Dan Rather: a pioneer and a lightning rod
Wednesday night marks the final evening newscast of a journalist who never lost his drive.
It was a Texas hurricane that swept Dan Rather into the national spotlight. For those who watched him report from the Galveston Seawall that September of 1961, it helped forge a reputation for tenacity that would follow him for life.
"You saw the wind and rain around him. That was the first time a news person stayed on the coast," says Burlon Parsons, lifestyle editor for The Wharton Journal-Spectator, the local Texas newspaper of Rather's birthplace. "That's what I liked about him the most."
Nearly a half century later, events in Texas have again marked a pivotal moment for Mr. Rather, and highlight the other charge that has dogged his career: accusations of liberal bias. When the veteran anchor stood behind a flawed story on President Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard, many claimed it was a sign of partiality.
Wednesday night, when he anchors his last evening newscast, the more than 40-year legacy that stands between these bookends, during which he's led the nation through the assassination of former President Kennedy, the impeachment of Richard Nixon, and the tragedy of 9/11, remains decidedly mixed. While some say events of the past half-year will forever mar his credibility, many others say his place in the journalistic history will be as the ultimate reporter.
"He added to the tradition of the fearless reporter," says Barry Jagoda, who was a senior producer at CBS News during the Watergate scandal when Rather was a reporter there. "He was always ready to go, leave home and his family, and go wherever the crisis was.... We saw that down to the end."
For now, Rather's critics have been unrelenting - in stark contrast to the retirement of NBC anchor Tom Brokaw late last year. One website, www.ratherbiased.com, is counting the seconds until Rather's final newscast.
Some of his loudest critics emerged before the presidential election, when CBS aired a report, based on documents that were later unverifiable, alleging that Bush received preferential treatment while in the Texas Air National Guard.
Though the independent commission investigating the National Guard story said that the story was rushed without meeting the standards for accuracy - and several employees lost their jobs. The commision also found no evidence of bias.
Even in his earliest days, Rather was a polarizing figure, willing to take on any high-profile story. While that garnered him praise among his peers, it also put him in the limelight. During a 1974 conference at the National Association of Broadcasters, President Nixon confronted Rather as he stood up to ask a question. "Are you running for something?" he asked the reporter. Rather retorted: "No sir, Mr. President, are you?"
Rather was also the quintessential competitor, which didn't go unnoticed in other broadcast shops. Joseph Angotti, chairman of the broadcast program at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, remembers the days when he was a senior vice president at NBC News, and Rather was on the White House beat. He says Rather used to "drive them crazy" by popping up in places they weren't.
"Especially, when he was at the White House, he used to drive [Tom] Brokaw crazy ... because he was always coming up with little nuggets of information that wouldn't become public for a day or two," says Mr. Angotti. "He was an excellent reporter, but unfortunately he was also the kind of reporter who frequently gave the impression that he was more important than the story, and I think that hurt Dan in the eyes of a lot of viewers."
Rather never lost his drive nor his feistiness once he moved into the anchor's chair. "One could argue that Cronkite introduced the American people to the concept of the reliable, trustworthy anchorman," says Marvin Kalb, senior fellow at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "Dan is the next generation - the Rather-Brokaw-Jennings generation that demonstrated they can be reporters as well as anchormen because they had to be."
Perhaps Rather held onto the role most fiercely. To a certain extent, says Gene Mater, who was a senior vice president at CBS for more than 15 years, the other anchors morphed into editors once in the chair. "Dan always looked at himself as a reporter," he says.
That may have worked against him at times. "Rather had a way of creating controversy," says Jagoda. "He was not as good as Cronkite. Somehow he didn't know how to go down the middle as much, or keep out [of the story] as much."
Many say Rather's detractors have been unfair in their criticism. "He sat in the anchor seat for 24 years, which is absolutely amazing. You don't sit in an anchor's chair for 24 years without attracting critics," says Susan Bennett, director of international exhibits at the Freedom Forum's Newseum. "People forget the role of a journalist is not to be a pleasant conversationalist with those in power."
When the most recent controversy settles, many say Rather will emerge from the story because he is returning to what he does best: full-time reporting with "60 Minutes Wednesday." A permanent replacement for Rather has not been announced. Bob Schieffer, host of "Face the Nation," will fill in during an interim period beginning Thursday.
Among his peers, Rather was known for always seeking to improve himself, whether through dogged reporting or delving into books on new subjects. Perhaps it is this lesson that he has unwittingly left the next generation of journalists. During weekly meetings at the newspaper in Wharton, where an exhibit at the county museum is dedicated to him, the staff has debated the scandal surrounding Rather's fall. "It was a good lesson for us," says. Mr. Parsons, a reminder "to check sources before moving forward."