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Reluctant Rather Is Set to Sign Off

After Bush report fiasco, the TV anchor's messy exit epitomizes larger problems at CBS News.

March 07, 2005|Scott Collins | Times Staff Writer

After months at the center of a media storm and years as one of the most polarizing figures on the American news scene, Dan Rather will sign off this week as anchor of "CBS Evening News." But to paraphrase one of his homespun Rather-isms, don't bet the trailer money that he'll disappear.

"I'm not retiring, I'm changing jobs," the 73-year-old newsman insisted in a phone interview. Still, his voice caught when he was asked what he could yet do in his career to make viewers forget about his role in a flawed story last year on President Bush's military service.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 08, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Dan Rather -- An article in Section A on Monday about Dan Rather's retirement from "CBS Evening News" said the network had not announced that he would work full time on "60 Minutes" if "60 Minutes Wednesday" were canceled. In November, CBS issued a news release saying Rather would work full time on both newsmagazines after stepping down as anchor March 9.

"I can't," he said softly. But he added quickly that he believed Americans would eventually reach what he considered the right verdict about his legacy.

Rather's reputation is hardly the only thing left unresolved. Coming six months after the Bush report, the anchorman's messy exit encapsulates much larger problems at CBS News.

Hailed for decades as the home of broadcast giants such as Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, the legendary division is struggling to redefine its mission. "CBS Evening News" is in third place in the ratings and has no permanent anchor (after Rather signs off Wednesday, veteran "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer will fill in for an unspecified interim). The future of CBS' prime-time newsmagazines also is unclear.

Nagging questions remain about the investigation CBS commissioned on the Bush story, and the former executive producer of "60 Minutes Wednesday" -- who was asked to resign after the panel issued its report -- still has not left the company and has hired a lawyer.

CBS Chairman and Chief Executive Leslie Moonves openly speaks of a "revolution" in the news division, prompting further anxieties internally. But he's not saying much about Rather; he declined to comment for this report.

"Morale is not very good right now," Schieffer said in an interview. "I think our credibility was hurt by" the Bush story. "But we're going to turn a page. We've simply got to move on."

CBS' problems on the eve of Rather's departure from the anchor chair are all the more stark when contrasted with the situation at NBC, which after years of careful planning successfully transferred Brian Williams into Tom Brokaw's position on the No. 1 rated "NBC Nightly News" in a burst of publicity last year.

Rather, meanwhile, is leaving the field to catcalls from some of his own teammates.

In a New Yorker article this week, "60 Minutes" co-editor Mike Wallace is quoted calling Rather's on-air persona "uptight" and "occasionally contrived."

Wallace and former "60 Minutes" executive producer Don Hewitt confessed that they preferred to watch Rather's competitors. Cronkite, who maintains an office and a small staff at CBS News, told the magazine that Moonves should have been tougher on Rather and CBS News President Andrew Heyward.

Some insiders blame Rather not just for his tangled role in the controversy, but for the larger problems in the news division. Executives were too deferential to him for too long, according to this line of thinking. They did not prepare for a smooth succession at the anchor desk; they permitted Rather to spread himself too thin. And above all, they allowed him to languish in the ratings for a decade.

The level of anger is so high that many of the top newspeople willing to pay tribute to Rather's career are competitors.

"It is not right to judge an entire career [by one error], as awful and systemic a failure as this was," said NBC's Williams. "One error does not a career make."

But the error for the moment has overshadowed Rather -- and CBS.

Less than two months before the election, Rather, a correspondent on "60 Minutes Wednesday," presented a report that suggested Bush received preferential treatment while serving in the Texas Air National Guard. It was based, in part, on documents that could not be authenticated.

The panel that CBS commissioned to investigate condemned the report with strong language. The network, investigators said, was in such a rush to air the Sept. 8 story that it failed to heed its own standards for accuracy and fairness -- and then refused to acknowledge its own mistakes.

CBS News arrived at this point, insiders and rival newspeople say, at least partly because of the complicated, decades-long dance between Rather and his various network bosses. The scene was set even before he ascended to the position of "CBS Evening News" anchor in 1981, replacing Cronkite, "the most trusted man in America."

Having worked his way up as a correspondent in Dallas, Vietnam and the White House, Rather battled hard for the anchor chair.

According to Peter J. Boyer's 1988 book "Who Killed CBS?," Rather repeatedly elbowed rivals out of the way in his ascent through the network ranks.

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