Dan Rather's 15 Tumultuous Years at Anchor
The CBS newsman has dodged Soviet missiles, political infighting, and calls for resignation
NEW YORK — ON March 9, 1981, Dan Rather walked onto the set of "The CBS Evening News" and sat down, some say a bit uncomfortably, in a legend's chair.
Tenacious, hard-working, almost driven with determination, he was and still is considered by many of his colleagues to be one of TV journalism's best field reporters. But his rise to the role of anchor, heir of the rich CBS News tradition and Walter Cronkite's trusted mantle, was marked with some skepticism.
"We all knew I couldn't be Walter Cronkite, so I decided I had better be the best Dan Rather I could," says the newsman, now sitting very comfortably with his sleeves rolled up in his CBS office.
This week some of journalism's best will come out to fete Mr. Rather and celebrate his 15 years as anchor of "The CBS Evening News." It has been, in his own words, "quite a ride," one that has changed him in a thousand ways, even though it feels as though it began only yesterday.
During his tenure, the pipe-layer's son from Texas has dodged Soviet missiles in Afghanistan and the stinging barbs of media critics at home. He has won numerous awards and some brutal political fights within CBS. And he has endured the harshest, and some say, most short-sighted budget cuts of the three network news operations. But with his tenacity and seemingly insatiable appetite for work, Rather survived. Now, with CBS in the hands of its new owner, Westinghouse, the anchorman and many media critics say CBS News has the opportunity to regain its dominance.
"Irony of ironies, he's stuck around long enough to have a shot at rejuvenation," says Peter Herford, who started work at CBS in 1961 around the same time as Rather and now teaches journalism at Columbia University. "He's got to be feeling pretty [darn] good."
Without hesitation, Rather says the worst day of his entire 15 years was in 1987 when management, under tight-fisted new owner Larry Tisch, a financier, fired more than 200 news employees. There was not only the loss of friends and colleagues with which to contend, but also the dismantling of a revered institution: the network of Edward R. Murrow and Charles Collingwood that nurtured broadcast journalism from its earliest days.
Rather raised objections within CBS. He also co-authored an OpEd in The New York Times, headlined "From Murrow to Mediocrity," arguing that the network's bottom-line management was damaging CBS News.
"It was constantly a case of 'Do you stay inside and work as best you can to ease the pain, to ease the transition, or do you quit and go elsewhere?' " Rather says. "For me, I chose to stay and try to do the best with what we had."
In doing his best, Rather has engendered both high praise and the rage of critics. He is, in TV parlance, a "hot" personality: He radiates energy, and people either love him or they don't.
"He's not a diplomat, he's never made any pretense about being a diplomat. He says what he thinks," Columbia's Herford says. "Sometimes he says things before he thinks, and that's gotten him in trouble a number of times."
The most notable instance, to which Rather himself refers, was his 1988 interview with then-Vice President George Bush, who was running for president. Mr. Bush had repeatedly ducked questions about his involvement in the Iran-contra arms-for-hostages scandal. In a remarkable nine-minute live interview Rather tried, unsuccessfully, to get the vice president to say how much he knew about the illegal sale of some of the United States' most sophisticated weapons to Iran, one of the country's sworn enemies.
The interview quickly turned hostile, with Bush accusing CBS of ambushing him. Rather kept returning to the central, unanswered question. He then abruptly ended the interview in a manner many thought was rude.
"I watched it; it was painful," says Ernest Leiser, a former CBS executive who hired Rather in 1961. "But to put things in perspective, it was no more painful than Cronkite's interview with Mayor [Richard J.] Daley in 1968" at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. "Walter just let him walk all over everybody, including Walter."
Others are not so forgiving. Reed Irvine, chairman of Accuracy in Media, a conservative media watchdog group, led one of several campaigns to have Rather fired after the Bush interview.
"We had 10,000 signatures," says Mr. Irvine, who has a list of stories he contends shows Rather's political bias. "He's a liberal, and his views are clearly reflected in the stories he chooses and the way he covers them."
RATHER now says he may have pushed too hard in the Bush interview, but he also feels vindicated by what has been revealed about Iran-contra.
"I never saw it as left, right, or center, I saw it as an important story," says Rather, who adds there is constant pressure from extreme groups, right and left, who would like the news reported through the "prism of their own political prejudice."
"It isn't ideological or political; the best news people love 'the story,' " Rather says. "Most people covering most campaigns don't, in the end, really care who wins; they love the race, the dynamics ... the story."
Rather has also come under fire for his role in the changing fortunes of "The CBS Evening News." First there was "moments journalism" under the regime of former news-division president Gordon Van Sauter. Critics charged that it put a premium on dramatic picture over substance. More recently, Rather supported management's effort to make the evening news look more like a local broadcast. The effort included the ill-fated pairing of Rather with anchorwoman Connie Chung.
The move pushed "The CBS Evening News" from No. 2 to No. 3 in the heated ratings race among the three networks. Despite Ms. Chung's departure, the broadcast has yet to recover.
"It was a business decision to try it, and a business decision to end it. We tried it, and it didn't work," Rather says. (Chung's agent did not return phone calls.)
It was during that period, some critics say, that CBS sank to its nadir with Chung's report on House Speaker Newt Gingrich's mother that included Mrs. Gingrich's unseemly comment about First Lady Hillary Clinton.
"When CBS so muddies its view of the news that it thought [that] was the big story, that was ridiculous," says Ellen Hume, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and media critic. "That wasn't news, that was tabloid."
Rather refused to comment on the incident. While he was criticized for joining in the "moments journalism" of the early 1980s, he has also been credited, grudgingly by some, with trying to bring a harder edge back to the newscast.
"He has highs and he has lows, but if you average those together, he's been a remarkable and positive fixture in broadcast journalism," Mr. Van Sauter says. "I think his journalistic sense, his tenacity, and the sheer ability to have continuity through such tumultuous times is itself a tribute."
Many former colleagues say passion and determination will be central to Rather's attempt to revive CBS News's reputation. But much also depends on the new owners at Westinghouse.
"I think there's more of a chance for resurrection now ... but the jury's still out," says Sanford Socolow, the former executive producer of the evening news show. He handled the transition to Rather when Mr. Cronkite retired.
So far, Rather says, the new owners are sending the right signals. They have promoted to news-division president a highly respected CBS news veteran, Andrew Heyworth. They also decided to give a valuable hour of prime time to an election special on the New Hampshire primary, something no other network did.
"I have no illusions we're going to get all the money and resources we'd like, but I am convinced we'll have what we need," says Rather, who simply laughed heartily when asked if he expected to be around for the next 15 years.