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Dan Rather: A Storied Life

After 24 years as anchor, he reflects on his critics, his career and the future 11/28/2004 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Dan Rather is staying on to report for 60 Minutes' Sunday and Wednesday editions, but the announcement that he will relinquish the CBS Evening News anchor chair in March effectively brings to a close one of the most remarkable—and tumultuous—careers in the history of television news. It is also a reminder, coming a week before Tom Brokaw's departure from NBC Nightly News, that the era of the powerful news anchor is fast drawing to an end. No matter who replaces Rather—or Peter Jennings at ABC when he decides to leave—we will never again see a network anchor who wields the influence and commands the sort of attention enjoyed by Brokaw, Rather, Jennings and their predecessors. This eventuality has been predicted for years, of course, as the news audience dwindled and alternative sources of information flourished. But that doesn't make it any less startling when a player of Rather's stature bows out.

Certainly, his exit was hastened by a now infamous report about President Bush's National Guard service that relied on questionable documents and the independent panel investigating how such a problematic piece ever made it on the air. But Rather would have been leaving before long anyway. Certainly his reputation has been tarnished by the National Guard story—but that story doesn't negate the incredible body of work that Rather put together over the course of more than four decades with CBS. From breaking the news on CBS Radio of President Kennedy's death in 1963 to his coverage of the Vietnam War and the Nixon Administration, from his taking over for anchor Walter Cronkite in 1981 to covering the war in Iraq, Rather has been a central player in the way generations of Americans learned about their world.

Shortly after the announcement that Rather was giving up the anchor chair, B&C Editor in Chief J. Max Robins talked with the CBS anchor about his decision and about the job he is leaving behind.

In light of your decision to leave the anchor desk and the investigation into the 60 Minutes piece under way, it must have been a tough couple of months.

No. What's tough is to be a single mother with three kids and trying to make ends meet. That's tough. What's tough is to be a cop on the beat in a transition neighborhood. What's tough is what those guys in Iraq and Afghanistan are doing. Tough? No.

Why did you decide to make the announcement that you'd be leaving the CBS Evening News in March now?

It feels right to do it now. Back in 1999, [Viacom Co-President and Co-COO and CBS Chairman] Les Moonves and I wandered into a discussion. And he said something along the lines of, “look, we couldn't be happier with the work you're doing and how you're doing it.” And I said, “Well, I couldn't be happier doing it.” And he said, “Well, what are you thinking?” I said, “Well, I think we'll know the right time. We'll know when it's time.” It might have come up again in 2000. But when 9/11 happened, it changed everything for us. In the wake of 9/11, I don't think it was discussed at all for at least a year and a half, maybe two years.

Then this last summer, we began to talk in earnest about my feeling that it was getting to be time and the feeling up top was, “Well, you know it's got to come some time.” And this was in the summer. We didn't have a specific date at that time, but the sense was some time after the elections would feel right.

This is candid. Then when the storm arose over the 60 Minutes [Bush/National Guard dubious-document] piece, there weren't any more conversations about it. We had to deal with that and do all of our other work. But once we got through Election Night, I said, you know, it feels to me like maybe March 9th. That would be the 24th anniversary—there's a certain symmetry to it. And Les said, “Yeah, that feels right.”

The next decision was the timing of the announcement and we decided we ought to do it pretty soon. We know this decision is not connected to the report from the panel [investigating the Bush/National Guard story]. I don't know what the panel has in mind, and neither does Les or anybody else. They're still talking to people. We have no idea when it's going to come out. But there was with me a sense that the more distance we can put between this announcement and the panel's decision, it would underscore the fact that this decision is not connected with that.

Are there moments that you think will be defining moments of Dan Rather's 24 years as anchor of the CBS Evening News?

Well I'm not sure that one's time in the anchor chair is defined by moments. But there are certain places where it's more memorable than others.

We owned the story of the Chinese uprising for freedom and democracy in Tiananmen Square. And it's not my words but others have said it was one of those landmark moments in the history of CBS News. Certainly 9/11. Abu Ghraib. There have been so many things. I'd say the interviews with Saddam, both times I interviewed Saddam—the first within three weeks after he invaded Kuwait. Nobody else had had him.

And then this last time—you know, not everybody likes it, whatever—but by journalistic standards, again, by any objective analysis, those were pretty good moments.

Do you have for advice your successor at the Evening News?

No. And any advice I gave they should ignore. But I do want to underscore that whoever it is I hope it will be somebody from the inside, but if it's somebody from the outside, they will have my absolute, complete, total support and encouragement. Anything I can do to help them they will only have to ask.

You redefined the role of the network anchor. You were really the first anchor/reporter.

Well, I came into this job determined to be an all-caps REPORTER and anchor. There were a lot of people who gave me counsel and advice at the time, along the lines of “Dan, that's not the way to go.” Anchors need to be comforting, reassuring, and you have to set the trench coat and the bush jacket aside now. And I listened closely to that, and I said, “That's not me, and that's not how I want to do it.” I want to bring the bush jacket, the trench coat, the flak jacket along for the ride and be a walk-the-ground kind of reporter. We did set out to redefine how and what an evening news could be. We called it the mobile anchor.

Computers were just really cracking through back then. With computers and much more sophisticated satellite capabilities, we knew we could take the broadcast anywhere. We invented and innovated and did that, and it's now taken for granted. Everybody has a version of it now. We wanted to be a broadcast that could go where the news is breaking and do the broadcast—Tiananmen Square being a good example. Not just do a piece of the broadcast, not do a couple of things, do the whole broadcast. And we did that during the first Gulf War; we did it during the Iraq War.

Remember, we reported on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan when virtually nobody else in American electronic journalism was doing anything. We thought that story would be perhaps a defining moment in the history of the Cold War, and it turned out that it was.

We did a series beginning in about 1986 called “The Changing Face of Communism,” which anticipated the break up of communism. Someone wrote [that] it was like Babe Ruth pointing to the fence. Well, I think that's a little strong. But we recognized that there was a big story there.

Was there much frustration over the years that you wanted to reach for the trench coat but responsibilities at the anchor desk kept you back?

It's true that you're regularly torn between wanting to grab a pencil and a notebook, your bag and your bush jacket and go some place. But you have to weigh that against the overall responsibility for the broadcast. So you always try to measure, is this story big enough or do you think it has the potential to become big enough. But I'm just crazy enough still, when my feet hit the floor every morning, I'm saying to myself that the next big story, maybe the biggest story of my lifetime is just around the corner. It might happen today. And if it does, boy, I sure want to cover it.

It sounds like, being full-time with 60 Minutes now, you won't be held back.

I hope you find a way to emphasize that. I'm not retiring. I'm not going to half-time work or three-quarters–time work. I'm going to go flat out, all out, full throttle into the two 60 Minutes broadcasts and anything else they want me to do. But it will give me a chance to do more of what I've always liked best to do, which is hard-news investigative reporting.

In some ways, do you feel liberated?

Yes, yes. But make no mistake, I love this job. I've loved every second of anchoring, and I'll savor every moment between now and March 9. I never was a huge Bob Dylan fan. I don't know what song of his it came from, but he had a line that said, “He not busy being born is busy dying.” And professionally, I'm born again. Don't make that read in a religious sense, but essentially I'm a born-again going to 60 Minutes. I still think my best work is ahead of me.

Throughout your career, you've been kind of a lightning rod for critics. Ever parse through what that's all about?

I don't think much about it. But these things come to mind. In my first trip to Afghanistan in 1980, I heard a saying: the dogs bark, but the caravan moves. And that's been my attitude about criticism. You can't do fiercely independent reporting and expect that everybody's going to love you. Having said I'm not a big Dylan fan, I'm going to quote him twice. He has another song in which he said, “If you don't believe there's a price for this sweet paradise, just remind me to show you my scars.” And anybody who is determined to be an independent reporter dedicated to the truth, pull no punches, plays no favorites, you're going to take shots. Nobody can do it perfectly. God knows I haven't done it perfectly. But I've worked as hard as I know how, tried as hard as I know how to keep the faith of the CBS News tradition on the CBS Evening News.

And I'm at peace with that, knowing flaws and all, mistakes and all, that I've given it my best, and I'll continue to give it my best until March 9th. And then I will throw myself into the two 60 Minutes broadcasts, which in many ways are the last bastion of gutsy reporting in prime time. And I look forward to it.

Ten years from now, when you're traipsing around the globe for 60 Minutes, is there still going to be three evening newscasts?

Yes. I think there will be. The country needs them now more than ever. I'm very well aware of the school of thought that says they're yesterday, they can't survive. But that old Mark Twain line comes in handy here: Reports of the evening news death are premature.

Is there some regret that the CBS Evening News trails behind the other guys in the nightly news race? You're nothing if not competitive.

It's true that the numbers speak for themselves. In the 1980s, we won big for over 200 straight weeks. But ratings don't last, quality journalism does. We've had good years and bad years and some years when it's hard to tell. But what I always feel good about is when we do something that I know is good. I work at the world's best news organization, period, with more good writers, more savvy, experienced correspondents, producers and writers and technicians than any place in the business. The days where you feel terrific are when you know you've put up quality work. That's much better than looking at Tuesday's scoreboard when the ratings come out and saying well, we were up, down or in the middle.

What do you hope that people in the television business take away from 24 years of Dan Rather at the anchor desk?

Independent reporting is a national necessity and a national treasure. Any place, any group of people who are trying to keep that light lit are practicing a form of patriotism that might not get recognized. Cynics may pooh-pooh it. But we know in that secret place behind our heart where we really are ourselves that it's important work. We're not important, but the work is important. And there are all kinds of pressures—ratings, demographics, political agendas, left, right, above and below. But it's important that they keep the light burning for independent reporting and be fiercely independent when it's called for.

I felt that when I came into anchoring, and I felt it even stronger particularly post 9/11, that there's always somebody around to say it needs to get softer, it needs to get more entertainment-oriented. But in the end, what counts is news that matters.

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