CBS News Draws the Line

Mar 3, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Both sides are reporting that it is business as usual between the White House and CBS News in the wake of veteran anchor Dan Rather’s exclusive interview with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, which was seen Wednesday by 17.045 million people on “60 Minutes II.”
The lines were drawn after Mr. Rather’s big “get” with the man the Bush administration has in its gun sights. The White House offered press secretary Ari Fleischer or White House communications chief Dan Bartlett to comment on the interview; and in turn CBS News suggested it would put on President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney or Secretary of State Colin Powell. In the end the interview aired without any White House inclusion.
Mr. Rather still was the man of the hour on Thursday, when he appeared on CNN’s “Larry King Live” and told the host “I think the public understands. [Mr. Fleischer and the White House press office ] were doing what politicians and politicians’ helpers generally do. They were bumping for advantage. They were trying to, you know, get all of the advantage they possibly could.
“But the whole idea of the White House coming in and telling a news organization, you know, we think for your interview that we should, on every bumper, have our press spokesman follow on, frankly, and I’ll say it directly, I don’t think that this was their best moment to make this request,” said Mr. Rather. “Now, we carry presidential speeches all the time. We carry the presidents on newscasts. Frankly, I think the public sees through all this. The public’s pretty smart. They’re sophisticated and they understand that-why we said no to that request, and I think they would agree with it in most cases. “
“CBS handled it smartly,” was the consensus on the Washington media side in Washington, where no White House representatives were scheduled to appear on any of last Sunday’s newsmaker shows as of press time.
According to a CBS News spokeswoman, neither Mr. Rather nor “60 Minutes II” executive producer Jeff Fager heard from the White House after the interview aired. The public certainly noticed.
The White House did not return calls by press time.
The newsmagazine had its biggest audience since it premiered in January 1999 with 17.21 million viewers. Perhaps even more notable was the newsmagazine’s highest-ever turnout of 6.71 million adults 18 to 49. It easily bested competition from an exclusive jailhouse interview by Barbara Walters on ABC with actor Robert Blake, who is accused of murdering his wife.