By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2004
Dan Rather said yesterday that he will end his nearly 24-year reign as CBS News anchor early next year, setting the terms of his departure instead of waiting for an investigative report on his rushed and admittedly flawed story on President Bush's National Guard service.
In saying he will step down in March, the 73-year-old anchor said that he was making a "separate decision" from the fallout over his "60 Minutes Wednesday" report but that he wanted "to get as much separation as possible" between the announcement and the findings of an outside panel likely to be released next month.
"It was time," said Rather, who has held the anchor job longer than anyone else at CBS, including Walter Cronkite. "It just felt right."
CBS News President Andrew Heyward said the decision was timed to be made public "after the election and before the report comes out, to make clear this is his call and it's happening before we've seen any findings. You have an extraordinary record of achievement by one of the most significant people in the history of journalism. Certainly it would be unfortunate if that were all overshadowed by this story, which is not to minimize how importantly CBS takes this story."
Whatever Rather's reasoning -- and colleagues say he thought hard for months about relinquishing the anchor job and becoming a "60 Minutes" correspondent -- it is also possible that the report on CBS's use of apparently bogus National Guard documents would have intensified calls for Rather's dismissal.
"Dan Rather did the Texas two-step, one step ahead of the posse," said Tobe Berkovitz, associate dean of Boston University's school of communication. "It was inevitable that Viacom and CBS were going to have to get rid of him."
Richard Leibner, Rather's agent, said the discussions about Rather moving on began last summer and that as of two years ago, his contract has not guaranteed him the right to remain as anchor. Even without the Guard story, "he never would have been there another year or two."
Rather told a cheering newsroom staff meeting in New York, where several people choked up, that discussions about his eventual transition were put on hold when "the hippopotamus entered the room," a reference to the National Guard controversy.
Once he set his departure date -- March 9, his 24th anniversary as anchor -- "I've been at peace with it," Rather said in the interview. "I'd like to think even my enemies would give me that I'm a pro. I had to stand back with a wide shot and assess the situation."
Rather said he did not want to wait until next week to announce his decision because NBC's Tom Brokaw is stepping down as anchor in favor of Brian Williams. "Next week should be Tom's week," Rather said.
CBS has made no decision about a successor, but knowledgeable insiders say White House correspondent John Roberts, Rather's principal substitute, is the leading candidate. The network could also go with "60 Minutes" reporter Scott Pelley or, on an interim basis, "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer. Taken together, the CBS and NBC moves mark a changing of the generational guard for network news for the first time in more than two decades. During that period, the networks' once-dominant audience share has eroded in the face of 24-hour competition from cable, talk radio and the Internet, and the most loyal newscast viewers have aged along with the anchors.
Rather apologized in September for a "mistake in judgment" in relying on apparently bogus documents for a "60 Minutes Wednesday" report charging that Bush received favorable treatment in the Texas Air National Guard three decades ago. But the apology followed 10 days in which Rather and his network doggedly defended the story despite mounting evidence, some of it assembled by Internet bloggers, that the memos in question could not have been written on an early 1970s government typewriter. CBS asked former attorney general Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press chief Louis D. Boccardi to head an outside inquiry.
The uproar cast a shadow over Rather's 43-year CBS career, which took the Sam Houston State Teachers College graduate from covering Texas hurricanes to challenging Richard Nixon at a news conference, from walking off the set and leaving the network without programming for six crucial minutes to an on-air shouting match with George H.W. Bush over the Iran-contra affair to a much-debated interview with Saddam Hussein before the start of the Iraq war last year. Rather has always been the most colorful and intense of the Big Three anchors, winning plaudits for investigative work and flying into war zones even as detractors accused him of grandstanding and liberal bias.
Jim Murphy, "CBS Evening News" executive producer, said of the National Guard controversy, "There's no denying this is hanging over the place right now." But, he said of Rather, "his body of work will withstand the scrutiny of history, as opposed to people who scream on talk television."
Berkovitz said Rather is a "hard-hitting" reporter, "but there was always that quirky, flaky edge that most of the network personnel don't display. He always had that fighter-pilot attitude."
Brent Bozell, who runs the conservative Media Research Center, attributed Rather's departure to "the loss of credibility" over the National Guard story. "What made it worse was the 10 days of denial by Dan Rather. He was starting to look bizarre toward the end." While the anchor was flagrantly biased against conservatives, Bozell said, "Dan Rather is a fierce patriot who loves his country, and no one can take that away from him."
Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism, said that "just because of his age and the ratings, you can pretty safely surmise that his bosses were musing over lunch whether there'd be any way to persuade him to retire" before the report. Rather's newscast has been mired in third place for years.
Rather's colleagues describe him in reverent tones. Roberts, who said he has not been contacted about the succession issue, described an "amazing" career in which Rather "has been witness to every major historical event from the Kennedy assassination on up. It's just a spectacular run he had. I don't think anyone will be able to have the kind of career Dan did."
Pelley, who also said he has not been contacted, said Rather "has been America's reporter. The timing of the National Guard story is unfortunate because there are those who are going to link that story with Dan's departure from the evening news. But it will ultimately pale when people look back across this remarkable career and all the datelines and deadlines and exclusives."
Brokaw called Rather "a tough but fair competitor" and said that when he joined Rather as a correspondent at the Nixon White House, "it was literally like going against a heavyweight champ."
Much of the reporting for the National Guard story was done by Rather's producer, Mary Mapes, who also helped him break the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal last spring. Rather reported on what purported to be memos from Bush's late squadron commander that were supplied by Bill Burkett, a retired Texas National Guard official and fierce critic of the president.
Rather later said Burkett had "lied" to the network about the ultimate source of the memos, which remains unclear. CBS rushed the story on the air within days, ignoring the advice of its own outside experts, who said they could not authenticate the documents. The commander's 86-year-old former secretary later told Rather that the memos were faked but that she had typed similar ones questioning Bush's Guard service.
"The last line on that story has yet to be written," Rather said. Thornburgh and Boccardi have mounted an aggressive probe that includes reading internal e-mail to network journalists during lengthy interviews, CBS staffers say.
Asked how he wants people to look back on his career, Rather said: "You work hard, you try hard, you report as best you can, playing no favorites and pulling no punches. When you're dedicated to that kind of reporting, you're going to take your shots. Some will be fair, some will be unfair. Dogs are going to bark and the caravan moves on."