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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 6)

"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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