Dan Rather, the hard-charging embodiment of CBS News who saw his reputation damaged by an ill-fated report on President Bush’s National Guard service, said Tuesday he will step down as “CBS Evening News” anchor in March after nearly a quarter-century in the job.
Rather, 73, will become a correspondent for both editions of “60 Minutes,” saying he looked forward to “pouring my heart” into investigative reporting.
John Roberts and Scott Pelley are frequently mentioned as in-house candidates to succeed him, but CBS News — a distant third in evening news ratings behind NBC and ABC — also will look elsewhere.
Rather replaced broadcast legend Walter Cronkite in 1981 and lasted even longer than his predecessor’s 19 years. Rather, Tom Brokaw of NBC and Peter Jennings of ABC competed at the top ranks of network news for more than two decades as the world — and world of news — changed around them. Brokaw leaves NBC’s “Nightly News” next week.
Rather told viewers about his exit midway through his newscast Tuesday.
“It has been, and remains, an honor to be welcomed into your homes in the evening and I thank you for the trust you have given me,” he said.
After some bumps that included walking off a broadcast, an eyebrow-raising mugging and attracting ridicule by briefly signing off his newscast with the word “courage,” a September “60 Minutes Wednesday” story about Bush’s service that turned out to be based on allegedly forged documents forced Rather to fight for his professional life.
Investigation of Guard story imminent
Independent investigators are looking into what went wrong with the story, and their report is considered imminent.
Rather told The Associated Press that the guard story had nothing to do with his announcement.
“Everybody will have their own thoughts about this, but ... this was a separate decision apart from that,” he said in an interview.
Discussions with CBS management about when he would leave began in 1999, were shelved after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and then renewed last summer, Rather said. He said he and CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves agreed his departure would be sometime early next year and Rather settled on March 9 — the 24th anniversary of when he succeeded Cronkite.
CBS News and Rather were undoubtedly weighing whether timing the announcement before or after the investigative panel’s release would be better, said Ken Auletta, media columnist for The New Yorker magazine.
“I’m sure one of the things that Rather was doing here was thinking about his legacy,” Auletta said. “It must be frustrating for a guy like this who has spent 24 years doing this and building up his career to be tainted by an event that he didn’t have control over.”
Rather, whose Texas roots were evident in his folksy aphorisms, joined CBS News in 1962 and covered President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas a year later. He became a White House reporter in the Nixon administration and his combative style was captured in a memorable moment when Nixon, at a news conference, grumbled to him: “Are you running for something?”
“No, sir, Mr. President,” Rather shot back. “Are you?”
Tightly wound persona
Together with Jennings and Brokaw, Rather’s continuous coverage in the wake of Sept. 11 drew praise for helping a nation come to grips with an unimaginable tragedy. He scored several scoops, including anchoring the CBS report that offered the first pictures from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal earlier this year.
But his career was also dogged by incidents that attested to a tightly wound persona. In 1987, he walked off the evening news set in anger after CBS delayed the broadcast for a tennis match, leaving the network with dead air for six minutes. Four months later, then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, angered by a line of questioning from Rather, asked if he’d like to have his career judged by the walk-off.
Rather also said he was once accosted on a New York street by a strange man who beat him, asking, “Kenneth, what is the frequency.” It became an odd cultural touchstone; the rock band R.E.M. wrote a song about it.
“He’s apt to be haunted by the bizarre things that happened to him, the mugging and everything,” said Bob Lee, president of WDBJ-TV in Roanoke, Virginia, and head of CBS’s affiliate board. “But he has always been a vigorous competitor and a guy who cared an awful lot about the evening news broadcast. I wish he were going out on top.”
Brokaw said that he was “pleased for Dan that he’s come to a conclusion about his own life, as I have in my case.”
“Dan and I have known each other competitively and personally for a long, long time,” Brokaw said. “Occasionally on the competitive side, it would be tiny bumps in the road, but when you think of all that we’ve been through, we have a pretty strong relationship. So I wish him well.”
ABC News said Jennings was traveling and could not immediately be reached for comment.
About his successor, Rather said, that “I hope it’ll be somebody from the inside. But whoever it is will have my complete, unadulterated support and encouragement. Probably the best way I can help is to stay out of the way.”
The transition is likely to raise renewed questions about the long-term viability of evening news broadcasts, which have been suffering from declining ratings for years in a world of instant Internet and cable news.
Rather has long been a target of critics who accused him of a liberal bias, and there’s even a Web site devoted to that notion. The National Guard story sent those critics into overdrive. Rather’s announcement Tuesday led one Republican congressman from Pennsylvania to issue a statement saying, in effect, good riddance.
“Dan Rather has been a legend in media for more than a quarter-century to many people around the world, but not to me,” Rep. Bill Shuster said. “For the entirety of his career, Rather has allowed his liberal bias to shape the news rather than report it.”
CBS thought it had an important scoop with the National Guard story, reporting that President Bush had received preferential treatment to get into the guard and stay in the United States during the Vietnam War, and had failed to satisfy the requirements of his service.
But critics immediately questioned the story, saying a document purportedly written by Bush’s late squadron leader appeared to be a fake. Rather apologized before CBS appointed the investigative panel.
“We made a mistake in judgment,” he said at the time, “and for that I am sorry.”
Former AP Chief Executive Officer Louis Boccardi and former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, who are looking into CBS’s guard story, would not comment Tuesday about the status of their report.
While the National Guard incident has clearly hurt Rather in his final months on the job, CBS News President Andrew Heyward said he hoped viewers would understand Rather’s place in broadcast history.
“He’s covered every story on a national basis since the Kennedy assassination, and anybody who’s looked at his legacy in a fair manner is going to see the larger context,” Heyward said.
Alex Jones, director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy, agreed.
“I think Dan Rather has been the embodiment of the indefatigable and high-powered broadcast journalist,” Jones said. “I respect him highly.”