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Dan Rather joins HDNet for weekly program

Former anchor is also talking to AOL about future Internet news position
/ Source: The Associated Press

Former CBS anchor Dan Rather said Tuesday he will be the ultimate authority on a weekly news program he’ll begin in October on HDNet for owner Mark Cuban, promising “independent journalism.”

While he carefully framed his remarks, saying they were not intended to reflect criticism of his former longtime employer, Rather described himself as moving from an environment of corporate accountability to freedom.

The “difference here is the chain of command begins and ends with me. ... You could say it’s like operating without a net, but I don’t see it that way,” Rather told a meeting of the Television Critics Association.

“Dan Rather Reports” will feature field reports, interviews and investigations. Rather will produce the program, which will be up to an hour long, and be its host. He said he will have creative and editorial control.

“News at its best ... is a wake-up call, not a lullaby, and I’m not in the lullaby business,” said Rather, who signed a three-year deal with Cuban. They refused to disclose his salary.

CBS News and Rather, 74, broke ties after 44 years last month, unable to agree on his future role at the network. His final years there were soured by the controversy over CBS’ discredited story on President Bush’s military service.

Rather and Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks owner, both have reputations as colorful personalities with a knack for making headlines. They vowed their new venture on the high-definition network will be a breakthrough in news coverage and a reminder of TV’s power.

“People are so fixated on the Internet, so fixated on digital media, they forgot about the opportunity that good old television presents,” said Cuban.

Both men acknowledged that Rather had become a lightning rod for criticism, especially by conservatives who claimed they saw bias in his reporting.

“Yes, I’ve got a lot of baggage,” Rather responded forcefully, citing a career that included reporting in Vietnam, the Middle East and during the Watergate years.

“Yes, I’m biased. I’ve got a very strong bias toward independent journalism,” he said.

Cuban, who’s been repeatedly fined for courtside behavior during games that included yelling at referees, said he was unfazed by any backlash he could face over Rather.

“I’ve been painted into so many corners, I’m out of corners,” Cuban said. “I’m not concerned with it at all because the work will speak for itself. When Dan goes out there and does his thing, I have complete confidence in Dan and Dan’s work.”

Rather choked up several times during the news conference, especially when he referred to legendary CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow, a professional role model.

He has yet to start hiring for his HDNet venture but would consider former CBS colleagues, Rather said. Asked if Mary Mapes, the CBS producer who was fired over the report on Bush, might be considered, he gave an evasive reply.

“The only member of the team I know of right how is sitting in this chair,” Rather said.

Earlier Tuesday, Rather lauded his new boss in an interview.

“Hard news needs backers who won’t back down,” Rather said. “Mark Cuban is such a leader. As a team player I intend to give Mark and HDNet all of the hard work, loyalty and fearless, high quality reporting possible.”

Meanwhile, America Online is also discussing a future role for Rather at the Internet news service, spokeswoman Katie Griesbeck said. She offered no details on what Rather might do at AOL. Those discussions were reported Tuesday by the Hollywood Reporter.

(At the news conference, Rather said he was interested in other opportunities but was focused on HDNet for now.)

Besides these arrangements, Rather has also agreed to be a panelist for the next two weeks on the syndicated weekender “The Chris Matthews Show.” He was interviewed about North Korea on Anderson Cooper’s CNN show last week, and will be on CNN’s “Larry King Live” on Wednesday.

HDNet has limited exposure, available on some cable and satellite services that offer high-definition programming.

Cuban, co-founder of HDNet, said he was “thrilled” to have Rather.

“Now that he is finally released from the ratings-driven and limited-depth confines of broadcast television, I am excited about the impact Dan can have on the future of news,” he said of his fellow Texan.