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The Race to the White House

Rather Rides Out Latest Partisan Storm

The CBS anchor, known for his sparring with Republicans, denies any agenda against Bush.

September 15, 2004|Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — CBS News' Dan Rather has famously tangled with Republicans since Richard Nixon was president. Now the anchor finds himself in the midst of another major partisan storm, accused of airing forged documents to support a report on President Bush's controversial Texas Air National Guard service in the early 1970s.

In the week since the Sept. 8 report on the newsmagazine "60 Minutes," Rather has twice gone on the air to defend his reporting and the documents, which critics have argued couldn't have been produced by the typewriter technology commonly in use at the time. Tuesday, CBS News executives were preparing yet another rebuttal, expected to be released today.

But the issue doesn't show signs of dying down soon, partly because of the 72-year-old anchor's volatile history with the Bush family and decades-old criticisms that Rather has a liberal bent.

"Some people erroneously see Dan as having an agenda," CBS News President Andrew Heyward said. "He is a fair-minded, tough-minded reporter doing his job. But he is also a celebrity" who has been used as a "poster child for mainstream media agendas."

Heyward said he believed that was "unfair and unjustified, but it is certainly a factor if you need to personalize an attack on CBS or mainstream media."

As CBS' White House reporter in 1974, Rather was criticized for a news conference exchange with President Nixon. When Rather was applauded by other reporters for aggressively jumping in to ask a question, Nixon jokingly asked Rather if he was "running for something." Rather parried back: "No, sir, Mr. President. Are you?"

In 1988, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, faced with relentless grilling by Rather over his role in the Iran-Contra affair, turned the tables on the anchor, bringing up an incident in which Rather had walked off the set to protest a tennis match that had cut into his air time. Rather abruptly ended the live interview.

That incident -- which many saw as an unseemly spat -- followed the same pattern as the current controversy, Rather said in an interview Tuesday.

Facing questions it didn't want to answer, the vice president's "political apparatus understandably, out of necessity, chose to question the questioner," Rather said. Likewise, he said, his current critics are "people who for their own partisan, political agendas can't deny the core truth of this story ... and want to change the subject and make the story about me rather than have the story be about the unanswered questions about President Bush's military service."

His aggressive pursuit of the current story "is not personal. It never is with me," Rather said. Nor does he feel "beset upon," he said.

Inside CBS, however, some of his colleagues, who declined to be named, said they were dismayed that Rather and his team had left themselves open to any criticism, precisely because his well-organized critics would be sure to pounce.

Outside the network, supporters of Rather also want more information. Credible rival news organizations, not just "a bunch of Republican hacks," are raising questions, said Alex Jones, director of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.

"Dan Rather is an honorable, ethical journalist with very high standards, and if he says the documents are real, I am personally inclined to believe him," Jones said. "But if he wants the world to believe him, then there is probably going to have to be more information."

A growing number of critics say that means naming the source who gave CBS copies of the memos the network says were written by Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, Bush's immediate supervisor in the Guard.

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) told reporters Tuesday: "The biggest question I have -- and I think the American people have -- is where did the memos come from? We're dealing with the alleged forgery of government documents to influence a presidential race during war. This isn't politics as usual. It's dangerous. It's possibly criminal. This is really serious stuff."

Rather said he had no intention of giving in to those pressures. "Say what you want to about me, I keep my word," Rather said. "No, I'm not going to reveal my source."

"I think we've gone out of our way to reveal more of the process than most journalists do," Heyward said. "We're going to have to take the criticism."

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