News, Documentary Luminaries Honored

Sep 26, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Television journalists attending the 26th Annual News and Documentary Emmy Awards last Monday in New York talked loudly amongst themselves throughout the entire parade of speakers and winners-sometimes enough to drown out the speeches-until former “CBS Evening News” anchor Dan Rather took a bow in accepting a tribute to his career.

Even those toward the back of the huge ballroom at Manhattan’s Marriott stopped talking and paid attention as Mr. Rather received what the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences called a “special tribute” honoring his 55 years as an indefatigable correspondent, hurricane daredevil and idiomatic anchor.

Many had not heard much of the Lifetime Achievement tribute paid by NATAS earlier in the ceremony to HBO Documentary and Family President Sheila Nevins or her apologies to her staff, son, husband and dog for her work-first ethic-a drive that helped HBO and sister network Cinemax take home five documentary Emmys that evening.

But the journalists clearly heard former Secretary of Defense William Cohen tell Mr. Rather, “You’ve been right almost all of your career.”

They heard TV journalist turned academician and Fox News Channel contributor Marvin Kalb tell Mr. Rather: “You did a story last fall that got picked at. In my judgment, that story was right.”

Mr. Rather took a fierce public lumping last year and an accelerated departure from the “Evening News” anchor desk in March after using still-disputed documents as part of a “60 Minutes Wednesday” story about President Bush’s Vietnam-era Texas Air National Guard service. The renamed “60 Minutes II” quietly expired three weeks ago (and took home posthumous News Emmys for two stories Monday night), and Mr. Rather is once again assigned full-time to the original “60 Minutes” as a correspondent.

Also paying tribute was Tom Bettag, who said that in a business known for its timidity, “Dan Rather is willing to say, ‘Courage,'” an allusion to Mr. Rather’s short-lived “Evening News” sign-off in 1986 that drew fire and ridicule.

Mr. Bettag had been Mr. Rather’s “Evening News” executive producer for five years before taking the same role with Ted Koppel at ABC News’ “Nightline.” Mr. Bettag and Mr. Koppel have announced they will leave “Nightline” at the end of this year.

Mr. Koppel, who slogged through flooded New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, one of the few hurricanes Mr. Rather sat out, jokingly advised taking a page from the Bush Administration’s playbook-“Looking into the future and not playing the blame game.” Then he said to Mr. Rather: “The best is yet to come.”

Earlier Monday Mr. Rather and Ms. Nevins proved to be an odd couple of allies as they discussed their careers and the state of network news and documentary programming at a Fordham University gathering billed as a “Conversation” and staged by NATAS, which administers the news and doc Emmys.

Mr. Rather said that because increasingly heavy-handed politicians have figured out how easy it is to pressure the press and because media moguls pressure their own news divisions to maximize audience and demographics and profits with “dumbed-down, tarted-up” news, “Fear runs stronger in every American journalist” than he’s ever seen.

Ms. Nevins, who is as well known for having greenlighted raunchy documentary programs such as “Taxicab Confessions” as she is for more high-falutin’ nonfiction programming, said that even at HBO, which generally is regarded as free of all boundaries and pressure, described oddly similar opposing pressures. HBO is faced with giving some subscribers more of what they want in pay cable while fending off hesitance that filters down from executives who, in an era of less separation of church and state, are reluctant to alienate more conservative subscribers.

Because of pressure from conservatives, the world of pop culture is changing, she said. “What is wrong filters down to everything. You begin to feel the pressure of the population,” the HBO executive said.

Holding True to Their Vision

When walking the increasingly fine line between the art and the commerce of the documentary form she has kept viable, “I walk as firmly [as ever], but I try to walk more carefully,” she said.

Mr. Rather sidestepped the question of what he would do to make “CBS Evening News” feel younger and lighter, which CBS Chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves has said he wants. “Not my call,” said Mr. Rather, who got emotional at more than one point Monday.

“When a man is close to tears discussing his work,” Ms. Nevins said, “he deserves bosses who punch back. I would punch back for Dan.”

Mr. Rather kissed Ms. Nevins’ hand, and those who had gathered for the “Conversation” roared.

Mr. Rather appeared at the “Conversation” after taking a red-eye from the Primetime Emmys Awards presentation in Los Angeles the night before. At that ceremony, sister NATAS organization the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences honored the network anchors, Tom Brokaw, the late Peter Jennings and Mr. Rather, who talked American viewers through nearly three decades of world-shaking change.

NBC’s Mr. Brokaw and Mr. Rather stood together before a photo of Mr. Jennings as the entertainment world applauded them with great feeling.

On Monday at the news and doc Emmys, nearing the end of a long night in honor of the best of TV journalism, Mr. Rather once again found himself standing in front of an appreciative crowd.

“When I stand here tonight I do not stand alone,” he said. “I’m proud to stand with you.”