By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
Dan Rather accused CBS executives yesterday of not having "lived up to their obligation to allow me to do substantive work there" as the network announced his departure after a 44-year career.
CBS officials heaped praise on the longtime anchor, even as they were ushering him out the door yesterday. Rather, for his part, made clear his frustration with the network for refusing to renew his contract or give him an ample workload at "60 Minutes."
His departure "represents CBS's final acknowledgement, after a protracted struggle," that the network was making inadequate use of him, Rather said in a statement. "As for their offers of a future with only an office but no assignments, it just isn't in me to sit around doing nothing."
CBS News President Sean McManus tried to accentuate the positive, likening Rather's career to those of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite.
"I'm sad this day has come," he said, "but really hope the challenges Dan talked about for him in the future provide the ability to do the great kind of work he wants to do."
Asked why the network is dropping the 74-year-old Rather, McManus said: "We just couldn't come up with an arrangement that had enough work to satisfy both him and CBS. If there had been a scenario that would have provided a workload that made sense for both CBS and Dan, we would have pursued that, but unfortunately that was not the case."
The network says it plans to pay tribute to Rather in a prime-time special this fall and is making a donation to his Texas alma mater, Sam Houston State University. Rather is expected to leave this week, well before the November expiration of his contract.
Rather, who anchored the "CBS Evening News" for 24 years, relinquished the post early last year after apologizing for a 2004 story -- based on documents that could not be authenticated -- that charged President Bush had received favorable treatment from the National Guard three decades ago.
McManus would not address whether the botched Guard story, which prompted the resignations of three senior network executives and the firing of Rather's producer, was a factor in CBS's decision to end Rather's career there. On the advice of company lawyers, McManus never met with Rather.
"It would be silly for me to try to list his enormous accomplishments and the contributions he made to CBS News," McManus said. "As time goes by, people will probably appreciate those more and more. I have nothing but respect and admiration for Dan Rather." CBS chief executive Les Moonves also hailed Rather in a statement for his "singular passion" and "dedication."
The Washington Post reported the decision to drop Rather last week, citing network sources as saying there was no room for him on "60 Minutes," in part because the program must find time for two part-time contributors, incoming anchor Katie Couric and CNN's Anderson Cooper.
"I'm going to miss him, just because he's been part of my life for so long," said Bob Schieffer, who met Rather while covering the Kennedy assassination and served as his interim successor. "I truly believe Dan Rather was a major figure in American journalism in the 20th century. His successes were larger than life, and his mistakes were larger than life."
While some CBS staff members say the network is treating Rather shabbily, many believe that he badly damaged the news division with his mishandling of the Guard story and that his departure is overdue. A number were shaking their heads over his recent comment to the New York Times that, having had little to do lately, he had gone five times to see the George Clooney film about Murrow, "Good Night, and Good Luck," sometimes by himself.
Rather covered wars from Vietnam to Yugoslavia to Iraq, political conventions and plenty of hurricanes in between, landing big interviews along the way. He was the first to interview President Bill Clinton after his impeachment, and the last Western journalist to sit down with Saddam Hussein before the 2003 U.S. invasion.
But Rather was also a lightning rod for conservatives, especially after his confrontational 1988 interview with Vice President George Bush over the Iran-contra scandal.
Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, confirmed on his blog that he is in discussions with Rather about launching a program on HDNet, a high-definition channel that reaches about 3 million homes. "We hope to do a deal where he produces a show that uncovers news. Information with a payoff. . . . I will tell you that there won't be any corporate considerations. No earnings per share issues. No worries about advertisers and what they might think," Cuban wrote.
Rather, who commanded a multimillion-dollar salary as the face of CBS News, maintained yesterday that "too much is made of anchors and their personalities, their ups and downs," as opposed to questions about the role of a free press and the "corporatization" of news.
Michael Wolff, a Vanity Fair columnist, called the CBS executives "a bunch of phony balonies" for praising Rather while dismissing him. "They looked at this with some amount of cold logic," Wolff said. "He's disgraced, he's old and we have a whole new era that's beginning, so let's get rid of him. It has no decency or compassion."
John Hinderaker, a lawyer whose conservative blog raised early questions about the disputed Guard documents, said it was "really indefensible" for Rather to have stood by the story for nearly two weeks. But, he said, "I've got some sympathy for the view that he had a long and distinguished career and that one episode shouldn't negate a lot of years of hard work. I always kind of liked the guy. He was a little quirky, an old-fashioned anchorman."
Rem Rieder, editor of American Journalism Review, said Rather "certainly brought on a lot of his own problems with the National Guard story. But given his long history with CBS and all the work he's done, you just wish there would have been a more graceful way to end this saga. One of the hardest things in life is knowing when it's time to go."