It's show time for Dan Rather, who hopes to resurrect his tarnished career with a new weekly investigative series that debuts tonight on HDNet.
By ERIC DEGGANS
Published November 14, 2006
He sounds tired over the telephone, as if every one of his 75 years were pressing down on him.
But get former CBS anchor Dan Rather talking about journalism - not news industry gossip, especially about his own ignominious departure from the network - and the conversation flows easily.
Topic A: The effort to resurrect his career by doing what he has always done best, reporting the big stories. Now Rather's doing it for his smallest audience in half a century. Just 3-million American households can access his new weekly program, Dan Rather Reports, which debuts tonight on the HDNet channel.
"The public knows that investigative journalism has gone badly out of fashion," Rather said. "It costs more to do, takes more time to do, and sometimes when you follow all the leads down, what you thought was going to be there isn't there."
He's putting a happy spin on his new employer, a high-definition cable channel created by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. "We're trying to weld the new, startlingly better picture in high definition to the best kind of journalism, using all of the new tools available. This is a pioneering time."
It's also a crucial time for Rather, who will either rescue his tarnished reputation, or come off like Michael Jordan with the Washington Generals - a guy who doesn't know when to quit.
"Once you get a taste of this, you don't want to give it up . . . you see it in ballplayers all the time," said Alan Weisman, author of Lone Star: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Dan Rather, an unauthorized biography of the anchor. "I really want to see what Rather does with this opportunity."
Old anchors won't rust
Rather's not the only TV news veteran refusing to gear down after leaving the network stage. Retired 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace seems to file as many big interviews as ever, recently getting Iran's president. Onetime ABC anchor Ted Koppel debuts his second big-ticket documentary for the Discovery Channel on Sunday. Former NBC anchor Tom Brokaw helped the network cover the midterm elections last week.
"We love the news . . . we have a passion for the news that's in our marrow," Rather explained. "I have two grandchildren I love to see . . . but hell, I want to wear out, not rust out."
Brokaw arranged his transition to Brian Williams with smooth skill. But Rather's departure from CBS News was an embarrassing severance forced by the journalism and public relations debacle that followed his September 2004 60 Minutes report on President Bush's National Guard service.
Rather is loath to talk much about the story that ushered him out of CBS News a year before his 25th anniversary there. He admits one error: mishandling the criticism that followed CBS's inability to authenticate documents used as proof that Bush received preferential treatment while serving in the National Guard.
"The story was and is true," Rather said. "History will judge how well or how poorly we did that story. I'm at peace with whatever history's judgment turns out to be."
A key criticism turned on Rather's lack of involvement in the story, leading him to trust a producer who accepted questionable evidence from a biased source she kept anonymous. Two years later, Rather is deeply involved, working with a staff of 16 to crank out an hourlong, weekly investigative series, whipped up in about four months - a breakneck pace.
Can he serve as his own editor, particularly under the pressure to break news that earns attention from big news outlets?
"There won't be a guy who can look at Dan and say, 'Let's not do this,' (which) is the only thing that worries me," said Weisman, who retired after 25 years at CBS News, but says he rarely worked directly with Rather.
"Dan always wants the scoop. That's why one of the revolutions he caused was to take the anchor out of the chair and move him to the heart of big stories. He wanted to be top dog, but he was never comfortable in that chair."
As for that chair's new occupant, Rather says he has seen the CBS Evening News With Katie Couric a few times since its Sept. 5 debut.
"I've seen it some nights when I think they're trying to do the Today show in the evening," he said.
"They're still in the early stages of deciding . . . what kind of news personality they want her to be."
Carefully as his words were chosen, however, Rather couldn't quite avoid sounding bitter as he recalled CBS chairman Les Moonves' long-ago comment that he planned to "blow up" CBS News while selecting a new anchor.
Curious, quirky legend
Other than legends such as Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, there may be no modern newsman whose career and life has been as critically dissected as Rather's.
His tale is irresistible: the anchor with the longest tenure who seemed the least comfortable in the job; the vocal team player accused of keeping CBS from developing a viable successor during his tenure; the reporter whose drive for the big scoop blew up his own career.
"I'm fond of saying this: I am what my record is," Rather said of the curiosity he inspires. "You do these things as a journalist and you accumulate large and powerful enemies. Your name gets known and people are constantly trying to deconstruct who and what you are. But if you want to know who I am, look at my record."
On the plus side: 55 years of competing for the biggest stories. He was first to report the death of President John F. Kennedy, and reportedly was prepared to punch out Abraham Zapruder to get the film he shot of the assassination.
Rather went on to cover the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement, President Nixon during Watergate, Tiananmen Square during the Chinese student protests and the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal during the Iraq war.
In the minus column: his odd Texas-flavored sayings ("If a frog had side pockets, he'd carry a handgun."). His angry march off a broadcast he thought would be delayed by a tennis match in 1988, resulting in a six-minute blank space. His awkward search for a signoff phrase to match Cronkite's, only to settle briefly on "courage."
"We all have eccentricities and character flaws . . . but when you're on television every night, those flaws and little ticks are amplified," Weisman said. "And with Dan, they were amplified a lot. This guy seemed strange to people."
New show, same grit
These days, Rather is playing elder statesman while touting his new venture, dissecting the midterm elections on Fox News and trading quips last week with Jon Stewart on the Daily Show's election special. He's passionate about the HDNet show, which he hopes will move between newsy coverage, investigative pieces and in-depth interviews. Rather agreed to a three-year deal but has not discussed salary details.
Given Cuban's relish for in-your-face rebellion and Rather's hunger for "grit in the gut" journalism, they would seem a match made in media heaven. But Cuban also funds an investigative Web site, Sharesleuth.com, which publishes tough investigative reports on companies whose stock he has shorted. He has made money from stock declines caused by journalism he has bankrolled, and isn't shy about it.
Rather insisted his new boss won't try anything similar with his subjects.
"He knows and I know if that kind of ethical situation developed, I'd be gone," he said. "But I haven't had an inkling of a problem with him. The only question he's ever asked me is 'What do you need? What can I do for you?' "
And don't suggest the mix of subjects and style planned for his new show sounds a little like a certain legendary news program.
"Gently, and with respect, let me say that 60 Minutes is not our model," said Rather, who instead invoked Murrow's pioneering '50s-era news broadcast, See It Now. "American journalism as a whole has become more timid, less inclined to ask the tough questions and do the tough stories involving powerful people. (It) badly needs a spine transplant . . . and I feel my best work is still ahead of me."
Eric Deggans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.