for Rather to sit in that chair the following Monday, he chose not to. Here’s that story.

Bob Schieffer and Dan Rather have both said they have remained friends since first meeting many decades ago. But that doesn’t mean they are above being critical of one another.

When Schieffer came to work the day after Cronkite had left he was already “surprised … how the Rather crowd purged the broadcast center on West Fifty-Seventh of all remnants of the Cronkite regime,” wrote Douglas Brinkley in his authoritative 2012 biography “Cronkite.”

Brinkley continued, “Cronkite’s old beige set backdrop was repainted blue-grey, because Rather thought it enhanced his complexion. He even had the ‘Cronkite Newsroom’ plaque taken off the wall. ‘I would have had the “Cronkite Newsroom” sign plated in gold,’ a disgusted Schieffer scoffed. ‘I came to work that Saturday morning, March 7, after Cronkite quit. I was slated to do the “Evening News” that weekend night. And to my utter surprise, Walter’s anchor chair was gone from the set. “Where’s the chair?” I asked. I was told it had been moved to storage. “Go get the damn chair,” I told a stagehand. This being CBS it took all day to find it. But I broadcast the news from Walter’s chair.'”

Brinkley also wrote, “Rather, for all his great reportorial skills, was paranoid that Cronkite, after going on his global junket [to promote] ‘Universe,’ would plot a return to the anchor chair.”

We pick up the story with a blog post by Sandor Polster that was posted on March 7, 2011. Polster had been a writer on the “CBS Evening News” when Cronkite was the anchor, and he continued in this position when Rather took over:

“During weekend rehearsals following Cronkite’s last sign-off, Rather had indicated that he wanted to do something different to distinguish his reign, to set him apart from a person everyone knew could never be replaced. He said that he wanted to deliver the news perhaps standing up, or sitting on a bar stool, or walking on to the newsroom set. Nothing was resolved that weekend, and it was hoped by those working on the broadcast that by Monday he would forget the craziness.

“As the stage manager, Jimmy Wall, hollered out in his magnificent baritone voice, ‘Two minutes. Two minutes to air,’ Rather stood up from the chair and declared, ‘I want to sit here,’ and moved the typewriter and perched himself on [a] shelf [behind the desk and chair]."

The director, in the control room, went nuts, Polster wrote.

Then he added: “On the newsroom floor, it was a bit calmer, but panic nevertheless was present. With fewer than 100 seconds until Dan Rather was to say, ‘Good evening,’ his decision had sent Mickey Fox and other stagehands scrambling to readjust lights, and cameramen racing to refocus cameras, a process that under the best of circumstances should take many minutes. But true professionals as they were, the changes were made; the ceiling klieg lights went on as the other lights dimmed, and the newsroom fell silent.”

Sandy Socolow, long Cronkite’s executive producer, was also Rather’s executive producer that night, and he told Cronkite biographer Brinkley about Rather’s last-moment decision not to sit in the chair, “It was so disrespectful to the crew; it makes me sick to my stomach.”

And how did Rather look sort of half leaning on the shelf? Schieffer told Brinkley, “Quite frankly, Dan looked like he was going to the crapper.”

Brinkley said Cronkite, watching Rather’s debut at home, also thought it was weird: “Why was [Rather] embarrassed to sit in [what had been Cronkite’s] chair? It seemed to Cronkite rude and immature, like cooties in grade school.”

Rather himself must have realized it was pretty dumb, because after the first commercial break he was back in Cronkite’s old chair.

At least on that very first day Rather stayed on the set. A better-known incident occurred six years later, on Friday, Sept. 11, 1987.

Here’s Rather recounting what happened in his 2012 memoir, “Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News”:

“Dead air in Miami. This is one of those incidents that has stuck to me like a wad of old chewing gum on the bottom of my shoe. … I had left the set because we’d been put on notice that a semifinal tennis match at [the U.S. Open] between Steffi Graf and Lori McNeil was going to run long. … We were set to go on the air at 6:30 with special coverage of Pope John Paul II in Miami. … We had a tightly scripted half-hour, and the first we’d heard about the tennis problem was about 18 minutes before airtime. If we were going to have an abbreviated broadcast, we would need some time to determine how to cut it down. And, of course, until the match ended, there was no way to know how much time we’d actually have. The only way to buy time to figure it out was to have CBS Sports stay on the air at the conclusion of the match.

“Let me be clear: I did not walk off the set in a snit. Was I unhappy that tennis was being allowed to preempt the pope? Absolutely. I thought it set a very bad precedent, in effect telling viewers that sports was more important than news. But going black is one of the great cardinal sins in broadcasting and not something I would have done just to make a statement. Not ever.

“As we got closer to airtime, what I said -- several times -- was, 'If tennis isn’t off and you don’t come to us at 6:30, don’t come to us. I’ll be in place, ready at 6:30, but not immediately after that if our newscast doesn’t start. Give us a chance to regroup and get ourselves together. Have Sports hold it until we can know what we’re doing.'

“I was in the chair at 6:30 but was told that the tennis match was still going on. Since I thought the plan was clear, I unhooked myself and went out of the studio. I understood that CBS Sports was still running the show. Sports understood no such thing. When the match ended at 6:33, Sports put us into black. There was no wrap-up, they just tossed the broadcast to News.

“This was not anyone’s finest hour. Within both the Sports Division and the News Division, there was surely enough blame to go around among executives, producers and directors. Some of it belonged to me, but I was urged to hold my peace and let our corporate spinmeisters deal with damage control. Their way of doing that was to lay the incident squarely at my feet.”

What follows next is the account of the dead air incident that appeared, in full, in The New York Times on Sunday, Sept. 13, 1987, just two days after it happened. It’s written by Peter Boyer, the reporter who was then covering the TV beat for The Times.

It seems to me Boyer’s account pretty much includes how Rather says the incident went down -- though Rather didn’t speak to him. And importantly, Boyer’s account also includes some facts Rather didn’t mention. And, like most good reporters who are doing their job and who take their job seriously, it’s clear that Boyer spoke to some of the principals involved and not just some “corporate spinmeisters.”

By Peter Boyer

Dan Rather, angered because CBS decided to shorten the ''CBS Evening News'' to broadcast the end of a tennis match on Friday, walked off the set and caused the network to ''go black'' for six minutes.

The occurrence -- six minutes without a picture being transmitted -- was unprecedented, according to many CBS members, and prompted a flurry of angry telephone calls Friday and yesterday between officials at CBS News, CBS Sports and network management.

Mr. Rather, the anchor, and the ''Evening News'' staff were broadcasting from Miami on Friday night to cover the visit of Pope John Paul II.

A special ''Evening News'' studio was set up at the CBS Miami bureau, and the ''Evening News'' staff was preparing to go on the air when someone from CBS Sports indicated that the U.S. Open tennis tournament, which CBS Sports was televising, was running longer than had been planned.

The call came at 6:15 P.M., just 15 minutes before the first transmission of the ''Evening News'' was scheduled to begin. Most of CBS's affiliated stations around the country use that early feed although a second broadcast is made at 7 P.M. for some stations, including WCBS in New York.

When Mr. Rather was told that the tennis match between Steffi Graf and Lori McNeil was closer than expected and that the ''Evening News'' would be truncated, he telephoned New York to protest to Howard Stringer, the president of CBS News, according to several CBS staff members.

Mr. Rather told Mr. Stringer that if his broadcast did not go on at 6:30 as scheduled, he would not be in his anchor chair and that CBS Sports should fill the rest of the half-hour, according to the staff members and CBS officials. Mr. Stringer then telephoned Gene Jankowski, the president of the CBS Broadcast Group, to negotiate an earlier end to the tennis coverage.

Mr. Stringer apparently succeeded in getting some of the time back, but the sports crew in New York still needed a couple of minutes of ''Evening News'' time to wrap up their coverage.

It has been a difficult summer for Mr. Rather, whose broadcast slipped into third place in the ratings after nearly five years in first place. There has been heated discussion inside CBS News over the past few months about proposed changes in the Evening News, and there was for a time speculation that a co-anchor would join Mr. Rather on the broadcast. But last week, a new ratings system took effect, and it showed Mr. Rather back in first place, and many in the organization hoped that the broadcast was past its difficulties.

When 6:30 came, Mr. Rather was in his anchor chair, his microphone on and ready to go. But when CBS Sports did not yield the network air, Mr. Rather disconnected his microphone and walked out of the studio, according to CBS people in Miami.

A moment later, at just after 6:32, CBS Sports went off the air, and the network switched to Miami for what it thought would be Dan Rather and the ''CBS Evening News.'' But Mr. Rather wasn't there.

For six minutes, the network was black -- no picture was transmitted. Tom Bettag, the executive producer, told Mr. Rather outside the studio that CBS News had won its point and had gotten most of its time back from sports, but Mr. Rather said, ''I told them to have sports fill the time.''

Television stations around the country that carry Mr. Rather's broadcast at 6:30 were dismayed. The Miami station finally broadcast several minutes of a game show to fill the time.

The scene at the CBS bureau in Miami was frantic, but finally Mr. Bettag was told that the network had ''gone black.'' He found Mr. Rather and said, ''Dan, we've got to go on the air, we can't let the network be black,'' and Mr. Rather agreed, according to sources on the scene. Mr. Rather returned to the set, put his microphone on, and at 6:39, the ''Evening News'' went on the air.

As it happened, the first three minutes and 50 seconds were on tape, and CBS News producers could have filled some of the empty time by transmitting that portion of the broadcast while trying to get Mr. Rather, who is also the managing editor of the ''Evening News,'' into his anchor chair. But that option was dismissed, said one producer, who asked that his name not be used.

''The managing editor had told the president of CBS News that we were not going on at all if we couldn't go on at 6:30,'' the producer said. ''Under those circumstances, you can't just take the air.''

Mr. Rather was on a fishing boat in Florida yesterday and could not be reached for comment. Mr. Stringer declined comment.

These two incidents are just some of the relatively few bumps in the road that Rather has had over a stellar career that included a 24-year stint anchoring the “Evening News” for CBS. But I do think they offer some clues into his personality. Douglas in “Cronkite” wrote: “Nobody at CBS ever mastered the riddling essence of [Rather’s] character” and, “He sometimes came across as simultaneously loopy and wooden, edgy and insecure.”

Rather has said about himself that he’s a workhorse, not a racehorse. Newsday, the newspaper on Long Island, N.Y., once wrote this about Rather: “To many viewers, this anchorman has looked like he is about to explode right into their living rooms. The tight-lipped smile, the stiff bearing, the hard forced friendliness always have seemed to many a form of blatant phoniness, but to people that know him, Rather is simply out of his element as anchor.”

I agree with that assessment. I’ve always thought that Rather was much more in his element when he was reporting, either live or on tape, as opposed to when he was behind the anchor desk on the evening news.

And it’s absolutely true that he’s far more relaxed when you speak to him face-to-face. Over the years I’ve probably spoken to Rather a half-dozen times, including when he was the featured interviewee whom I interviewed at a TVWeek event. He’s smart, thoughtful, has a trademark quirky wit -- I’ve never heard him utter a Dan Ratherism that hasn’t brought a smile to my face -- and he is unfailingly polite.

Over his 44-year career at CBS News he could not have been more high-profile, yet he survived myriad sea changes in management.

That someone such as Rather, with his on-air personality that so many find perplexing if not down-right uncomfortable, and who has clearly been controversial, could have such a long run in the treacherous quicksand that paths the halls of CBS is remarkable. He lasted there years longer than his mentor, Murrow, and such news giants as Howard K. Smith and Roger Mudd and many others.

Ultimately, Rather took the bullet for a “60 Minutes” report about George Bush’s time in the Texas Air National Guard that was aired in 2004. At the time I heard that some at CBS felt Rather had done some things to embarrass them into running another story that some of them had not particularly wanted to run, so he was vulnerable to their not trusting him when questions came up about the Bush/Guard story. I don’t know whether that’s true or not.

What is true, as Rather has pointed out several times, is that it’s never been proved whether the documents used in the Bush/Guard story were forgeries or not, and if they were fake, who would have forged them.

So Rather is fired and later he sues CBS for $70 million. The court threw it out because CBS paid Rather his then $6 million annual salary, per his contract. Thus, as Rather himself wrote in his book “Rather Outspoken": “As long as CBS paid me according to my contract, which they had, I had absolutely no grounds to bring suit. ‘Contractually,’ wrote Judge James Catterson, who authored the unanimous opinion, 'CBS was under no obligation to use Rather’s services or to broadcast any program so long as it continued to pay him the applicable compensation.'”

One of the issues that Rather says most bothered him was a discussion Rather’s agent, Richard Liebner, had with CBS chief Leslie Moonves. Rather wrote Liebner told him, “I believe Moonves is under extraordinary heat from Sumner [Redstone, Moonves’ boss] to have you out [of the anchor chair at the ‘CBS Evening News’] the day before yesterday, but I can work with Moonves. He really does have your best interests at heart, Dan. He likes you, and he’s very sorry this has happened. If you agree to make the announcement that you’re stepping down, you’ll segue into working on ’60 Minutes’ Sunday and everything will be fine.”

Of course that’s not what happened, and Rather left CBS. Before his lawsuit was thrown out, Rather and his lawyer had deposed Moonves.

Rather wrote, “The issue was raised of the agreement that had been reached with my agent, Richard Liebner, to extend my contract and to keep me on at ’60 Minutes,’ and the letter of intent that Moonves signed to that effect. Moonves acknowledged that he had signed that document, but he maintained that it was not a contract and that he’d only signed it to get Liebner off his back. He said he never considered it binding and never had any intention of honoring it.”

Then Rather added that when the deposition was over, Moonves came around the table to shake his hand. “I shook it; I thought it was the gentlemanly thing to do. I didn’t feel good about it, but I did it …”

It reminds me of what Roger Mudd wrote about what happened when Bill Leonard, then president of CBS News, told him that Rather would be succeeding Conkite instead of Mudd. It turned out to be Mudd’s last few moments at CBS News after being there almost two decades. “We shook hands," Mudd wrote, "I don’t know why.”

Having read myriad memoirs about newsmen who spent large chunks of their careers with CBS News, it seems they never get over leaving the place. And Leonard said CBS News Presidents Richard Salent and Bill Small always felt they were first and foremost CBS newsmen, though both went to NBC when they left CBS.

Clearly Rather feels that same connection to CBS, where he spent the vast majority of his career. And for him, leaving -- especially not leaving on his own terms -- continues to bother him like a open wound, festering.

And having his lawsuit thrown out before it was heard before a jury was clearly throwing salt in the wound.

And there are hurt feelings among those who still admire Dan at CBS. And there are others there who just don’t like him.

So do I think CBS is trying to erase Dan from its history, as Dan suggests? I think when they don’t have to mention him they don’t and won’t. Why would they? What do they have to gain? Perhaps that’s not unlike the feeling Dan had when he replaced Cronkite.

It’s not a rewriting of history. Dan’s record of what he did at CBS has been well documented.

Dan is also concerned about journalistic independence. But I think as this long entry has demonstrated, the conflict between CBS’s corporate interests and CBS News goes back to the earliest days of TV. Somehow, though, great journalists doing great journalism seems to survive in our democracy.

Do we need to be vigilant? Absolutely.

Same as it ever was.

I think if Mr. Springsteen were able to have a chat with Ed Murrow and Howard Smith and Roger Mudd and Salent and Small and Cronkite and the list goes on and on and on, and, yes, even if Dan Rather were in the room, and Springsteen were to ask all of them if a dream is a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse, they would all reply that, for whatever short time it was, the dream did come true for each of  them, and it was better than any of them dreamed it could have been.

-30-

To read part 1 of this column, please click here.

To read part 2 of this column, please click here.

Here is a list of some of the books I used in preparation for this three-part essay. I recommend them all. They all can be purchased in both print and electronic versions except Bill Leonard's 1987 memoir "In the Storm of the Eye: A Lifetime at CBS" and Howard K. Smith's "Events Leading Up to My Death: The Life of a Twentieth-Century Reporter," which are only available in a print editions. Both Dan Rather and Bob Schieffer have written a number of other books as well, all of which are worthwhile.

"Cronkite" by Dougles Brinkley. HarperCollins. 2012.

"Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control..." by Fred W. Friendly. Random House, New York. 1967

"Events Leading Up to My Death: The Life of a Twentieth-Century Reporter" by Howard K. Smith. St. Martins Press. New York. 1996

"In the Storm of the Eye:A Lifetime at CBS" by Bill Leonard. G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York. 1987.

"Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News" by Dan Rather. Grand Central Publisher, New York. 2012.

"The Place to Be: Washington, CBS, and the Glory Days of Television News" by Roger Mudd. PublicAffairs, New York. 2008.

"This Just In: What I Couldn't Tell You on TV" by Bob Schieffer. Berkley Books, New York. 2003.

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