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Rather Says It's Time To 'Shut Up And Put Up'

September 16, 1986|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer and Times staff writer Thomas Rosenstiel contributed to this report from New York. and

Dan Rather, who--among other things--has reported from Vietnam, incurred the hostility of Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon and been punched by a guard at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, thinks there will be peace in his time.

He means peace at CBS News, which, after several years of sporadic, much-publicized turmoil, is regrouping after last week's resignation of president Van Gordon Sauter, a day after the exit of Sauter's chief ally, CBS board chairman Thomas H. Wyman.

Now, says Rather, 54, anchor and managing editor of the "CBS Evening News," the time has come for all CBS News hands to buckle down, rededicate themselves to good journalism and to "shut up and put up" their best efforts on the air.

"I think this is one of those times when the old saying, 'Lead, follow, or get the hell out the way' is as applicable today as when I first heard it in boot camp," says the Texas-born anchor, who served in the Marine Corps shortly after the Korean War.

Rather, who took over the "Evening News" from Walter Cronkite in March, 1981, says that he doesn't think all the recent publicity about troubles and dissension at CBS News has had an adverse reaction on the public's perception of its work.

"People have become very knowledgeable about television news," he says, adding that "I believe the viewer has been judging us by what's on the air, not what's been printed about turmoil. Now, I never rule out the possibility that I'm wrong--about anything.

"But that's the way I feel, and I believe that."

Speaking slowly, picking his words with care, Rather praises Sauter, his former boss at CBS News, as a close friend, a "creative, intelligent, energetic journalist" who "was good to me and for me. I owe him a lot."

But he says there is no simple answer to whether Sauter was a victim of economic realities that forced him to accede to layoffs in the news division and the axing of the low-rated "CBS Morning News" in January. Nor, he says, is there any simple answer to whether, as some have charged, CBS News, under Sauter's leadership, slowly was yielding to entertainment values in order to get ratings and keep profits up for parent CBS Inc.

Sauter tried to "keep us true to our history, our heritage . . . and to win, which is to say, keep us competitive," Rather says. "To do that, he got caught in--inevitably he would be caught in--that old, old vice of commerce and news.

"Some of my differences with him . . . were about that," Rather adds. Pressed for an example, he says he once had a strong argument with Sauter "on hiring someone." He declined to say whether it involved the controversial hiring of Phyllis George for the "CBS Morning News." (She lasted only nine months and left the program in August, 1985.)

However, Rather says, "this much I know . . . anybody who plays the high-stakes game of big-time television news knows that some people never win, and nobody wins forever," and that "Van was very much aware of that. As we all are.

"He drew aces for a long time. About a year ago, he started drawing deuces. . . His luck ran out. Now, this is the point: The dealing's done. We reshuffle the deck, new people come in and we start again. As Van leaves the game, we say, 'Good luck, and you deserve better.' "

Howard Stringer, Sauter's executive vice president and at one time the executive producer of the "CBS Evening News" during Rather's early years on it, now is temporarily running CBS News. He is considered in the running to become Sauter's permanent successor.

Others mentioned in speculation include CBS correspondent-commentator Bill Moyers, who recently publicly criticized the direction CBS News was taking under Sauter. Moyers this weekend insisted that he will return to public TV in November as he has said he would.

("I've made commitments (to public TV) that I have to keep," Moyers said in an interview in New York. However, he added, "I'm pleased the (recent) changes at CBS will make people with my views of journalism feel better." He didn't elaborate.)

Would Rather like to head CBS News? The anchorman smiles. "I haven't been asked, don't expect to be," he says. "I'm happy with the job I've got." He insists that he'd rather be what he is now, not the president of CBS News.

His preferred candidate, he says in deadpan jest, is actress Sigourney Weaver: "If she can bring in the attitude and firepower she displayed in 'Aliens,' she'd be ideal."

But seriously speaking, he is noncommittal about who he'd like as CBS News chief.

Although he admires Stringer, Rather says, "my feeling about a news division president may differ from others." However, he adds, "I think my record demonstrates that I can and will do my best to work for, and under, any news president they name who is a decent and tending person and who knows news."

"It's very well known, generally speaking, that I've pulled for people within CBS News," he adds. "We have a lot of good people. (But) I don't rule out somebody from the outside."

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