Dan Rather Retorting
Ever since his Bush-bashing 60 Minutes report, the CBS icon has been the right wing’s favorite whipping boy (well, they weren’t exactly fans before then, either). But when he leaves the anchor’s chair on March 9, he has no intention of giving up the fight.
A light snow dusts the sprawling CBS News complex in Hell’s Kitchen, on New York’s West Side, as a figure in a black slouch hat and long trench coat swirls through the Fifty-seventh Street door, bids good cheer to the security guards in the lobby, then vanishes into the bowels of the newsroom: Dan Rather is in top form this morning. He has just returned, after a grueling 44-hour flight, from Southeast Asia, where he presided over CBS News’ coverage of the killer tsunami. “It was one of those flights where you get drunk two times and still arrive home sober,” he tells me as I hurry behind him up the stairs to his office. In four days he will anchor coverage of the presidential inauguration, then catch a late-night flight from Washington to Iraq, where he will anchor the CBS Evening News during the tumultuous Iraqi election while also doing a couple of segments for the Wednesday edition of 60 Minutes. “My goal is to be a high-productivity, low-maintenance anchor,” he explains as we peel off coats, scarves, and hats and hand them to Allison, one of his assistants. At 73, Rather is three years older than I am; so why am I breathing hard while he appears ready to hit the floor and do fifty Marine push-ups? Work invigorates him, he explains: For 24 years he has anchored and served as the managing editor of the Evening News while also reporting segments for 48 Hours (which he pioneered) and both the Sunday and Wednesday editions of 60 Minutes, doing a radio commentary five days a week, and writing a weekly syndicated newspaper column—not counting being the lead man for numerous special events and breaking news like natural disasters or terrorist strikes. Just writing that sentence makes me dizzy.
What’s so odd about Rather’s apparent rejuvenation is that it arrives at one of the lowest moments in his fifty-year career. A few hours after his return home from Southeast Asia yesterday, a damning report was issued by the panel hired by CBS to investigate 60 Minutes Wednesday’s embarrassing and humiliating use of unauthenticated memos regarding George W. Bush’s service record in the Texas Air National Guard. The panel, headed by former Republican attorney general Richard Thornburgh and former Associated Press chief Louis Boccardi, concluded that the “myopic zeal” of the 60 Minutes team to beat its competition on the story caused a breakdown in institutional safeguards. Rather got to keep his job, but the report’s conclusion was that he and his people had flunked Journalism 101. His colorful Texas aphorisms—he famously described the 2000 presidential election deadlock as “tighter than a too-small swimsuit on a hot day on the way back from the beach”—have caused plenty of critics to question his style over the years. And when he sneaked into Afghanistan dressed as a mujahideen to cover the Soviet invasion in 1980, some reporters mocked him as “Gunga Dan,” as if to imply that his reports from the war front were filmed on a soundstage. But Memogate, as the CBS debacle has come to be called, and the report that followed, is the first time anybody has seriously called into question Rather’s journalistic chops.
The two of us settle into easy chairs in his office. A large painting by Jean Rather, his wife of 47 years, dominates one wall: a reclining woman that she has titled My Conversation With Titian. An enormous Rather family Bible lies under glass at one end of the coffee table. Rather and I have known each other for years, though not well, and we each go out of our way to make the other comfortable for what is to come. I begin with a couple of soft questions about the huge changes in the media during his years in the business, then hit him with one about Memogate: Given that no one has proved that the documents were forgeries, does he think he’s being held to too high a standard? I watch him stiffen, the muscles in his face no longer good-ol’-boy charming.
“I’m not going to revisit that,” he says. “The panel report is what it is. I’ve read it. I absorbed it. I will carry it with me in the future. It was a process that resulted in four good people losing their jobs. My reaction is one of great sadness.”
“But I need to know why,” I say, pressing him. The independent investigation had cleared CBS of charges of political bias, but sources had told me that CBS News president Andrew Heyward was instrumental in hiring Thornburgh for the report. In effect, as Tony Blankley wrote in the Washington Times, Thornburgh took on CBS as his fiduciary client. He had an ethical obligation to represent CBS’s best interest and to minimize any exposure CBS might have had to legal and political liability. “This has ‘whitewash’ written all over it,” I tell him. “As Dan Rather might say, if it walks like a duck—”
“I know what you want, but I can’t provide it,” he says firmly, then insists that he doesn’t wish to comment further on the affair.
It’s a brief and frustrating exchange, and it does nothing to quell the speculation that the controversy ended Rather’s chances of going out on his own terms. He had planned to remain at the Evening News until March 2006, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the date he replaced Walter Cronkite, but in a meeting with CBS chairman and CEO Les Moonves in the weeks before the report was released, Rather had agreed to step down on March 9 of this year. The investigation had absolved him of any wrongdoing—save for his stubborn defense of the documents in the immediate aftermath of the 60 Minutes episode—and the official network line was that he had been planning his retirement for months and only delayed it so as not to interfere with Tom Brokaw’s relinquishing of the NBC News anchor chair last December. Still, the widespread belief is that Rather has been forced out. Moonves has yet to confirm what Rather’s role will be with 60 Minutes after he steps down, and according to one CBS News insider, Rather wasn’t even informed by higher-ups that his longtime colleague Bob Schieffer, currently the host of Face the Nation, would be his interim replacement; he only found out when he read about it in the newspaper.
The highly competitive Rather is acutely conscious of his legacy, and the fallout has created a situation that was once unthinkable: that fifty years of rock-solid journalism, from civil rights marches in the South to conflicts in Saigon, Moscow, Tiananmen Square, Kabul, and Baghdad will be forgotten, erased by a conservative cadre of bloggers who believe that Rather represents everything wrong with the old-guard “liberal elite media” and that Memogate is their smoking gun. Rather is as elite as a kerosene lantern, but that hardly seems to matter anymore.
THE VAST FACILITIES OF CBS NEWS are like a multistory warehouse of hallways and offices shooting off in a staggering number of directions, all connected to an axis that includes the newsroom and main lobby. After making plans to meet back up with Rather in the afternoon, I head down the stairs, across the lobby, up in an elevator, and down a long hall, where I find the office of Susan Zirinsky, the executive producer of 48 Hours Mystery. She has known Rather for more than thirty years, which is also how long she’s been associated with CBS News. In her desk drawer is an archive of memorabilia. She shows me Cronkite’s script from the day Richard Nixon resigned. “When the show was over, he tossed it in the trash,” she tells me, smiling at the memory. While showing me a video of old clips of Rather in action, Zirinsky tells me, “Dan will do anything—anything.” The clips are live reports from a Louisiana civil rights march in 1962, in which dozens of blacks were teargassed; that ugly moment in history when Governor George Wallace blocked the door of the registrar’s office at the University of Alabama, in Tuscaloosa, to prevent two blacks from enrolling; and the jungles of Vietnam in 1965. On this last clip I see a soldier rush to help a fallen comrade and hear him call out, “We need some help here.” Then I see a very young Dan Rather hurrying toward them, yelling, “I’ll give you a hand.” Moments later Rather is carrying one corner of the litter as they evacuate the dying Marine. “Note to New York,” he says on film a little later. “Don’t use that part of me carrying out that wounded soldier.” “Of course CBS used it,” Zirinsky tells me. “It showed our humanity.”
When Rather was growing up in the Heights section of Houston, a career in television news wasn’t on his radar screen. “We didn’t own a TV set, and we didn’t know anybody who did,” he told me that morning. “My dream was to be a byline reporter on either the Houston Chronicle or the Houston Post.” Remarking on that dream, Hugh Cunningham, his journalism professor at Sam Houston State Teachers College, in Huntsville, told him, “It’ll be a long way from here to there.” A degree from Sam Houston State hardly forecast great accomplishments, although syndicated columnist Molly Ivins told me that after she held a teaching fellowship there some years ago, she got a new insight on Rather. “None of the students read a daily newspaper,” Ivins said. “The best ones maybe read a newsweekly. None could write well. None were prepared to go out and meet the world. But I thought they would turn out to be good reporters because they knew they’d have to work their asses off to get anywhere.”
And so Rather did. After graduating, in 1953, he headed back to Houston to find a job. “I cut my beat-reporter teeth at radio station KTRH, which was a fifty-thousand-watt station that covered the Gulf Coast,” he said. “I came in at four in the morning and read the pork belly futures out of Chicago. Then I’d grab this clumsy old wet-cell tape recorder and go to city hall. I slept through more zoning hearings than any anchor in history. I’d move on to the police station and then the commissioner’s court. I was green as money, but I knew already that this was what I was born to do.” To supplement his income, he broadcast play-by-play accounts of University of Houston football games, which taught him the anchor’s essential art of ad-libbing—“how to take and hold air,” he said. Poor spelling nixed his chances of getting a job at the Chronicle, but it didn’t stop him from covering major stories. When KTRH refused to pay his way to a news conference at Lyndon Johnson’s ranch in 1956, Rather hitchhiked. LBJ was the Senate majority leader at the time and was recovering at the ranch from a recent heart attack. Rumor had it that he was about to announce his candidacy for president. When Rather tried to use a phone in Johnson’s office to call in a report that the great man might indeed be thinking of higher office, LBJ grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and kicked him off the ranch.
He made his bones five years later doing his famous coverage of Hurricane Carla for KHOU-TV. Remember that image of him clinging to a palm tree, up to his waist in snakes, the wind howling around him? I could swear it’s in my memory bank, and I know I’ve read about it dozens of times. But I learned talking to Rather that it never happened. What did happen is far more revealing of the brand of reporter he’d become. TV stations back then didn’t have weather radars, much less computers. When Carla was approaching Texas, Rather persuaded his station manager to send him and a camera crew to Galveston. Then he persuaded the man in charge of the weather station there to let him position a camera in front of the radar console. That day, viewers saw something they had never seen on live television: the image of a four-hundred-mile-wide hurricane superimposed over a map of the Texas Gulf Coast. The coverage spurred a mass evacuation of the coast and probably saved thousands of lives. A few months later Rather was hired by CBS News in Dallas, where, in 1963, he became the first television journalist to report the death of President John F. Kennedy.
Rather is still fond of those early years at CBS. Across the hall from his current office is a small room with a fifties-era microphone, some radio equipment, and a few old photographs and books. A plaque that Rather attached to the door identifies it as the Eric Sevareid Radio Room. “Sevareid was one of Edward R. Murrow’s guys,” Rather said. “He did the last broadcast from Paris just before the Nazis got there.” Having always been a bit embarrassed of his education, Rather idolized Sevareid, who was known as the network’s “intellectual.” One day in the early stages of the Vietnam War, having a drink with Rather at the Caravelle Hotel, in Saigon, Sevareid made some crack about “that cow college where you got your degree,” then began to draw up a reading list for his young colleague. The list was similar to the University of Chicago Great Books series that Hugh Cunningham had once suggested back at Sam Houston State—Homer, Aristotle, Plato, Kant, Chekhov, Tolstoy, Herodotus, all the heavyweights. Even if he’d had the maturity to slog through such heavy reading as a student, Rather couldn’t have afforded all those books back then. “By now I was married, had two children, and was making $29,000 a year,” Rather told me. “So I took Sevareid’s advice and read every book cover to cover.”
Rather is the last of his breed, a junkyard dog in anchor’s clothing, hard-charging and afraid of nothing except maybe getting caught behind the desk while the town is burning. Dogged determination became his hallmark, both as a reporter and as an anchor at CBS. Houston writer Mickey Herskowitz, who has known Rather for thirty years and co-authored two of Rather’s six books, wrote the best line I’ve read about him: “He was the type of reporter who ran toward the bomb blast, the better to see the light.” He’s covered more than a dozen wars on five continents. He moved into the anchor spot in 1981, replacing another of his idols, Walter Cronkite. Though he’s now known to a whole generation as the face of the Evening News, it was never a perfect fit. Rather is considered “hot,” unlike his cool, younger, and more reserved competitors, Brokaw and ABC’s Peter Jennings, whom he has trailed in the ratings for years. But while those two have reported from the field, it has never been anything as dramatic and daring as going behind the lines in a war zone. Bob Schieffer remembered a conversation he had with Brokaw in which the NBC star compared today’s young anchors to “hothouse plants that have grown up under studio lights instead of out in the sun, like us old guys.” Schieffer added, “Dan didn’t get that tan in the studio.” When I read the “hothouse plants” quote to Rather, he almost choked on his coffee. “That’s my line,” he sputtered. “I told that to Brokaw. I can’t believe he’s repeating it without attribution.”
Staying behind the desk was never enough for Rather. By the nineties he was involved in nearly every facet of CBS News. When I asked Schieffer about Memogate, he suggested that Rather’s inability to say no may have ultimately played a part. “They had him doing three full-time jobs—anchor, 60 Minutes, and 48 Hours. What made Walter [Cronkite] so great was he let other people handle the little stuff. If Walter covered a story, you knew it was big. They made Dan the logo of CBS. They wore him out. But Dan liked it that way. He wanted to cover every car wreck himself.”
CBS NEWS HAD LAGGED behind its competition for years, and in the election year of 2004, the pressure on reporters to break big, sensational stories was enormous. Rather was the face out in front of many big stories on 60 Minutes, but for a long time Mary Mapes, a standout producer at the show, was the reporter and the force behind Rather’s success. Rather had become too famous and too overburdened with responsibility to be an effective investigative reporter, so Mapes did much of it for him, often with great results. Last spring Mapes broke the story of the abuses at Abu Ghraib and also landed an exclusive interview with the illegitimate black daughter of South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond. Those feats, however, seemed destined to be eclipsed when Mapes obtained the Bush National Guard memos in September.
The memos, which every major news organization had tried desperately to get its hands on, filled the gaps in Bush’s early-seventies service record and were supposedly from the personnel files of Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian, Bush’s commander in 1972. Mapes’s Deep Throat turned out to be another former Air National Guard officer, Bill Burkett. Burkett told conflicting stories about where he had obtained the memos, which should have raised red flags, even more so when he revealed that a mystery woman had sent him to a livestock show, where a stranger handed him an envelope containing photocopies of the documents. Burkett claimed that he had copied the memos and then burned the original photocopies, a very strange move indeed and one that made them impossible to authenticate. When Mapes collected the last of the documents on Sunday night, September 5, she should have had three weeks to vet them. It turned out she had only three days.
When executive producer Josh Howard got wind of how big the story could be, with the blessing of CBS News president Andrew Heyward, he ordered the 60 Minutes team to “crash” the segment on Bush—which included Rather’s interview with former Texas lieutenant governor Ben Barnes, who claimed he’d pulled strings for Bush to get into the Guard and avoid Vietnam—and air it the following Wednesday. Mapes agreed with the decision and did her best. In the meantime, Rather had traveled to Texas to do an interview for the National Guard segment, returning to New York the day before the program aired. Except for a couple of interviews and the narration, Rather had hardly any input on the memo segment but read multiple drafts of the script.
Only nineteen minutes into the September 8 broadcast, the blogosphere was already crackling with reports that the documents were produced on a computer, which, of course, would not have been possible in 1972. Bloggers began denouncing Rather while downloading the documents from the CBS Web site and from each other. Copies begot copies, which begot other copies. Like a prairie fire, rumor spread that the memos were forgeries. Critics pointed to the fact that the memos included the Times New Roman font and superscript, both of which were uncommon features on typewriters during the era in which the memos were supposedly produced. A do-it-yourself forgery experiment was posted on the conservative blog Little Green Footballs. Following the experiment’s instructions, a self-proclaimed typography expert named Joseph Newcomer typed the text of one of the documents into Microsoft Word and produced an exact copy of the seventies-era memo, which led him to “assert without any doubt . . . that this document is a modern forgery.” All Newcomer really proved was that Microsoft Word can make an exact replica of almost any document, but when it was soon revealed that Burkett, a known Bush hater, was Mapes’ source for the memos, the blogs had another line of attack. Overnight, the story had a life of its own, and Rather was its whipping boy. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan proclaimed that taking Rather and CBS down was “a great historical development in the history of politics in America. It was Agincourt.” Columbia Journalism Review editor Corey Pein wrote that, in the minds of bloggers, Memogate had become a “Boston Tea Party, a triumph of the democratic rabble over the lazy elites” of the mainstream news.
Three and a half months later the Thornburgh-led independent investigation directed its harshest criticism toward Mapes, not Rather. The report said that she had ignored information that cast doubt on the story, continued to insist that the memos were authentic and that her source was “rock solid,” even as evidence to the contrary emerged, and stalled her superiors with “half truths.” The panel concluded that the great deference given to Mapes, the network’s most respected producer, had created “a zealous belief in the truth of the segment.” In the aftermath, Mapes was fired, while executive producer Howard, vice president of CBS’s newsmagazines Betsy West, and senior broadcast producer Mary Murphy were all asked to resign. What the panel failed to consider is that investigative reporting is a black art. Myopic zeal is a tool of the trade, as is the willingness to hide for hours in hedgerows, hoping a target will move or betray itself. In their exploration of the dark and dangerous netherworld of sources and confidences, investigative reporters play hunches all the time. “If they weren’t as resourceful at compromising reality,” media critic Jack Shafer wrote in Slate, “we’d have no investigative reporting at all.”
I talked to Mapes several times in the days before the report was released, and I know that she must have been stunned by both the verdict and the severity of the punishment. She thought that a reprimand for the staff would be appropriate. She still believes the documents are factual. Sure, she had failed to authenticate the documents, but the panel had failed to prove they were forgeries, and it had had three months instead of three days, not to mention the assistance of four document experts and at least one private-detective agency. In a way, her performance reflected the standards of our current government: On the same day Mapes was fired, a story broke that conservative columnist Armstrong Williams was being paid to shill for the White House’s education program, and the White House announced that it had abandoned the search for weapons of mass destruction. But Les Moonves’s reaction was swift and brutal. “For the first time in my life, I am unemployed,” Mapes told me from her home in Dallas. “My son thinks I should get a job in an ice cream store.”
Mapes refuses to bad-mouth Rather about the incident, but the fact that he and Heyward were almost entirely absolved by the report, ostensibly because neither of them was aware of any reason to question the documents, must have been hard to swallow. Talking to people at CBS News, I learned that, contrary to the panel’s findings, Heyward was very much in the loop and had been warned that the show could cause problems. “Dan told Andrew Heyward on Sunday night that this story could be dynamite but that it was also potentially radioactive,” one veteran journalist told me. “Heyward recognized the risks and put Betsy West in charge. Normally, she doesn’t see the project until it’s edited and ready to air. In this case, she was there, in the screening room and all over things.” When Howard made the decision to crash the Bush segment, West approved. At that point, only Heyward had the power to delay it. When they were working on the equally sensitive piece about Abu Ghraib last spring, General Richard B. Myers had personally telephoned Rather, a friend, and asked CBS News to hold the piece “in the national interest.” Heyward had decided to delay it two weeks. “We almost lost it,” the source told me. Apparently Heyward believed that in West’s hands, the Bush report was solid, and he made no effort to return the segment to its original air date of September 29. “If he had,” the source said, “none of this might have happened.”
The same conclusion could be drawn about Rather’s behavior after the episode aired. His blind defense of the memos in the face of mounting evidence that they were, at the very least, seriously flawed, only fueled accusations among the bloggers that he was biased. Many bloggers are faceless lawn-chair pundits, unrestrained and often unprincipled, and they can ignore the traditional rules of fairness and accuracy while railing against their absence in the mainstream media. Last spring some of them picked up the buzz about John Kerry’s alleged marital infidelities, conveniently timed with his rise in the Democratic primaries. Nobody was held accountable, much less fired, when the story was proved false. Still, Rather’s defensive posture only exacerbated the perception that he did not comprehend the evidence against him and his colleagues or the power it had in the hands of journalism’s new breed of muckrakers. He only made matters worse by taking the offensive against his right-wing critics, using his platform on the Evening News to blast them as “partisan political operatives.” He told the Washington Post: “I don’t cave when the pressure gets too great from these partisan, political, ideological forces.” The reason bloggers were attacking the documents, he told the Wall Street Journal, was “because they can’t deny the fundamental truths of the analysis.” Eventually he had to back down, apologize, and admit that the fundamental truths could not be proved. It went without saying that such an admission was among the bitterest moments of his life.
RATHER HAS NEVER talked about his personal politics, other than to say that he voted twice for Dwight Eisenhower. Colleagues at CBS don’t recall Rather spouting ideology or showing much interest in things like Social Security reform, budget deficits, or defense spending as a percentage of the gross national product. Still, accusations of bias were trailing Rather long before 2004. Nicholas Lemann, the dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, told me in an e-mail: “I suspect that he’s an old-fashioned East Texas populist in some visceral way. That, along with his ‘hot’ personality, gives him a reputation for being more ideological than he really is.”
When we resume our conversation in his office that afternoon, Rather responds by saying that he prides himself on playing no favorites and pulling no punches, that the record proves he is an equal-opportunity assailer of presidents and kings. He talks about covering the Johnson White House both before and after his time in Vietnam and says of LBJ: “He was as direct as a punch in the nose.” Johnson could never comprehend why Rather, a fellow Texan, couldn’t see things his way. “He seemed incapable of understanding my role as someone independent of the White House,” Rather says. The same went for Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush, who all complained to CBS News that Rather was allowing his political bias to color his reporting. Rather’s politics are even the entire subject of a Web site, ratherbiased.com, which posts countless pages of statements he’s made over the years as evidence that he is “one of the most politicized journalists of our time.” Nonetheless, many of the accusations can be traced back to a couple of brief exchanges.
The first resulted from his relentless questioning of Nixon at a press conference at the height of Watergate. “That wasn’t a press conference,” Rather says, remembering the event clearly. “It was a pep rally. They had papered the house [with conservatives], and when I started asking my question, there was some applause but a lot more jeers.” Rather questioned Nixon about how his statements didn’t square with transcripts being released by the special prosecutor. Nixon tried to wisecrack his way out of trouble: “Are you running for something?” he asked Rather. To which Rather replied politely, “No, sir, Mr. President. Are you?” Afterward, the Nixon White House put enormous pressure on CBS News to transfer Rather off the presidential beat and, once Nixon resigned, it apparently succeeded. Rather was told that he was being “promoted” from Washington to New York. “I thought they were yielding to pressure, but you pay your money, you take your chances,” he says. “I did come back to New York. They did increase my pay.” But his new office wasn’t at CBS News headquarters; it was at a different location downtown. And his new job wasn’t to report the news but to produce documentaries. “Out of sight, out of mind,” Rather says offhandedly as Allison appears with fresh drinks. He put all his energy into a documentary linking cancer and pollution, and the network rewarded his hard work by scheduling it against the sixth game of the World Series. “Test patterns had better ratings than our documentary did,” he says. “Afterwards, I sat for a long time in the dark, a glass of Wild Turkey in hand, asking myself, ‘What in the hell am I into here?’”
If there was any lesson to be learned from the episode, Rather had forgotten it by 1988, when he had an equally controversial run-in with Vice President George H. W. Bush during a live interview. Frustrated with Bush’s evasive answers to his pointed questions about the Iran-Contra affair, Rather told the vice president, “You’ve made us hypocrites in the face of the world.” Bush lashed back, making a crack about the time Rather had protested the network’s decision to stay with a tennis tournament by walking off the set of the broadcast and allowing the screen to go dark for several minutes. Afterward, Bush’s people immediately mobilized phone banks and a letter-writing campaign, claiming that Rather had been disrespectful of the vice president and was trying to ruin his run for the Republican party nomination.
When I ask Rather why he’s become such a target for the right, he claims he doesn’t know, preferring to believe it’s less about him than the organization he works for. “There is a line running back to Murrow’s coverage of Joe McCarthy,” he says of the history of CBS. Even the beloved Cronkite was ridiculed as a lefty when he belatedly opposed the war in Vietnam. Rather was the network’s lead correspondent in civil rights coverage: People in the South renamed CBS the “Colored Broadcast System” and North Carolina senator Jesse Helms raised money by making Rather his bogeyman. “I was the point man, too, on Watergate, which we jumped on early and effectively,” he says. “I’ve always prided myself in being fiercely independent, maybe too independent. I don’t back up; I don’t back down; I’m hard to herd and impossible to stampede. But because I wouldn’t adopt other people’s biases, in their minds that made me biased.”
In the wake of the panel report, conservatives have hardly retreated from their criticisms. Several columnists have already declared the report a whitewash and its conclusion that the broadcast reflected no political bias on the part of Rather or CBS News laughable. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer called the National Guard story “the most blindingly partisan bungle in recent journalism history” and added, “This is not an isolated case. In fact the case is a perfect illustration of an utterly commonplace phenomenon: the mainstream media’s obliviousness to its own liberal bias.” CBS and Rather had been pursuing the story for five years, he pointed out, which was two years longer than the U.S. government spent on the Manhattan Project. Jonathan V. Last, of the Weekly Standard, made the same point: “It seems unlikely that either Rather or Mapes would even perceive their own political bias.”
I ask Rather if he thinks his “hot” personality, rather than any personal ideology, has caused him all the trouble. “You have said many times that a good reporter never allows his emotions or personality to show,” I tell him. “But I’d argue that of all the anchors, past and present, you’re the only one not afraid to wear your heart on your sleeve. Reporting the Challenger explosion, and again reporting the death of Marines in Beirut, you were on the brink of tears. Doing Letterman’s Late Show a few nights after 9/11, the tears were painfully real.”
Rather nods in agreement: “When you’re on television as often as I am, you realize there is no place to hide. The worst was Letterman after 9/11. For whatever reason, I couldn’t hold it in. I don’t apologize. You can’t apologize for grief.”
Rather looks away for a moment. Then he tells me: “My hope has always been, for all my flaws and weaknesses, that people will say this: ‘He wanted to be a reporter and he is.’ I think they know that I love this country.”
REFLECTING ON HIS retirement, Rather speaks of a Ted Williams exit: Hit a homer, circle the bases, trot back to the dugout, don’t stop to shower but go directly to the parking lot, climb in your car, and zoom away. Maybe this is still possible. Though he’ll give up his spot behind the desk in March and he just bought a condo near Sixth and Lamar, in Austin, he has no plans to go away quietly. He’ll continue living mainly in Manhattan and will likely work as a correspondent for 60 Minutes, where he’ll have great leeway in picking his own stories. He’ll be aiming for the fences, and sooner or later he could still slam one out of the park. Who knows, maybe he’ll even answer the question that got lost in the chaos of Memogate: Did Bush really get a free ride in the National Guard? But even if that’s not possible—how Memogate will affect Rather’s credibility as a reporter is anyone’s guess—most of his peers don’t believe his legacy will suffer if his last years more closely resemble Michael Jordan’s. “Even his critics,” Brokaw told me in an e-mail, “have to agree his long résumé as one of the leading reporters of his time has many more wins than losses.” In the meantime, Rather is still hugely popular among the rank and file at CBS News. Unfailingly polite, even courtly, he calls fellow employees by name and usually asks about their families. It’s a testament to this popularity that no one I talked with at CBS blamed Rather for the Memogate fallout.
One thing is for sure: His permanent replacement will be nothing like him. CBS chief Moonves is already talking about using the network’s multianchor morning program, The Early Show (one of the anchors on that show is his new bride, Julie Chen), as a possible model for restructuring CBS Evening News. He didn’t go into detail, but what these remarks conjure up in my mind is a steady drift—or maybe a gallop—toward the frivolous and tawdry. The culture of the media has obviously swung in that direction. More American reporters were in California covering the Scott Peterson murder trial than were covering the war in Iraq. News organizations do far fewer investigative reports and much more gotcha journalism. The change is driven in part by consolidation in ownership: Moonves, for example, is also co-president and the chief operating officer of CBS’s parent company, Viacom, which owns other media entities, such as Comedy Central. General Electric owns NBC, and Disney owns ABC. One CBS insider was furious that “a failed actor” like Moonves dared to give the staff a lecture on journalism, but that’s the trend, and it’s not likely to change. Corporate profit trumps journalism up and down the line.
Rather has long railed on what he calls “the Hollywoodization of the news.” In one of his books, he blames Barbara Walters for advancing the celebrity syndrome in TV news, “the feeling that what counts is the name on the marquee, not the integrity of your news.” He thinks it’s only going to get worse. “Part of the reason is the size and the velocity of the competition,” he tells me as he changes for a late-afternoon photo shoot. “That, along with the insistence that news be a profit center as opposed to public service. That makes it tempting for a managing editor to dumb it down and sleaze it up. Murrow was complaining about it back in the fifties, that the entertainment value was overwhelming news value. But it doesn’t have to be that way. All it takes is a few good people who own enterprises to make it happen, but right now that’s not the way the tide runs.”
Rather just hopes his replacement won’t be a hothouse plant. He tells me about an encounter with an old-time journalist years ago, when Rather took the job of London bureau chief that Murrow had once occupied. The gnarled old veteran called Rather “a child of television.” When Rather protested that he had worked his way through the radio ranks, the man said, “Nonetheless, you are the next wave, and you are here partly because you have a pretty face. What I will be interested to see is whether you have any goddam sense.” Rather smiles at the memory, but then turns serious and says, “When you are a high-profile anchor constantly sniffing rocket fuel for ego, if it gets deep in your lungs, then you probably won’t have any goddam sense. There’s a powerful undertow in this job. If you know what an emergency room at the charity hospital looks like after midnight on a Saturday night, if you’ve seen soldiers in combat, brave and heroic beyond comprehension, then maybe you can deal with those undertows.”
It’s the same undertow that very nearly pulled Rather under—and may yet. But I wouldn’t bet on it.