Storm clouds are always forming over CBS News and yesterday, true to tradition, they were hovering again as the network faced torrents of criticism over Dan Rather's interview with George Bush on Monday night's "CBS Evening News."
Reached in his office, Rather sounded slightly mystified by all the hubbub over the fever-pitched interview but insisted he'd done nothing wrong.
"This kind of interview happens almost every day on the campaign trail," Rather said, "but viewers don't see them. I understand it makes some viewers uncomfortable when they do. But it's part of the process."
Was Rather satisfied with his performance? "Well, I'm never satisfied. I always think I can do better."
Push kept coming to shove during the nine-minute exchange in which Rather pelted Bush with questions about inconsistencies in Bush's version of the Iran-contra affair and his role in it. The two men took turns interrupting one another.
Hundreds of calls to CBS and its affiliates -- the most ever, by some reports -- chastised Rather for being rude. Was he? "No," Rather said yesterday. "I was persistent."
Last night, Rather's craggy face was on all three network newscasts and on CNN as his competitors covered the Rather-Bush story. Rather's own program opened with a report on Bush and on reaction to the interview. A voice heard on a rowdy radio talk show declared, "Rather's a jerk."
"It was the interview heard 'round the world, and certainly all over Iowa," said CBS correspondent Bruce Morton.
That ended, Rather addressed the viewing audience.
"Now, a personal word, if I may," he began, "about last night's interview with Vice President Bush. First: No, CBS did not mislead the vice president about the subject of the interview." Bush's forces had claimed he was sandbagged by Rather's decision to concentrate solely on the Iran-contra matter.
"Secondly," said Rather, "I of course respect the office of the vice presidency, the institution, and the vice president. Trying to ask honest questions and trying to be persistent about answers is part of a reporter's job, and however it may seem at any given time, the intention of even persistent questions in a spirited interview is to do an honest, honorable job.
"The fact that more attention is sometimes given to the heat than the light is regrettable, but it goes with the territory."
Rather was also criticized for cutting Bush off abruptly at the end of the interview, which was running overtime. "Ending live television interviews under time pressures sometimes isn't done as gracefully as we hope or intend, and last night was one of those times," he said, the closest he came to apologizing.
The report included reaction to the interview from Bush competitors like Robert Dole, who said "I thought it was too long" and called it "about a draw." Rather was asked if he thought he won or lost. "I don't see it in those terms," he said. "I don't see it as an argument. Did he answer the questions? No. It's not a matter of 'won-lost.' "
Rather was heavily criticized by colleagues after the interview -- even by such pugnacious pugilists as ABC's Sam Donaldson, who charged, "Rather went too far" and accused him of "arrogance." How does Rather respond? "I don't. I just come to work and do my job. I'm going to keep on asking questions.
"This was an effort to deal with substance, with news -- real news as opposed to just the appearance of news," Rather said. "I would gently and respectfully submit that critics and others who write about television can't have it both ways. When we don't do substantive pieces dealing with issues, they criticize us for having no depth. When we do, then it's 'Oh, shame on them.'
"I have great faith in the viewer. Viewers will respect efforts to deal with substantive matters in a campaign. In the end, even if it makes them uncomfortable to watch the interview, I hope they'll at least respect the effort."
Howard Stringer, CBS News president, said there were no plans whatever to censure or reprimand Rather. Reid Irvine, president of Accuracy in Media (AIM) had called on Rather to resign.
"I think it's a ridiculous thought to have Rather resign for doing what every reporter has been doing for the last six months if they're any good at their job," Stringer said.
Gene F. Jankowski, president of CBS/Broadcast Group, when asked if he would consider Irvine's advice, said, "No. We recognize the source." Irvine and his conservative group have been consistent nemeses of Rather and CBS News, attacking them for their alleged liberal bias.
Jankowski conceded that many CBS affiliates had expressed concern over the tenor of the interview.
"To be frank, we have had more criticism than we have had compliments," Jankowski said. But sources indicated that affiliate grumblings this time were minor peeps compared to the uproar last September after Rather failed to show up at the start of a delayed "Evening News" broadcast and thus left the network with six minutes of dead air.
The diciest moment of the Bush-Rather clash probably came when Bush made a reference to that highly publicized Rather no-show as a way of deflecting one of Rather's questions. A Bush advisor reportedly coached him to use this secret weapon if things got testy.
How would Rather characterize Bush's needling? "I don't characterize it at all." Did it surprise him? "No, it didn't surprise me. I had one surprise, but that didn't surprise me." What was the one surprise? "I really believed going into this that he would make an effort to answer some of the more important questions. My surprise was that he didn't do that."
Laurence Tisch, president of CBS Inc., was in Bangkok and could not be reached for comment. A source close to Tisch said he had been apprised of the brouhaha and had expressed no displeasure over Rather's conduct. He has not yet seen a tape of the interview.
What troubled some CBS insiders more than criticism of Rather was the fear that they'd been exploited by the Bush crowd. Bush's people insisted on a live unedited interview in the first place, perhaps so that Bush would have an opportunity to look macho standing up to Rather.
It was seen as a way Bush could increase his popularity with conservatives. Getting abusive with Rather plays very well with that crowd.
But CBS News didn't plan very well for this contingency -- despite a clearcut tip-off, replayed in last night's report on the controversy. During a recent debate in Iowa, Bush earned bounteous applause from a partisan crowd by attacking James Gannon, editor of the Des Moines Register, for alleged mistreatment of Bush in print. The crowd ate it up. Bush tasted blood.
What happened on CBS Monday night, then, could be considered "Jaws Meets Rambo."
Producers at CBS News apparently failed to prepare Rambo Rather for this possibility. Rather insisted yesterday that he was merely doing his reporter's job by continuing to ask the questions Bush seemed determined not to answer, but on the air he did appear to lose his cool, to be drawn into a fight.
Yesterday, CBS sources said, the phone calls continued, but the tally wasn't nearly so one-sided against Rather as it had been on Monday. Eventually, some predict, the furor will die down and the substance of the interview will get more attention: the fact that Bush again dodged and evaded questions about his Iran-contra adventures.
Stringer was asked if, knowing how things turned out on the air, he would go through with the Bush interview again anyway. "That's not a fair question," he said. "That's pure conjecture. But I would always urge Dan in his questioning to be pertinent and to the point."
He referred to the Bush-Rather colloquy as having been "a spirited exchange."
The whole mess casts renewed doubt on television's fitness as a vehicle for reasoned political discourse. If the interview had been more civilized, modulated and polite, hardly anybody would be talking about it now. Stark conflicts and confrontations are considered good TV, whether or not they're good journalistm.
One of the odd things about Rather is that he appears not to revel in all the attention he receives, yet he attracts more than any other anchorman, ever. Part of the problem for viewers who were alarmed at his behavior on Monday's show, CBS sources said, is that they're used to anchors being calm and cool and dispassionate. Passion, Rather himself has said, is one of his distinguishing qualities, and he wants to report news as well as just deliver it.
"What my life is about is covering stories," Rather said yesterday. "I'm going to try to keep on asking the questions." He claimed to be surprised by all the fuss being made about the interview, and Rather being Rather, it's a good possibility that he really was.