Throughout his career Dan Rather has taken pride in always being a journalist and reporter first, even when his star was flying high as anchor and managing editor of the “CBS Evening News.”
When he gives up the anchor chair this week, after a decade in which the “Evening News” was mired in third place, the often colorful 73-year-old Texas native will return to his reporting roots for the shows “60 Minutes” and “60 Minutes II.” He thinks going back to reporting will make this transition “a little easier” than some of the assignments he has tackled during 43 years with CBS News.
“I find gratification in being a reporter,” Mr. Rather said. However, at least for now, there is one item he isn’t itching to investigate any further-the story he reported last September on “60 Minutes II” about documents that purported to provide details about President Bush’s Vietnam War-era military service.
Questions over the authenticity of those documents resulted in Mr. Rather’s making a rare on-air apology, triggered a controversial three-month investigation, led to the resignation of some longtime colleagues and ultimately forced Mr. Rather to leave his anchor post a year earlier than he intended. “I put that behind me,” he told TelevisionWeek, while making a point to say he read the report and “took it seriously.”
That doesn’t mean Mr. Rather won’t return to address the issues surrounding what has been called “Memogate,” a bit of sound-bite labeling he dislikes. “I probably will, at some time,” he added, “put down what happened” in a book.
Mr. Rather did note that the investigators-former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, former Associated Press President Louis Boccardi and a staff of lawyers-concluded there was no evidence the story was motivated by political bias. That is a point Mr. Rather feels has been underplayed.
Asking the Wrong Man
As for the colleagues who resigned or were fired in the wake of the controversy, including his longtime producer Mary Mapes, Mr. Rather said he has been in touch with them. He praised the “important contributions” they made to CBS News, but would not describe what was said. “Those are private conversations, and I think they ought to stay private,” he said.
On Thursday’s “Late Show With David Letterman,” host David Letterman asked Mr. Rather whether CBS News President Andrew Heyward should have stepped down or been fired in the wake of criticism in the investigators’ report that the internal systems at CBS News failed to keep a problematic story off the air. “Heyward is on vacation. When he gets back, you can ask him,” responded Mr. Rather, deflecting the question.
He takes solace in what has not produced headlines: the response from members of the public, who, Mr. Rather said, have been so “positive and supportive and encouraging. … This is unique in my experience.”
At a favorite haunt, Madison Square Garden, where Mr. Rather recently attended a Harlem Globetrotters game, Garden staffers gave him such encouragement as, “Don’t let ’em scare you,” he said.
Data from Nielsen Media Research shows that “Evening News” has averaged 7.5 million viewers since the week after the disputed Bush story. While that’s down 10 percent from comparable time frames in 2003-04-which were filled with the drumbeat preceding the war in Iraq-first-place “NBC Nightly News” is down 3 percent and “ABC World News Tonight” is off 35 percent. It means that more than 7 million people still prefer Mr. Rather’s “Evening News.”
Between interviews with reporters who cover television, “Evening News” duties, prepping for his move to a second office across the street from his memento-filled “Evening News” office of 20-something years (“The moving man is here making his survey. He’s shaking his head side to side a lot,” Mr. Rather confided), and final touches on the retrospective that CBS will air at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Mr. Rather last week was doing shoots for upcoming “60 Minutes Wednesday” pieces.
His list of his memorable assignments includes the Civil Rights Movement, the Vietnam War, Watergate, Tiananmen Square, the “seemingly never-ending” problems in the Middle East and former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whom he interviewed shortly before the United States attacked Iraq.
In spite of the fact that he “loves radio,” Mr. Rather is giving up his daily commentary that has aired for 24 years on CBS Radio, effective March 9-the night he hands off the “Evening News” chair to transitional anchor and friend Bob Schieffer-because with “the nature of the `60 Minutes’ work, it’s hard for me to see how I could do a daily radio analysis. With the `Evening News,’ you’re up to date every second. “
There was a flurry of tee-hee headlines last week when, in an interview in The New Yorker, predecessor Walter Cronkite and “60 Minutes” crewmates Andy Rooney, Don Hewitt and Mike Wallace talked about why they found Mr. Rather on the “Evening News” unwatchable.
“I’m not going to respond to that,” Mr. Rather said.
He is also philosophical about the future of “60 Minutes II,” which has seen a ratings falloff in recent months. Leslie Moonves, the chairman and CEO of CBS and co-president and co-chief operating officer of Viacom, who made the decisions about which journalists to jettison after the investigation, has said it is unclear whether “60 Minutes Wednesday’s” modest, mostly older audience will warrant a return for an eighth season.
“It hasn’t been guaranteed to come back since the first year,” said Mr. Rather, who has been a contributor to the magazine since it spun off in 1998. “The months leading up to the announcement of fall lineups in May are “always a nervous time of the year. I’m optimistic. I think it will be on the schedule next fall.”
“Evening News”‘ decade-plus in last place in the ratings “has not been frustrating,” he said. “We had an incredibly good run during the 1980s. Did that feel good? You bet. Maybe if we hadn’t won and won big and won for a long time, I wouldn’t feel this same way about it.
“I’m a competitor and I want to win. I want to win on quality. I want to win on integrity. I want to win in ratings. I want to win the demographics. But nobody wins all the time.”