Dan Rather has gone digital. Dan Rather has gone boutique.
Returning to television with "Dan Rather Reports," his new weekly magazine, he will now be available in just the four million satellite and cable homes reached by media mogul Mark Cuban's high-definition channel HDNet.
By contrast, "The CBS Evening News," which Rather anchored for 24 years, reaches virtually all the nation's 111 million TV homes, and it's watched by more than seven million viewers nightly.
"We are broadcasting to a tiny audience," Rather readily acknowledges.
Even so, his new venture is commanding attention beyond the relative handful who will catch its premiere Tuesday at 8 p.m. EST.
Why not? Rather, who in June left CBS News after 44 years, is beginning a new chapter at age 75. From scratch. Lickety-split. And defying everyone who figured — whether with regret or glee — that he was finished.
Who wouldn't be wondering if he can pull it off?
New job, new officeHeadquarters for his new production company is a small high-rise suite just a block from Times Square. The paint is dry. Furniture and state-of-the-art production equipment are in place. Any further refinements can wait.
"Right now, trying to get this program off the ground, I have about all I can say grace over," Rather says in his comfortable but no-frills new office, where his own high-def flatscreen (he points out with a chuckle) still isn't operative.
Not only is his team — fewer than two dozen overseen by Rather and executive producer Wayne Nelson — focused on opening night, but after that: another 41 weekly hours in the coming year, plus additional documentaries.
Exactly what viewers will see Tuesday won't be locked down until the last minute, Rather says, with portions likely to be aired live.
"I want us to be right up on the balls of our feet, able to shift in a nanosecond if we have to," he says, listing three areas to concentrate on: investigative stories, in-depth interviews and "hard-edged field reports." Favorite subjects are likely to include the nation's fighting forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, the economic squeeze on middle-income families and politics.
"I see this as a pioneering experience," Rather says. And he could be right. Here is TV news issuing not from a huge organization, but, uniquely, from the vision of one guy.
‘Total, complete and absolute ... control’
"When I first talked to Mark Cuban, he told he that he was prepared to give me total, complete and absolute editorial and creative control," Rather says. "Now stop and think about that for a moment: do you know any journalists past and present (with such an arrangement)?"
Yeah, but for most of his run at CBS News, wasn't Rather the reigning presence, the 900-pound gorilla?
"I was responsible for the ‘Evening News' and accountable for the 'Evening News,'" he allows, "but I had to, and did, answer up." He ticks off the steps of the corporate ladder that ascended even higher than his lofty perch on West 57th Street. "There are people above you."
Not now. According to Rather, Cuban "only asked two things of me: 'I want you to strive for excellence, and be fearless.'"
So, now for Rather, it's no excuses. And like him or not, how he manages this gift of total independence could well be instructive for anyone who worries about journalism under a corporate thumb.
"Increasingly, most of the major news outlets in this country are owned by very large corporate entities, and, in some cases, international conglomerates," notes Rather. And, among their many interests, some "increasingly come in conflict with what I think is strong journalism, the kind of role I think journalism should play in the country."
Concerns about corporate co-optingRather doesn't mention it, but a classic example is the 1995 "60 Minutes" expose that charged the tobacco industry with ignoring, and lying about, evidence of its products' harmfulness. Big Tobacco threatened lawsuits and top CBS executives caved. Savvy business, maybe. But cowardly journalism.
While declaring he was proud to be at CBS News throughout his 44-year stretch, Rather admits to harboring concerns about corporate co-opting when he was there.
"I tried to speak about it sometimes," he says. "Sometimes the management didn't take all that kindly to my speaking out about it. Could I have done more myself? Yes. Should I have done more? Yes."
But that's behind him now. So are his final, stormy years at CBS News, when he (and others) suffered the aftershocks of his discredited "60 Minutes Wednesday" report on President George W. Bush's military service that aired in 2004. The resulting scandal led to his departure from the "Evening News" anchor chair and, 15 months later, his exit from the network.
Some of the hits he took were deserved, he says, while the rest — well, that story ignited a firestorm that almost ruined Rather's reputation.
"Let's face it," he reasons, "over the length and breadth of a career, I've gotten a whole lot more than I ever deserved on the upside. So if I got some things I didn't deserve on the downside, I can't and won't complain about it."
Instead, his eyes are on the far horizon, he says. He has a brand-new broadcast to get on the air. And he believes that, if he makes the most of his opportunity, "Dan Rather Reports" could make a difference. A positive force in journalism, even for people who can't see it.