Stopwatch Ticking for Dan Rather
Thursday, June 15, 2006
NEW YORK -- CBS executives have decided there is no future role at the network for Dan Rather, making it certain that the man who sat in the anchor chair for 24 years will depart by this fall.
These executives recognize Rather's contributions over four decades and are not trying to boot him because of the controversy surrounding his botched story on President Bush and the National Guard, say network sources who declined to be named while discussing a sensitive personnel matter. But the executives concluded there was no room for Rather at "60 Minutes," particularly with incoming anchor Katie Couric planning to report a half-dozen stories a year and the hiring of CNN's Anderson Cooper as a part-time contributor.
Rather's contract expires in November, but the sources say he might leave before that, depending on negotiations with CBS.
Rather, 74, declined to discuss his future this week. "I'm contracted to be a full-time '60 Minutes' correspondent, and I'm working on that contract," he said. People familiar with Rather's situation say he has had no serious negotiations with any of the cable networks but has attracted interest from people developing projects for television.
Rather has said several times that "my best work is still ahead of me." He is described by friends as hurt and puzzled by the attitude of CBS management.
Rather joined "60 Minutes II" after leaving the anchor job in March 2005, and was shifted to the original Sunday night program when the weekday edition was canceled months later. But with the Sunday program's team of correspondents -- Ed Bradley, Morley Safer, Lesley Stahl and Steve Kroft -- having been joined by such former "60 II" reporters as Scott Pelley and Bob Simon and part-timers such as Lara Logan, executive producer Jeff Fager has a glut of contributors.
Rather has done eight pieces for the program this season, ranging from interviews with Bill Clinton and George Clooney to a segment on the Whole Foods grocery chain to a report on his visit to North Korea. But with "60 Minutes" largely in reruns for the summer, Rather has had little to do since then and is not in the program's plans for the fall season.
Some CBS staffers are sad about the turn of events, viewing it as a difficult moment for a man who once interviewed world leaders and went into war zones for the network. They question why the network can't find a suitable place for Rather in light of his long service to CBS.
The CBS executives hope a dignified exit can be arranged and that Rather can find a second career, perhaps in cable, the sources say. But they also believe that with Couric debuting as anchor in September, the news division needs to move on from the Rather era. And the fallout over his 2004 piece alleging that the Guard had given Bush favorable treatment -- based on documents that the network later acknowledged could not be authenticated -- has been a complicating factor.
Rather has accumulated his share of detractors at the network over the years. Mike Wallace, the "60 Minutes" veteran who recently relinquished his full-time duties, has said Rather should have resigned over the Guard story in a gesture of solidarity with his colleagues who worked on the segment. Three top CBS News executives quit under pressure, and Rather's producer Mary Mapes was fired, after an independent panel found that they had "failed miserably" to verify the disputed documents and that some had made misleading statements in defending the story.
Rather, who apologized on the air for the segment, relinquished the anchor chair earlier than he had planned. He made the announcement weeks before the panel, headed by former U.S. attorney general Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press chief executive Lou Boccardi, released its findings.
CBS is also trying to attract a younger audience for "60 Minutes," which has been on the air since 1968, and Rather's age is hardly consistent with giving the broadcast a fresher look.
Pictures of Rather reporting from around the world still line the corridors at CBS, a reminder of the storied if controversial career of the man who covered John F. Kennedy's assassination and succeeded Walter Cronkite in 1981. Rather's broadcast was No. 1 among the evening newscasts for several years, and when "CBS Evening News" slipped into third place in the 1990s, Rather cast himself as a hard-news champion in an era when television was increasingly focusing on softer features, crime and celebrities.
Interim CBS anchor Bob Schieffer has made the program more competitive with ABC's second-place "World News Tonight," which last month handed the anchor reins to Charlie Gibson.
From his talking back to President Richard Nixon at a 1973 news conference about Watergate to his confrontational 1988 interview with then-Vice President George Bush over Iran-contra, Rather became a lightning rod for conservatives who argued that he leaned to the left. But he also had a knack for landing big interviews and big stories. Rather was the last Western journalist to interview Saddam Hussein before the 2003 war, and the following year disclosed the first photos of Iraqi prisoners being abused at Abu Ghraib.
At his peak, Rather anchored the evening news, contributed to "60 Minutes," hosted "48 Hours" and did regular radio commentaries, often sprinkling his delivery with the down-home Texas sayings that became known as "Dan-isms."