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Dan Rather Still Running at 'Ram Speed'

January 13, 1988|JAY SHARBUTT | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — On Tuesday, when the ratings showed his "CBS Evening News" in first place for the 16th consecutive week after an uneasy summer spent in third, anchorman Dan Rather:

--Praised the hit film about network journalism, "Broadcast News," as "delightful." He called it "an appropriate warning" about style over substance that the broadcast news industry would do well to heed.

--Declined to explain two much-publicized incidents last year; one, the six minutes of "dead air" he caused CBS, the other, his much-criticized report on the escape in Beirut of an American journalist who had been kidnaped.

--Said he and his colleagues are "running at ram speed" on "48 Hours," the new prime-time news series that he will anchor in addition to the "CBS Evening News." The new series premieres Tuesday.

--Did a few interviews with TV writers, having on Monday ended his self-imposed moratorium on such confabs, a silence that began in September after the 6-minute incident during a broadcast in Miami.

"I wanted to concentrate on my work," he said by phone in explaining his silence. "Things had reached a point where I said there are a lot of things in life that one can't control. . . .

"But I do know what works best for me, and that's to focus on reporting, writing, editing and broadcasting. I wanted to spend some months doing (only) that. . . ."

During his moratorium on interviews, the intense, complex anchorman had become the object of occasional speculation, both in print and by some in the industry, on whether he had become slightly unbalanced--speculation at which he scoffs.

It began last fall when live coverage of a U.S. Open tennis match ran overtime and cut into the scheduled start of Rather's evening newscast. When the network was finally ready to begin his program, he could not be found.

A number of CBS affiliates found themselves with blank screens for 6 minutes--an eternity in network time.

Some reports said Rather stalked out in a snit, his action a protest over the tennis overrun. CBS News said it was an accident. The head of CBS affiliates' board, while accepting that explanation, said Rather "blew it" in leaving his post.

Later, the Times of London asked: "Is Dan Rather, bishop of the nation's news business, losing his marbles?"

Asked Tuesday how he feels about that sort of commentary and speculation, Rather promptly replied, "That's no problem with me. Those things are absurd."

But he wouldn't give his version of what had happened to cause the dead-air incident. "Here's all I'm going to say about that," he said, his tone mild, not testy. "It's behind us. We've dealt with it. We've done everything we can to try to ensure that sort of thing never happens again. And we go forward."

Nor would he discuss in detail an incident a month earlier that provoked anger at ABC News, notably from "Nightline" anchor Ted Koppel.

At that time, Rather, starting a story on the escape of former ABC newsman Charles Glass from his kidnapers in Beirut, had seemed to suggest doubt about whether Glass had been kidnaped. He told "Evening News" viewers: "A young American who says he was a hostage has been freed."

"We were dealing with a breaking story about which there were many puzzling aspects," Rather said Tuesday. He wrote the sentence that caused the flap, he said, and maintained that its appropriateness was open to argument.

However, he added, he has since spoken about the matter to Glass, "who is the only person I thought I should talk to about it, and he and I are at peace about it. Now, as for anybody else, this is a free country and they're entitled to their opinions."

During the 20-minute interview, Rather, in discussing his program's fall last summer to third place in the Nielsens against the "NBC Nightly News" and ABC's "World News Tonight," acknowledged that there was nervousness within CBS News at the time.

His program's ratings have been up, then down before, he said, "and clearly, being up is better. Now, things are going better.

"But we won't go through the whole year with things as they are now. We know that . . . we have good, classy competition."

When asked about "Broadcast News," he said he had seen the film "a couple of times" and had nothing but praise for its author-director, James L. Brooks, who he said did a "superb job."

"I know he worked hard," Rather added. "He was around here--the 'Evening News'--and the conventions with us. . . . He was excellent; he really got up early and stayed late to soak up people and details."

The movie, in part, deals with a network news president's decision to put style ahead of substance--in hopes of achieving ratings bliss--by promoting to anchordom a decent, slightly dense, handsome newcomer (played by William Hurt) who readily admits he's not in any way a real journalist.

The true journalist, the movie makes clear, is played by Albert Brooks, whose character is a superb, honest reporter.

Rather said he thought the film, "without being preachy about it," did "a very good job of raising an appropriate warning about the dangers, about the importance of whom you put on the air as your main person in a major network news broadcast."

And, he said, "I think it's fair to say it's an appropriate warning for the industry as a whole, that it's saying, 'Hey, this may be something you want to think about.'

"And it can be avoided only if viewers care enough and they want it to be avoided enough. Because in the end, the viewers are going to decide. If they want a William Hurt kind of person doing a network news broadcast, they may very well get it."

He paused.

"Now, most of us," he said, in solemn tones, "are in the Albert Brooks category."

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