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Dan Rather returns, but only on HDNet

Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather returns to broadcasting Tuesday in the medium of high-definition television, which most Americans cannot watch.
/ Source: Reuters

Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather returns to broadcasting Tuesday in the medium of high-definition television, which most Americans cannot watch.

“Dan Rather Reports” debuts on HDNet -- only available to about 4 million Americans with high-definition TV sets and a subscription to the channel -- five months after he left CBS in a departure clouded by a scandal over his reporting on President Bush’s military record.

But the 75-year-old Texan says he doesn’t care that his audience will be a tiny fraction of his CBS viewership, because now he gets to do everything his way.

“I have no illusions about this. I consider this going into the wilderness, it’s a pioneering network,” Rather told Reuters about his new job, producing a weekly hour-long news program for the channel, owned by entrepreneur Mark Cuban.

“The broadcast on Tuesday will be seen by far fewer people than I was talking to when I was anchor and managing editor at CBS. In the beginning here, it would not surprise me if I was speaking to a couple of hundred thousand people,” Rather said.

Rather broadcast to millions of viewers nightly at CBS in a career that saw him cover everything from President Kennedy’s 1963 assassination to the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon in 1974 to the Iraq war.

Rather stepped down as CBS anchor after 24 years in March 2005 and then left CBS in June 2006 when the network offered him no assignments. He said he is glad to be free from the pressure of seeking an ever larger and younger audience.

“With those pressures comes the temptation to dumb down the news, to engage in what I call the Hollywoodization of the news,” he said.

He said he was offered jobs on traditional broadcast networks, but chose high-definition television.

Absolute editorial control“Cuban told me, ’If you come and work for me, I will give you total, complete, absolute, editorial and creative control,”’ Rather said, calling the promise, written into his three-year contract, “unique in my experience.”

Some said the departure from CBS of Rather, whose reputation was tarnished in 2004 by a subsequently discredited report on Bush’s military record, was an unceremonious end.

He declined to speak about that, saying only, “I was proud to work for them every day I was there and I thought I would finish my career there.”

Of the current state of U.S. journalism, he said: “In some ways, we, and I include myself in this, have lost our guts. We need a spine transplant.”

Rather’s broadcasts at CBS were known for his quirky ”Ratherisms.” On election night 2000, contested by Al Gore and Bush, Rather said, “This race is tight like a too-small bathing suit on a too-long ride home from the beach.”

He was a lightning rod for conservatives who accused him of liberal bias after heated exchanges with Republicans. During one combative 1974 exchange with Nixon, the president was prompted to ask, “Are you running for something?” to which Rather shot back, “No, sir ... are you?”

Rather says his new show will let the stories dictate the format, not the other way round as on other shows. Among the first programs, he said, will be one on lobbyists in Washington called, ”The Best Congress Money Can Buy.” Rather, who has a staff of 19, will be the on-air correspondent for every piece.