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Rather May Have Been a Victim of His Own Style

His hard-hitting manner built his career at CBS. But will a scandal over a report be the end of it?

September 26, 2004|Josh Getlin | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The network newsman was in hot pursuit of presidential wrongdoing, never afraid to ask tough questions. And his work, he reflected later, had met the highest standards.

"If I'd have gone off half-cocked, if I'd gotten my facts scrambled, if I'd run with unconfirmed leads, I'd be selling insurance right now," is the way he put it.

As Dan Rather struggles to overcome a scandal over his flawed "60 Minutes" report this month on President Bush's National Guard service, these words just may be ringing in his ears -- especially since he wrote them, in "The Camera Never Blinks Twice: The Further Adventures of a Television Journalist," his 1994 memoir. He was referring to his reporting during Watergate; as for the idea of being fired, Rather the memoirist continued, "The public and my bosses at CBS would have demanded that, and they'd have been justified."

As things have unfolded since Rather's "60 Minutes" broadcast on Sept. 8, a public controversy indeed is swirling around the CBS anchorman, though his superiors appear to have remained supportive. Overall, the picture of Rather that has emerged over the last 2 1/2 weeks is of a fighter, embattled as never before, perhaps, but still on his feet. It is also a time of strong emotion: Rather's eyes are said to have welled up when Barbara Walters saluted him as "my wonderful colleague" at a party last week marking her retirement from ABC's "20/20."

Rather has seen conflict before and endured firestorms in his career, but this time he conveys the unmistakable sense of a lion in the arena, facing one of his last great challenges. He is a larger-than-life personality, a man accustomed to having his way at the nation's most-watched television network, and yet he is wrestling with what has clearly become a low point in a celebrated career.

Should he resign? And how will this black mark affect his legacy?

Opinions differ sharply about how much responsibility for the "60 Minutes" report falls on Rather, but friends and critics of the veteran anchor, now 72, agree on this much: The same hard-charging qualities that propelled him to the top of CBS News may have worked against him in the reporting of the National Guard documents piece.

And as he fights to survive, observers say, Rather is at the mercy of forces that have dramatically altered the media landscape since he first broke into TV news at a local CBS affiliate in 1959.

The huge national audience that once religiously watched network news has shrunk sharply, and the newscast Rather inherited from Walter Cronkite has slipped from No. 1 to No. 3. The authoritative voice of the American anchor is now loudly challenged by an army of bloggers and political pundits who dominate 24-hour cable news channels. The result is a fast-moving, de-centered media in which a personality and working style like Rather's may soon be an anachronism.

Admirers and detractors alike say Rather is known for wanting to do as many high-profile stories as possible. Some Rather-watchers call the phenomenon ADATT -- All Dan All the Time."It's gotten to the point where he would be very happy if he were the only person doing every story," said David Blum, who wrote the newly published "Tick

"He suffers from an excessive desire to be on TV, and he's infatuated with the red light," the author added. "One person can't do it all, and there's a price to pay."

Yet Rather has also throughout his career displayed two qualities that may help him ride out this storm: A dogged devotion to the values embodied by old-style network news -- impartiality, sobriety, responsibility to the public trust -- and a personal resilience that may seem surprising in someone often accused of having so big an ego.

He is willing, however belatedly, to acknowledge his mistakes. "With Dan, what you see is what you get," said Alex Jones, head of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. "He has been far more willing to talk about the problems of network news than other anchors. He has been willing to flagellate himself in public. He truly cares."

And what to some comes across as an overaggressive need for control is to others evidence of a strong work ethic: "The fact that he works so hard, so very intensely, is a credit to his integrity," said Marvin Kalb, a former NBC correspondent.

But this time, Rather's fate may not be in his own hands. His survival could depend on the verdict of a panel probing the program's reporting, and on network officials who live in a world of media conglomerates, not newsroom sentimentality.

Years from now, some may see Rather as one of the last champions on television of old-fashioned news values and investigative reporting. Yet others might dismiss him as a relic -- an elitist, old-school journalist who exemplified liberal bias in the news.

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