Grumpy Old News Guys
By J. Max Robins -- Broadcasting & Cable, 3/6/2005 7:00:00 PM
Last week, Walter Cronkite, Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Andy Rooney and Don Hewitt paid tribute to Dan Rather in a manner all too typical of the CBS News culture. In a New Yorker profile pegged to his March 9 departure from CBS Evening News, Rather's fellow CBS senior citizens, in their own ways, told this colleague of 40+ years: Don't let the door hit your overacting, overpaid anchor ass on the way out.
In case you missed it, Cronkite said he watches Tom Brokaw, while Hewitt sniffed that he prefers Peter Jennings. Wallace, who considers Dan a pal, nonetheless said he found Rather “uptight and occasionally contrived.” Rooney and Safer made it clear they thought Rather had sold his reporter's soul for the anchor chair ages ago.
Class, you guys, pure class. These old warhorses—who should all know better—are behaving like some dinner theater version of Grumpy Old Men, without the laughs.
Of course, these guys have been stabbing each other in the back—and front, when necessary—for years. Cronkite, whom Rather replaced at the Evening News in 1981, has told friends that it was Rather who prevented him from playing the part of the news division's on-camera elder statesman.
And Hewitt, still bitter after being forced out of his executive producer gig at 60 Minutes, has never forgiven Rather for abandoning in 1981 the legendary newsmag he created. Back in 1997, before there was a 60 Minutes II, Hewitt paid him back by turning down an exclusive, moving interview Rather had with Bill Cosby in the wake of the murder of the sitcom star's son Ennis. The message was clear: No way was Rather getting time on Hewitt's show, no matter how compelling the story.
Rather has had plenty of chances to slag all these guys, but he's refrained from doing so. No matter how wrong-headed his staunch defense of the discredited 60 Minutes report on President Bush's National Guard service may be, there's something admirable—even classy?—about his support of those who lost their jobs for their involvement in it. Last Thursday on the Late Show, when David Letterman asked him a series of loaded questions about the documents debacle, Rather handled them with grace and good humor.
Don't get me wrong. It's not like Rather is some septuagenarian virgin in a journalism cathouse. You don't thrive for decades in any major news organization without being a consummate political player and expert counter-puncher. Many of those who've toiled with him believe the hyper-competitive Rather was the key reason the Evening News will have nothing like the orderly succession that NBC managed in the transition from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams. Stories are legion about Rather and his cronies' publicly embracing Connie Chung during her short stint as his Evening News co-anchor (1993-95), while privately attempting to drive her out.
Still, there's something unseemly about all the ganging up on Gunga Dan. Last November, I wrote that, given the depth and breadth of his career, even with all the attendant controversy and eccentricities, it was a shame, after 24 years, he wasn't going to get the quarter-century victory lap he wanted. The sadness of that is made more profound by the public behavior of some sour colleagues.
As it happens, on March 10—the day after Rather's last Evening News broadcast—another of the newsman's longtime colleagues, Ed Bradley, will receive the Leonard Zeidenberg First Amendment Award from the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation. The honor is named after the late distinguished B&C senior correspondent and staunch defender of this magazine's favorite part of the U.S. Constitution.
Bradley's award is much deserved. Interestingly, he refrained from joining the Rather beat-down in The New Yorker. Sometimes your First Amendment rights are about the right not to say anything at all.
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