NEW YORK — Dan Rather announced Tuesday that he would resign in March as CBS News anchor, catching many by surprise just weeks before the release of a report expected to criticize his role in a discredited story about President Bush's National Guard service.
Network officials said Rather, 73, had discussed his resignation with them last summer, well before the airing of the ill-fated "60 Minutes" story in September. The veteran journalist, who has anchored the "CBS Evening News" for nearly 24 years, will continue to report for "60 Minutes."
Rather wanted his resignation to be separate from the release of the outside panel's report, said CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves. "He's going out on his own terms after serving us long and well," Moonves said.
In an interview Tuesday, Rather said he was not retiring. "I'm going to throw myself into both '60 Minutes' broadcasts," he said. "My best work is still ahead of me."
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday November 25, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
TV news anchors -- A graphic in Wednesday's Section A with an article about the resignation of Dan Rather as CBS News anchor said he shared anchoring duties with Connie Chung on "CBS Evening News" in 1989. Rather and Chung were dual anchors from 1993 to 1995.
But observers said his early exit from the "CBS Evening News" was a way for the network to minimize embarrassment over the Bush story.
In a news broadcast nearly two weeks after the Sept. 8 story on Bush, Rather apologized and admitted he was misled by sources. He said he had relied on unverified documents to allege that the president had received preferential treatment while in the military.
Rather's resignation will follow Tom Brokaw's Dec. 1 exit from "NBC Nightly News" and comes at a time when the influence of network evening newscasts is eroding. Their share of the national audience is shrinking, given competition from the 24-hour news cycle of cable television and the growth of the Internet as a source of news and information.
Much of the criticism of the "60 Minutes" broadcast on Bush came initially from Web loggers, or "bloggers," and their critiques spread rapidly through the rest of the media.
An independent investigation of the Sept. 8 broadcast is being conducted by Louis D. Boccardi, a former Associated Press executive, and Richard L. Thornburgh, a former U.S. attorney general. The panel, appointed by network officials, has interviewed several dozen people inside CBS and is expected to submit its findings next month.
As news spread about Rather's plans to step down March 9, speculation began on two possible successors: CBS White House correspondent John Roberts, and Scott Pelley, a reporter for the Wednesday edition of "60 Minutes."
Over the summer, Pelley substituted sometimes for Rather on the "CBS Evening News." But Roberts, who had a prominent role analyzing exit polls on election night, is widely thought to have the inside track if CBS decides not to recruit from outside the network.
Moonves, who is also co-president of CBS parent company Viacom Inc., said CBS would not choose a successor until after the new year. He would not elaborate on whether CBS was looking for young stars or celebrity names.
Rather described his decision to leave the anchor's chair as bittersweet, and praised his colleagues at CBS News.
"I love this job," he said. "Someone asked me if I was going to go for my 25th anniversary and I said, 'No I'm going to go for the 35th.' But life's not like that.
"This feels right," he said, including what he called the symmetry of stepping down on his 24th anniversary.
The anchorman, who has long prided himself on high standards, added that "I won't know how I feel about [the investigation] until the panel submits its report. I don't know what the last line will be, but I'm obviously very interested."
In the "60 Minutes" story, which was produced by CBS veteran Mary Mapes, Rather reported that newly unearthed military records showed Bush got preferential treatment to gain admission to the Texas Air National Guard, and then failed to follow orders while in the service.
The network was forced to backtrack under a wave of criticism that the documents were phony. In an embarrassing follow-up, Rather admitted that the source who had given CBS the documents had not told the truth about them, and that their authenticity could not be proven.
The panel's report "is undoubtedly going to be negative, and what CBS is doing now is removing Dan Rather from the line of fire," said Marvin Kalb, who was Rather's colleague at CBS for 25 years.
Kalb and other journalists praised Rather as a newsman of integrity, first as a reporter and later as an anchorman after taking over the post in 1981 from his predecessor, Walter Cronkite. They particularly praised his "60 Minutes" report this year breaking the story of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse in Iraq.
"This decision to step down now gives Dan a chance to repair the damage, and he will be remembered for an awful lot of things, and [the Bush story] is only one of them," said Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. "He's been an utterly honest reporter."