Dan Rather was perhaps the most famous journalist in America back when being a news anchor at one of the big three network television channels—ABC, CBS, and NBC—mattered.  The Texas native’s long career, including 24 years as the face of CBS’s Evening News, is one of the most storied in the history of American journalism—even when considering his sudden, ignominious fall from his CBS perch—and is the subject of Rather, a new documentary streaming on Netflix. The film, directed by longtime Hollywood producer Frank Marshall and featuring Rather, who is a sprightly 92, is snappy and well-crafted, but it’s mostly interested in defending and celebrating the newsman. In its more transcendent moments, it touches on larger questions about journalism, how it should be done, and what, at least in television news, went wrong.

Rather was born in Wharton, sixty miles southwest of Houston. He became inspired to be a journalist as a child when he fell sick with rheumatic fever and was confined to his bed for months with only a radio as a reliable companion. He would tune to CBS and listen to Edward R. Murrow’s dispatches from London during the Nazi bombing campaign. We learn that Rather became a reporter as quick as he could, cutting his journalistic teeth in Houston, first at KTRH radio and then at KHOU-TV, where, in 1961, the then-29-year-old caught the eye of CBS for his cool-headed coverage of Hurricane Carla. (His reporting likely saved the lives of many Texans who high-tailed it out of harm’s way.) CBS rewarded Rather by hiring him, and for the next four decades he would bear witness to some of the most seismic events in American history: the civil rights movement, the aftermath of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the Vietnam War—he spent a year in the country often reporting from the front lines—and the Lyndon B. Johnson administration’s lies about it, then the Nixon administration and its lies, corruption, and downfall. Along the way, he became the second most-recognized face of CBS behind only that of Evening News anchor and fellow Texan Walter Cronkite, whom he would succeed in 1980. He picked up a reputation for being a dogged reporter, but also for having a liberal bias. 

Much of Rather’s energy is expended in attempting to fend off the latter charge, although the cavalry coming to Rather’s defense is almost entirely made up of former CBS colleagues and other journalists from outlets widely regarded as politically liberal, such as New York Times media critic Margaret Sullivan and the New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow.

Rather wasn’t an ideologue, they argue. He was an ambitious, perhaps an overly ambitious, TV newsman who in the course of doing his job did himself no favors in dodging the perception of having it out for Republicans. There was his infamous exchange with President Richard Nixon at a press event in Houston, when the president asked, “Are you running for something?” and Rather shot back, “No, sir, Mr. President. Are you?” Rather led CBS’s wall-to-wall coverage of Watergate and many Republicans blamed him for Nixon’s resignation. Then, in 1988, Rather got into a heated exchange with Vice President George H.W. Bush about his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal, which embarrassed CBS and bolstered Bush’s presidential campaign. Finally, in 2004, came the story that would end Rather’s tenure and tarnish his reputation: that a series of memos, whose veracity was soon demonstrated to be at the very least extremely suspect, showed that George W. Bush was given preferential treatment by the Air National Guard while avoiding serving in Vietnam. Despite the story’s serious flaws, Rather doubled down on it. Ultimately, CBS retracted the story and forced Rather to issue a public apology. In March 2005, Rather gave his final broadcast with CBS, to the undisguised glee of some conservatives.

Rather and the journalists in the film say he was merely doing the job of being a reporter and holding those in power to account. He was no less a target of Nixon’s petulant wrath than he was of Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson’s, who would often personally call Rather and his superiors and launch into foul-mouthed tirades demanding friendlier coverage. And the charge of liberal bias in journalism and CBS in particular preexisted Rather’s rise: segregationists and their sympathizers took to calling the channel the “communist broadcasting system” or the “colored broadcasting system” because of its reporting on the civil rights movement. The stories Rather covered that earned him the liberal bias charge had the ultimate benefit of being true: Nixon knew about Watergate and attempts to cover it up; George H.W. Bush was lying and obfuscating about his role in Iran-Contra; and, as Texas Monthly reported seven years after Rather’s departure from CBS, George W. Bush almost certainly avoided fulfilling his Texas Air National Guard service while dodging the draft. 

Rather probably won’t change any minds that are convinced that the newsman was a liberal disguised as a reporter. But the film touches, albeit too briefly, on something more consequential to Rather’s legacy: His at times unwitting role in the transformation of television journalism into show business. 

In the seventies, before becoming anchor, Rather joined 60 Minutes as a correspondent and helped turn it into a ratings powerhouse. “There is a theory at CBS that the worst thing that happened to CBS News was 60 Minutes. Because it proved you could make money from news,” former CBS executive David Buksbaum says in the film. Here the documentary might’ve benefited from giving viewers a bit more history about how small a part the news division of CBS was at first to the channel and its bottom line. CBS News was essentially a prestige product, something to signal to the public that the corporation had a conscience while mostly feeding it the actual moneymakers: sitcoms, mystery shows, and movies. 60 Minutes’ success created pressure on the news division to also become a profit center. Ratings became the be-all and end-all. For a while, especially in the eighties, Rather and the Evening News delivered profits while duking it out with NBC’s Tom Brokaw and ABC’s Peter Jennings. The three together drew an audience of roughly 45 million viewers during those years. (Today, the three shows draw closer to 20 million.)

Ultimately, Rather played the game worse than the others. The Evening News went from first in the network pecking order when Rather took the helm to a lagging third by the following decade, and they had new competitors in the cable news channels CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. By 2004, Rather and his team were under tremendous pressure to reclaim the ratings throne. When one of Rather’s producers came around with the Bush memos, Rather thought he found his ticket back to the top. 

The film by and large is an attempt to portray Rather in heroic terms, but it has elements that point to a more tragic interpretation of his career and its meaning for journalism. He tried being both an anchorman and a reporter, but ultimately could not reconcile the demands of the two. Being a good reporter—asking direct, if at times pointed questions of the powerful—can backfire on television, such as it did for Rather in his skirmish with the elder Bush. (A small, but fascinating detail recounted in the documentary: it turns out that Bush was coached by Roger Ailes, the eventual creator of Fox News, to bait Rather into the fight.) Rather didn’t exhibit the genial warmth of his competitors Brokaw and Jennings, who largely stuck to their roles as presenters of the news.

Rather tried to emulate Edward R. Murrow, the man who spoke to him on the radio all those decades ago. But television and what executives and audiences wanted from it had changed. Rather showed the country what good reporting looked like—and much of the country didn’t like it. It is a bitter irony that what ended Rather’s tenure at CBS, the house Murrow built, was a story he and his team hadn’t reported enough, which casts this small moment from Robert Draper’s 1991 Texas Monthly profile of Rather in the kind of tragic light the documentary could’ve used more of:

A CBS executive once told the anchorman, “I respect the fact that you’re a reporter. But it will be your epitaph.”

“I’ll trade for that,” replied Rather.