Roger Mudd, the CBS News correspondent passed over when Dan Rather was chosen to succeed Walter Cronkite, signed with NBC News yesterday and was named chief Washington correspondent, a title created just for him.
Mudd, 52, will join NBC News after the first of the year, when his CBS contract runs out. The widely respected reporter has not appeared on the air for CBS News since mid-February, when it was announced that Rather would replace Cronkite beginning early next year as anchor of the "Cbs Evening News," a position many in network news -- Mudd included -- thought Mudd would inherit.
Since that announcement, Mudd fired his original agent and hired a new one, Ralph Mann. Mudd confirmed during prolonged seclusion in his McLean, Va., home that he was having discussions with both ABC News and NBC News, and sources close to him said it was "unthinkable" he would return to CBS News because of the injury done to his pride by management there.
Nevertheless, CBS News President William Leonard joined the chorus of prepared statements yesterday by saying, "I know I speak for everyone at CBS News when I say that we will all be sorry to see Roger leave. He made a very great contribution over the years. Others have gone and returned. mI hope he does. Meanwhile, we wish him well."
It is often said of Mudd by associates that he detests the star system in network news and resents the way reporters like Cronkite and Rather bask in the limelight. "I'm a reporter, not a celebrity," he once remarked.
In his own prepared statement yesterday, Mudd said: "To become part of NBC News is at once exciting and reasuring. It means that we share certain principles of journalism -- that the news should be paramount, that nothing and no one should get in the way of the news, and that the news should not be trifled with."
John Chancellor, anchor of the "NBC Nightly News," said of Mudd, "Roger represents the very best in broadcast journalism, and it will be a lot more comfortable working with him than against him."
It was Chancellor's job that Mudd reportedly wanted, but insiders say it is in Chancellor's contract that he remain sole anchor of the Nightly News until 1981. In his new position Mudd will "appear regularly" on the newscast, NBC said, and "will play a major role in other NBC News broadcasts."
NBC spokesmen would not discuss any other terms of Mudd's contract, including its duration. Inside sources said his annual salary could be anywhere between $500,000 and $1 million, though the latter figure is considered unlikely since that would put him about $600,000 higher than Chancellor.
No one seemed particularly suprised at the news yesterday, partly because rumors about Mudd's future have been plentiful during recent months. It was widely expected he would rejoin his former colleague William J. Small -- a former CBS News Washington bureau chief -- at NBC, where several other CBS reporters, most recently Marvin Kalb, have also settled in. "We all assumed he would go there," said one CBS News insider. s"That's the exile place, isn't it? That's where all the White Russians hang out."
What did surprise some people was the new title created for Mudd. He is the first "chief Washington correspondent" in NBC News history. "We have never had a 'chief Washington correspondent,'" said longtime NBC commentator David Brinkley yesterday. "There's been some speculation in the office about what it is. No one really knows what it means."
Brinkley, who is also stationed in Washington, said he did not think the hiring of Mudd would affect his own role at NBC News. "I hardly have any role anymore," he said. "Which is fine. It's not a complaint." Brinkley said there would probably be a decision this week on whether he will take over the ailing NBC News magazine show "Prime Time Saturday," which moves to Fridays in the fall.
It is believed that NBC News created Mudd's new title partly to meet with his demand that he remain in and work out of Washington. An Nbc News spokesman would not discuss whether Mudd's agreement with the network includes eventual accession to the role of anchorman.
Small hailed Mudd's arrival by saying, "We have been close friends and have worked together for more than a dozen years in Washington. He has never disappointed me personally or professionally. He is very special." Small also acclaimed Mudd as "the premier broadcast journalist in Washington" and the city's "leading correspondent."
Mudd has been with CBS News since 1961 and was congressional correspondent for 15 of those years. He most recently earned national attention -- and a Peabody Award -- for his work on "CBS Reports: Teddy," a controversial report on Sen. Edward M. Kennedy that aired in November.
Rather, the man who beat out Mudd for the Cronkite chair, was substituting for the vacationing Cronkite last night on the "CBS Evening News" and so he got the opportunity of delivering the Mudd tribute.
"We find it disappointing to report tonight that Roger Mudd has decided to leave CBS News after a distinguished 19 years during which he earned a virtually unrivalled stature in reporting politics and government," Rather said.
"Competition is healthy in TV news as in most other fields," Rather added, "but we can only wish Roger would still be around to compete with 'them,' not us. Nevertheless, we wish him well."