Dan Rather, vowing to resist any "smear" campaign against him by the Bush administration or other critics, said Saturday he would not "give up the fight" and intends to remain in the CBS anchor chair.
Rather, who has apologized for reporting on National Guard documents about President Bush that the network now says it cannot authenticate, twice declined to comment on the controversy at a forum hosted by the New Yorker. He made clear he had been muzzled by management, saying CBS News President Andrew Heyward had asked him to stay quiet while an outside panel investigates the matter.
The other network anchors at the forum stood by their longtime rival. NBC's Tom Brokaw accused Internet critics of "a kind of political jihad against Dan Rather and CBS News that is quite outrageous." Although he called Rather's "60 Minutes" story "a big mistake," Brokaw said it had led to an attempt to "demonize" Rather and CBS through "demagoguery."
ABC's Peter Jennings disagreed, crediting bloggers for first questioning whether the Guard documents were fake and adding: "I don't think you can just say this is a universal 'let's get CBS.' " But Jennings drew applause when he said: "I don't think you ever judge a man by one event in his career."
Under questioning by New Yorker writer Ken Auletta at the ornate New York Public Library on 42nd Street, Rather offered an impassioned defense of his overall work that offered a glimpse of his emotional state during the toughest episode of his 42-year career at CBS News. It quickly became clear that the 72-year-old anchor, who has long been a lightning rod for conservative critics -- some of whom are demanding that he resign -- sees himself as under siege by his critics.
"I'm an independent journalist," Rather said. "I don't have a political agenda. What I'm trying to do is be an honest broker of information. I'm going to make my mistakes . . . and not give in to those" who are themselves "biased."
Every administration, said Rather, who first drew national attention for asking Richard Nixon a provocative question during Watergate, uses the following tactic against journalists: "We want to instill fear in you, that you won't ask tough questions. You won't do aggressive, bold reporting. If you do that kind of reporting, we're going to make you pay a terrible price for it. If you do try it, stand back because we're going to do our very best to smear you. And any time you're right in something we don't like, we will attack you, the messenger."
Defending his approach, the anchor said: "Once we say the pressure is so great, the price is so high to pay, once we give up that fight, we give up something that's important not only to journalism but also important to the country."
At another point, he said: "If you don't report as somebody wants you to report, if you don't reflect news through the prism of their prejudices, they're going to call you biased."
Rather's refusal to discuss the National Guard story reflects a recent tight-lipped strategy at CBS News, which drew criticism for defending the Sept. 8 story for nearly two weeks and is hoping the controversy will fade. CBS recently hired Manhattan super-flack Howard Rubenstein to help with damage control. Rubenstein confirmed the hiring but declined to comment on his role.
Rather said he didn't know anything about the recent CBS decision to shelve another "60 Minutes" piece, by correspondent Ed Bradley, that contended the Bush administration relied on forged documents in arguing that Iraq had obtained uranium from Niger. CBS executives pulled the story, saying it would be "inappropriate" to air it so close to the election, but critics say it was yanked to avoid further controversy involving the White House. Salon.com, which had been given the videotape by CBS, reported its contents under the headline "The Cowardly Broadcast System."
Brokaw was also forceful in taking on critics of network news. He said that Brent Bozell, who runs the conservative Media Research Center in Alexandria, has been "doing as much damage as he can, and I choose that word carefully, to the credibility of the news divisions." Brokaw noted the growing criticism from left-wing bloggers and expressed skepticism toward Internet detractors: "When it comes to fraudulence, forgeries and claims that cannot be supported, that's where you see an enormous harm being done to the country."
Saturday's event was the last time these network veterans are likely to share a stage as anchors, given Brokaw's decision to give up his job in two months.
All three men expressed misgivings about the media's coverage during the run-up to the Iraq war, when the administration's claims that Saddam Hussein possessed illegal weapons got far more attention than the views of critics. "I think we've all had some serious second thoughts as to whether we were as on the ball as we should have been," Jennings said. Noting the success of Fox News during that period, when many Americans wanted the media to root for the U.S. troops, Jennings said it was "not a natural instinct for those of us in the establishment media to cheer the country on."
Brokaw said "there was a lot of martial music in the air" but also blamed what he called "a failure of the political system." He said Democratic Sens. John Kerry and John Edwards, who now criticize the war as running mates, "not only voted to authorize it but released press statements saying how proud they were of that vote."
Rather engaged in a bit of soul-searching during the forum. When there is "flag-waving" and "Sousa music playing" in time of war, he said, "I want to be a patriotic journalist." But, he said, "you begin to get confused as to what the role of a patriotic journalist is. One thing I wished I had done was to ask more questions, had more courage to ask more of the tougher questions," even though he said he would have gotten "hammered."
Although he can withstand labels such as "liberal" or "bomb-throwing Bolshevik," Rather said, "when the risk is that they're going to hang a sign around you, 'unpatriotic,' it takes tremendous strength -- strength I didn't always have -- to say, 'You know what? The hell with you.' "
When asked about his future, Rather, whose contract runs through 2006, said: "Sure, I have thoughts about stepping down. Everyone has thoughts." But as long as he likes the job and "think I can do it reasonably well -- and more important, as long as the people I work for think I can do it reasonably well -- I want to continue doing it. I don't have a date. I don't have a time frame."
But if his CBS bosses decide otherwise, he added, "I'll be happy to go."