With Dan Rather’s departure from CBS News, the tectonic plates of TV journalism have shifted on a historic scale.
But does anybody feel it? Or care?
Well, CBS cares. It comes out ahead. With a minimum of fuss, it is freed from Rather — scourge of the right wing; proselytizer of Murrow-era ideals on which CBS is all too happy to close the book; and, at 74, a senior citizen in a business where youth is revered. Let the age of incoming anchor Katie Couric (still barely within the 18-to-49 demo) begin!
Meanwhile, the right can count his exit as its victory. After decades of demonizing Rather for the misbehavior, real or perceived, of any media outlet this side of Fox News Channel, Rather can be claimed, if he wasn’t already, as its latest scalp in the culture wars.
Of course, some viewers might have preferred to see Rather continue at the network he devoted his life to — and to have been spared the scandal that led to his ouster from the “Evening News” anchor desk a year ago, and, now, from “60 Minutes” and CBS altogether.
Those viewers might have preferred that, when he took his leave, he would go out on a high note, befitting his decades of great work and unflagging devotion — not set aside with little to do as his contract was allowed to run out.
Rather’s admirers may have found it sad to read, in last week’s New York Times, his bullish description of a possible new job establishing a newsmagazine for Mark Cuban’s HDNet cable channel.
But any clear-eyed Rather watcher knew this was destined to end badly. Dan Rather just wouldn’t (or couldn’t) have had it any other way.
Rather's tragic flawThe strengths that set him apart — drive, defiance and endurance — were exhibited by Rather with no recognition that times were changing and his years were piling up. Even entering his 70s, he refused to adapt. Just wasn’t his nature.
There was an alternate, happier scenario. And despite Rather’s incorrigible nature, there were Rather observers (me, for instance) who had fantasized that he might seize on it.
Just a few years ago, he might have initiated steps to guarantee his future at the network (and guarantee his legacy). He might have negotiated an end date (months or years down the line) to his anchor reign, with an ironclad set of on-air duties part of the deal that would have kept him as busy as he wanted to be into his 90s.
The network could then have put in place an orderly transition, while lionizing Rather as the man who made it all possible as he looked ahead to playing an important role in CBS News’ glorious next chapter.
Yada, yada, yada — you can write it yourself.
In fact, you’ve witnessed a version of it: the impeccable way NBC handled Tom Brokaw’s retirement from the “Nightly News,” linked with the appointment of Brian Williams to take his place. The succession plan was announced in May 2002 — 30 months before Brokaw’s graceful departure.
So it could have been Rather, not Brokaw, who began the inevitable dissolution of the Network News Troika (which also included ABC News anchor Peter Jennings) that had been in place since the early 1980s.
It would have all been Rather’s story, his scoop, with him at the center.
And in subsequent tributes penned about him, Rather might finally have shed the boilerplate paragraphs that have dogged him throughout his career — the laundry list of oddities and miscues for which there seemed to be no statute of limitations.But it was all too much to hope for. Instead, Rather stayed. Stayed too long. And spread himself too thin with other tasks, including, in fall 2004, serving as the correspondent for a discredited “60 Minutes Wednesday” story on President George W. Bush’s military service.
Airing just weeks before the election, the story caused a firestorm, especially among Bush supporters and Rather Resisters. In the midst of the uproar (although CBS execs joined Rather in denying any connection), he announced that on reaching his 24th anniversary he would leave the “Evening News” to work full-time as a correspondent for the “60 Minutes” newsmagazines.
His best reportingJoking that “73 is the new 53” as the day approached in March 2005, he told me that “now should be the best time. As close as I’m gonna come to doing great journalism should be in the days, weeks, months ahead.”
“I see myself as a reporter,” he added, “moving to what is basically another reporting job.”
That was the way Rather wanted to see it. He had always spoken of himself as a reporter who loved roaming the world for a great story, and he chafed at being chained to the anchor desk. Yet he fought to be Walter Cronkite’s successor in 1981, and, once he had the job, couldn’t let it go.
As he was maybe the last to see, he kept it too long.