Tall Tower, Full Power
Cigar at the ready, CBS News Abnchor Dan Rather battles it out in the TV news wars.
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96
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"I've said before, I've said continuously and I say it now, I like Connie," Rather insists. "I bear her absolutely no ill will and I wish her the best," adding that he has done so many times in conversation and correspondence with Chung.
Still, Rather has taken l'affaire Chung on the chin. He's the bad guy. This role is not new to him, and it happens to him more than it does to Peter Jennings or Tom Brokaw. Maybe it's because he has never really settled into the ways of the New York media crowd. Partly as a result of his stand-alone attitude, the national media, newspapers, magazines and the tabloid TV shows have seized on everything that happens to Rather. That strange things seem to happen to him is no secret, and Rather's aware of the public's perception. "You're gonna run into people who will say, 'Well, yeah, but other people are journalists and anchor people and celebrities and do roughly the same thing that Dan does, and these things haven't happened to them.'"
In 1980, there was the cab ride in Chicago during which Rather, in town to do a "60 Minutes" interview, thought the driver either didn't know where he was going or was taking a longer route to increase the fare. When the anchor asked the cabbie to stop, he sped up instead and Rather ended up with his head out the window yelling for help. Rather still sees it as part of big-city life. "Anybody who rides very much in the back of cabs has had something very similar happen to them at one time or another," he says. "Anybody who tells me that they haven't had something like that happen to them, tells me they haven't ridden very many cabs in very many cities." Typical or not, the incident still made the national press.
"What's the frequency, Kenneth?" is the most celebrated Rather incident, and the most musically exploited--the rock group REM wrote a song based on the incident. Some version of the question was asked of Rather on an October night in 1986. As he tells the story, he was walking home on New York's Park Avenue after dinner at a friend's apartment. Two men approached and asked him that odd question, presumably about the radio spectrum. When he couldn't answer the pop quiz correctly, they beat the crap out of him.
Rather's official explanation of the incident is brief: "I got mugged. Who understands these things? I didn't and I don't now. I didn't make a lot of it at the time and I don't now. I wish I knew who did it and why, but I have no idea."
The odd and somehow disappointing thing is a lot of people simply didn't believe that it could have been that simple. Among the most creative and unsubstantiated stories to be put forth came from Rather's colleagues at CBS who believed, seemed to need to believe, almost begged for it to be true, that Rather had been beaten up by the jealous husband of a woman with whom the anchor was supposedly having an affair. The assault on his reputation might have hurt as much as the physical wounds.
The context missing in most of the reporting about the incident is that Rather has been stalked before, and his reputation attacked, mostly for being Dan Rather. That's especially true in the world of American politics, and politicians' general dislike of the network anchor has almost certainly fed the public's perception of Dan Rather as tough and unyielding.
His first political run-in occurred in 1974, when Rather, then the CBS correspondent covering the White House, stood at a Houston news conference to ask Richard Nixon a question after thinking the president had pointed to him, though some claim Nixon had pointed to the ABC reporter. "Thank you, Mr. President. Dan Rather, of CBS News. Mr. President..." and then Rather was interrupted by applause and jeers. Nixon took the opportunity to ask Rather, "Are you running for something?" Rather responded, "No, sir, Mr. President, are you?" With performances like that, Rather gained the enmity of the Nixon White House.
Rather, who co-authored a book about the Nixon presidency, still views Nixon harshly. "History will accurately record President Nixon's strengths and weaknesses, both as a person and as a president," says the man whom Nixon considered his tormentor. "He will get full credit for his accomplishments opening the door to China, but it will be harsher on him than current history about his being part of a criminal conspiracy."
Questions about a scandal in the Reagan administration led Rather to a run-in with then-Vice President George Bush during a live interview on national television in January 1988. This incident highlighted Rather's testy relations with top politicians, but also his vulnerability to attack. In the midst of the interview, Bush chastised Rather for creating a six-minute blackout on the network the previous September. It was the vice president's retort to Rather's insistent questioning about Bush's role in the Iran-Contra affair.
There is general agreement about what caused the six-minute hole on the air of the CBS network on Sept. 11, 1987. CBS Sports was showing a U.S. Open semifinal tennis match between Steffi Graf and Lori McNeil. The match was running long and the CBS News team in Miami, covering the visit of Pope John Paul II, was told late in the day, maybe as late as 6:10 p.m., just 20 minutes before showtime, that it might have to collapse the half-hour show into less time. Rather, by all accounts, resisted the move to cut the news short. When CBS Sports ended its coverage of the match at 6:32 and switched to CBS News, Rather wasn't there and the screen went black--for six minutes. Although CBS would later try to say that it took Rather that long to get back to the set after the end of the prolonged match, in fact, it took him that long to gather himself after losing the argument with bosses in New York not to let the tennis coverage eat into the news. The official explanation ended up sounding like a cover-up and made both Rather and CBS look bad.
The blackout, Rather says, "was an effort to convince the powers-that-be that news is more important than sports. Among the many battles I've lost, that's one." However, the point Rather was trying to make, one of a number that has earned him the nickname "Dan Quixote," was lost in the thicket of bizarre, confusing and often contradictory explanations. From a journalist's perspective, Rather's stance was heroic. He was standing up for the news, but it ended up being another weird incident.
Four months later, on Jan. 25, 1988, Rather was in New York doing a live satellite interview on the "CBS Evening News" with Bush, who was in Washington. Rather asked the vice president, who was running to succeed Reagan, about the Iran-Contra affair and his involvement in it. Bush was not being responsive and Rather kept pressing. Bush finally let Rather have it with a planned assault.
"It's not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran," Bush began. "How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven [sic] minutes when you walked off the set in New York [sic]? Would you like that?" Bush got the length of time and the city wrong, but it was plain that he had thrown Rather.
"I had raised the possibility with the staff before the interview that he might raise Miami," Rather recalls. "The staff unanimously felt that no way he'd do that, but I thought he might." In fact, some at CBS News had gotten word shortly before the interview that Bush would raise the Miami incident. "I wasn't shocked or surprised by it. I was thinking at the time, 'Let's get to the core questions.' That's exactly what I did. Now, what I wasn't prepared for, and this is where I made a big mistake, was for the whole weight of the vice president's presidential campaign--even before the interview was over--to begin spinning things their way, and to succeed."
The Bush campaign claimed that Rather had tried to set them up. The truth was that Bush and his confederates had set up Rather. Bettag, who was Rather's executive producer at the time, believes that Rather knew what he was getting into with Bush, but that his nature would not allow him to avoid the confrontation. "He believes so deeply that it is essential that a reporter not shrink from controversy that he has taken on any number of things that tee people off," Bettag says.
That also goes to the heart of what Dan Rather is about, both the initial flare-up with CBS over news coverage, and his willingness to plunge into the Bush interview. "The Bush interview and those things, you know, those were going for the heart of the story," says Rather. "You can argue whether I did it well or did it badly, but they were the result of going for the heart of the story. And if you always go for the heart of the story, you know going in that you're not always going to be the most popular person around and you're going to get a reputation for being a lightning rod if you, well, if you do it that way."
That politicians dislike Dan Rather has been evident throughout his career. A lot of people at CBS also have had run-ins with Rather, but that is an inevitable part of the terribly insecure landscape of network news. That is why all the broadcast network anchors fight for, and are given, the title of managing editor, a rank above that of executive producer. What operates in the newsroom is his code, and if you don't follow it, there's no room for you. If you have gone a few miles together and are on his team, the anchorman can protect you against most violations short of a felony. Piss off the anchorman and you can hit the road. Bob Schieffer thinks it's an impossible situation and that making enemies is a sure thing. "You're not gonna please all the people all the time," Schieffer says of Rather, "and when you're in a high-profile position like that you're gonna build up some. And he has some, there's no question."
Saying bad things about network anchormen is easy. What is a bit tougher to talk about is whether the intense Rather is exceedingly courteous and tries to be a nice guy, or that the weird Rather is just playing a part. Walk the halls of CBS with him and you'll notice that he says hello to everyone, but more impressive is the manner in which everyone says hello to him. They know Dan Rather and have talked to him before.
Former CBS News producer Marty Koughan remembers--but has never before told because Rather swore him to secrecy--an incident during the 1987 newswriters strike. It was a long strike and the CBS writers' nonunion colleagues took up a collection to help those on the picket lines. Koughan was the designated treasurer. "I never intended to go to Dan," says Koughan, now an independent documentary producer. "Dan said, 'Why haven't you come to me?' He asked me how much I'd raised." Koughan told Rather it was several thousand dollars. "He wrote a check doubling it. And he said, 'Don't ever tell anyone this happened.' That was totally sincere. In Dan's case, these things are utterly sincere." It's that kind of story that Rather's fans point to when they argue that Rather is a dream to work with.
For now, everyone at CBS is learning to work with the new people from Westinghouse, though nobody is sure what the new company will bring to the network. "I'm as mystified as the next person about what's going to happen," Rather said last fall. "I might be a little more hopeful than some around here." Noting that hope is not faith, Rather says he bases his hope on his experience and belief in the people he works with. But the current uncertainty may also fuel his defensiveness about CBS News' third-place position among the network's nightly broadcasts.
"Ratings come and go. Good journalism doesn't. And what I try to be about is good journalism," Rather says. "It may strike some people as sophomoric or corny, but that's the way I feel. The way I judge us competitively is not by what the ratings are, but by what I think about the integrity of the broadcast. What do I think about my own performance on a given story. Quality is my measurement. One of our competitors says, 'Rather always wants to talk about quality when his ratings are low.' That's true. I also wanted to talk about quality when we went over 200 consecutive weeks winning. I've tried to talk about quality all the way through. I think my record is clear.
"We still have the highest quality worldwide electronic news gathering operation in the world. Check it out. Check who's made the big mistakes, who's made the really embarrassing mistakes, who's sold out the most often. [Rather said this before the recent "60 Minutes" debacle over a tobacco story the network spiked.] Everybody makes mistakes. Everybody has their bad days. Nobody does it perfect, but our record through the worst of times--which includes right now when we're being sold, when the whole network is third--if you're gonna talk about integrity, you're gonna talk about quality, CBS News leads. I recognize full well if we don't come back in the ratings, it won't make any difference. But we'll come back. Bank it. At CBS, it's not what we've lost, but what we still have." With his longtime ally Andrew Heyward now in the job of CBS News president, Rather is more optimistic.
Still, when he's asked how much more CBS News can lose and maintain its credibility, Rather says, "None. Zero. Zip. Nada. Not an inch. Not a penny."
Although Rather says he prefers to do his lobbying of corporate executives privately, if Westinghouse tries to cut the news division, expect Rather to make noise about it. That's what he did when cuts were made under Larry Tisch's ownership. Rather put his name on a New York Times op-ed piece that was entitled "From Murrow to Mediocrity?"
"Laurence Tisch [who became CEO of the network in September 1986] told us when he arrived that he wanted us to be the best. We want nothing more than to fulfill that mandate," the article read. "Ironically, he has now made the task seem something between difficult and impossible. I have said before that I have no intention of participating in the demise of CBS. But do the owners and officers of the new CBS see news as a trust...or only as a business venture?"
The battle of the bottom line versus quality journalism has always loomed large at CBS because of Edward R. Murrow, a CBS legend and one of the first great journalists in television news. The Murrow legacy also plays a big role in Rather's outlook. Many who have interviewed for jobs at CBS News tell similar stories about their meetings with Rather, usually the last one of the day, and his leading them out of the office while telling them that the ghost of Edward R. Murrow still walks the halls of CBS News. Ask him if he thinks he is Murrow, and Rather answers the question more quickly than he has any other: "No."
"I look in the mirror every morning when I shave and I know better than anybody that I'm not Edward R. Murrow and that I'm not about to become Murrow. I met Murrow. I trained under [Eric] Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, Walter Cronkite," he says. "Go down the list, you're talking about guys who are in the pantheon. They did give me a very strong sense of the following things: It matters, news matters, it does count. On some days it may not count for much, but it matters; two, it's a public trust. That's the way you have to approach it."
Bottom-line management is ever more prevalent today, Rather believes, and it is undermining what he says journalists need most: courage to overcome the fear. "Fear that you can't do right and do well at the same time," says Rather. "Fear that if you listen to the wee small voice within you that says, 'Don't do this. It's not good journalism' or if you listen to the small voice that says, 'Do it.' And it might be good journalism, it might be great. The fear is that if you listen to those voices that you won't have your job very long, whatever your job is."
Rather argues that he can speak out because he doesn't worry about his job, or his security, as much as he did when he was a news director at a Houston television station. "My point is the fear is a helluva lot more intense, it's larger and it scares you a whole lot more if you're where I was in 1960 than where I am in 1996, but it's real for everybody. The reason I've tried to speak about it is that my experience with fears is it's better when you can get them out."
But he doesn't have a magic answer. "I don't have a solution to it. If I did, 'CBS Evening News' and CBS News would be a lot better. I think the first step is to realize that we're afraid and that fear permeates every newsroom. The question is: How can you get the ratings, or the circulation, and still practice the kind of journalism that you can be proud of? Among the things we can do is make a little noise about it. What worries me is the sheet of silence: Everybody knows, but everybody is afraid to say."
Rather tells one last cigar story and a smile brightens his face. The story is of a different era in the television news business early in Rather's tenure at CBS, about a former executive producer of the "CBS Evening News"--Les Midgley.
"Midgley loved a good cigar. He was one of those people who, when he smoked a cigar, his face literally lit up. He was here when I first got here, and I always thought that one of the things that helped me get along with Midgley was that I liked cigars, and we could talk a little bit about cigars. He knew a whole hell of a lot more about them than I did, but we shared an appreciation for cigars. Les had bought, how I don't know, 500 of the last great Cuban cigars before things went bad. He numbered each one of them and cared for them as you would a child. He had a humidor somewhere in his home, but it was more than a humidor, it was a whole room where the temperature was controlled. And he didn't smoke them often, but on the occasion of something really good either at work or at home he'd pull one out. And I used to circle him like a giant hawk when I thought the occasion might merit one of those cigars."
Fifteen years as anchorman of the "CBS Evening News" certainly merits one of those cigars, and there are likely to be more occasions for a special smoke. Rather says he still likes his job: "I've liked it from the beginning; and while one could make an argument that in the beginning I had something to prove, that day is long since passed. Now I do it because I really have a passion for it. I like it. Turns out that I really like daily news best. Everything from the adrenaline rush that there is to the fact that you play every day. The scoreboard lights up every day, but then the next day you play again."
Alejandro Benes is a journalist in Washington, D.C.
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