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Tall Tower, Full Power

Cigar at the ready, CBS News Abnchor Dan Rather battles it out in the TV news wars.
Alejandro Benes
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96

(continued from page 5)

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?"

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