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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The core of Rather's problem is simple to understand: He is one of the most competitive people in the world. "He loves news too much," says Tom Bettag, a longtime producer for Rather at CBS News and now the executive producer of ABC's "Nightline." "He pours himself so much into news that it is such a huge part of his life. I mean, he is a great family man, but that's all there is in his life: news and family. [Rather and Jean have two grown children--a daughter, Robin, and a son, Danjack.] For his sake, you'd love to have him have more time for other things. I think that's a real fault. It is an imbalance. Generally, people who are really great at what they do, do it because they're really fanatical about it; Dan is fanatical about news."
Rather is a hot magnet in a cool medium. "There is something about Dan, I don't know what it is, but he plays very big no matter what," Bettag says. "You can be in a place where a bunch of other anchors are gonna be, and when they walk in the room, some people will notice, some people won't notice, and then Dan will walk in the room and there's this electricity about the guy that people will say, 'Look, there's Dan Rather.' "
That kind of celebrity often throws everything out of proportion. The controversy around his dual anchor role with Connie Chung highlighted that reality. The Chung-Rather on-air dance is a painful episode in the annals of broadcast journalism, and the pain doesn't lessen in the retelling. Suffice it to say, as Marc Gunther succinctly wrote in his book, The House That Roone Built, "When Dan Rather's 'CBS Evening News' lost viewers, Connie Chung was named his congenial co-anchor and the broadcast took on the feel of local news, with cutesy features and reporters who strolled along as they did their closing stand-ups."
Rather is on the record in his 1994 book, The Camera Never Blinks Twice: The Further Adventures of a Television Journalist, as saying he supported the idea of co-anchors, and that it was a service to viewers. But he was wrong about the latter. The viewers, accustomed to the setup on their local news, simply didn't see it as much of a service on the national news. Finally, even the network realized the tandem anchor team was failing. "Clearly it wasn't working. Clearly they had to do something," says Schieffer, a close and longtime friend of Rather's. "They made the decision to go with Dan, and I happen to think it was the right decision. I don't mean to speak ill of Connie and I'm not trying to kick her while she's down, but it's certainly the decision that I would've made."
Chung, additionally slapped with the impending cancellation of her magazine show, "Eye to Eye," ended up leaving CBS altogether, even though she was offered another job there. At the time she said she declined a smaller role because it would have been "inappropriate for the only woman on the three major network news programs to have anything less than co-equal status." Although Rather insists he has made peace with Chung, criticism of him didn't end with her departure. Her agent, Alfred Geller, recently refused to comment about the entire affair, but stood by earlier comments made to The New York Times in which he essentially accused Rather of lying about his role in Chung's departure. Chung, for her part, was unavailable for comment.
"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."
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