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
Dan Rather is in his fifth decade as a journalist, and on a rainy day in New York he sits in his comfortable office on Manhattan's West Side, one floor above the newsroom, talking about covering stories (he loves weather news), cigars and some of the strange things that have happened to him during his career. Perhaps the strangest yet is that he has survived as anchor of the "CBS Evening News with Dan Rather" for 15 years, a milestone he reached March 9.
"I wasn't sure I'd be in it more than a year or two," Rather recounts, dressed in sneakers and a casual, semi-military khaki shirt, ready for anything except sitting down to anchor the "CBS Evening News." "I had a good job at '60 Minutes,' arguably the best job in television news. And while I can be dumb as dirt about a lot of things, I was at least smart enough to know that."
Rather's ascension to the anchor chair wasn't automatic; he not only had to overcome the general perception that no one could replace Walter Cronkite (who was anchor from 1963 to 1981), but he also had to get past his own doubts about the job.
"Everybody from childhood friends to blood kin said, 'Don't take it,'" Rather recalls, often lapsing into a near whisper, belying his legendary intensity. "I thought very seriously about not staying here, but once I decided to stay, my sense of it was as follows: 'Well, I like a challenge and this is a hell of a challenge. While it may be true that the first person after Cronkite is going to get blown out, I'd like to try to prove that isn't so.'"
Fifteen years in the anchor chair is testimony enough that Rather has proven his credentials. Rather has survived two changes in CBS ownership and won every accolade known in American journalism. Since 1961, his "been there" credits are a timeline of the stories that most journalists only dream about covering. Rather has seen firsthand the nation's and the world's most tragic and dramatic events, true turning points in U.S. history.
Talking about which story he considers his most important, Rather says, "It would be pretty hard not to say the [John] Kennedy assassination." He was the reporter who told CBS radio that the president was dead, and CBS beat other news organizations by more than 17 minutes. "I happen to believe it is an ongoing story," Rather continues. "The effects still resonate through this society.
"But it's hard not to say the civil rights movement, which was my first big assignment with CBS News. In fact, I got it practically the day I walked in the door. And how could I not say Vietnam? How could I not say Watergate? The only president in history who resigned the office. Not only did he resign it, but he resigned it as a quote 'unindicted co-conspirator' in a wide-ranging criminal conspiracy. You don't get many bigger stories than that."
Rather ranks the attempt on another president's life as one of the top stories CBS News has covered, though it is rarely mentioned. "I'll tell you one that fades into the mist--the day [in March 1981] President Reagan was shot and very nearly killed shortly after he came into the presidency and shortly after I came into this job," he says. "The Reagan people themselves said, and some of them wrote, that we were the best on that story. How soon we forget that onetime Reagan chief of staff and Treasury secretary [Donald T. Regan] wrote in his book that because of Rather they had their sets tuned elsewhere, but somebody came in and said CBS is the best on it and they clicked all their sets over to CBS and kept them there." What Regan actually wrote in his 1988 book, For the Record, was that although the White House televisions were tuned to ABC, "later in the day we were told that the coverage from CBS was better."
Or take the 1989 Chinese democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, which, Rather says, was one of the biggest and best stories he has covered because so many people at CBS worked on it. That May 19, an extraordinary live CBS broadcast of the chaos was made possible because CBS News had gotten a "flyaway," a portable satellite station, into Beijing. The reporting was highlighted by Rather telling the United States what was going on, while at the same time negotiating with two Chinese bureaucrats sent to the Shangri-la Hotel with orders to shut down CBS' transmission. Rather and his team capitulated only when instructed to do so by Rather's superiors at CBS headquarters in New York.
Rather hasn't stopped getting the big stories. He was the first to interview Saddam Hussein in 1990 after Iraq invaded Kuwait, and in 1994 he interviewed Haiti's military ruler, Raoul Cedras, live in Port-au-Prince just after President Clinton's speech about invading Haiti if Cedras didn't leave. During that special "48 Hours," Cedras told Rather and the world he would never leave Haiti.
Whether he's covering a story such as last fall's Hurricane Opal (hanging on for dear life to a pole so he wouldn't blow away) or simply delivering probing questions to a reluctant interview subject, Rather remains the standard-bearer for what an anchor should be.
Bob Schieffer, a fellow Texan and CBS News' chief Washington correspondent, Saturday anchor and host of the Sunday morning show, "Face the Nation," confirms that Rather will use almost any reason to get out on a story. "Without being corny about this," Schieffer says, "he's a very brave guy. He's been willing to do whatever you needed to do and go wherever you needed to go to get the story over the years, whether it was Vietnam or Iraq or wherever."
Schieffer then begins to laugh. "These hurricanes--he likes no story better than a good storm. We always used to say Walter Cronkite's favorite story was a fire. Dan's the same way about weather. You get any wind above 30 miles an hour and Dan begins to think we may have a hurricane here. That's how he got his start." Rather caught the eye of CBS executives in 1961 when he fed coverage of Hurricane Carla to the network.
Covering hurricanes also gives Rather the opportunity to smoke cigars, difficult as that might be in high winds and torrential rain. "Let me say to you," Rather insists, "and I can bear witness, [it's] difficult, but not impossible."
Unless an exception to policy is made, a hurricane is about what it takes these days for Rather to smoke one of his Oscar No. 9s on the job. The cigars are close by in the office, stored in a box in the refrigerator along with sodas and water. But in a bow to office decorum, he doesn't smoke cigars there; Amy Bennett, Rather's assistant, says, "He holds on to them. I don't know if it's out of habit. I know that he doesn't light them in the office, but they're always around. Like, he'll have one in his hand or one in his mouth, but it's never lit or anything."
That wasn't the case years ago. "There was a time, I guess about the time I came to this job on the 'Evening News,' where if I had something to write that was more than a few seconds, I thought I could write better if I had a really nice cigar. At that time I probably smoked 14, 16 a week," Rather recalls, despite the fact that he is not immediately comfortable talking about cigars. "This is a very difficult conversation for me because [my wife] Jean Rather has been on me to stop smoking cigars entirely. Occasionally I'll have a celebration cigar. Usually now when I smoke cigars is when I'm fishing."
Rather tries to fish a lot. "I go as often as I can. I love to fish, but it depends on the run of news," he says. "But from the spring until about the middle of October, when I can get to my fishing camp, which is in the Catskills [in New York], I'll get up every weekend if I can. In Texas, where we fish mostly lakes for bass, I get there five or six times a year." He has a house on Lake Travis, near Austin. "Now, when winter descends, I try to get to the Keys as much as I can. I love it down there. I have fly-fished for redfish along the Texas coast, not very successfully. I grew up fishing. My father loved to fish and to hunt, and I think it traces back to that. It has gained in recent years, gained with things such as good cigars and good Bourbon," he adds with a smile.
Rather began smoking cigars at an early age in his native Texas, working with older men. "I started when I was 14. I worked with a brush-cutting crew. First of all, they smoked cigarettes and chewed tobacco, [but] I had in my mind that I wanted to be an athlete. At that time and place--the time was the 1940s and the place was Texas--if you were gonna play football you knew you couldn't smoke. But this brush-cutting crew, at night they would sit around after dinner and smoke cigarettes and one of them after dinner would have a cigar. I remember that he had a White Owl, which was later described to me as the sweepings from cigarette factory floors. I didn't want to smoke cigarettes, but I wanted to be one of the gang, so I smoked White Owls and Roi-Tans."
Rather, never one to sit around, also went honky-tonking. "Yes, and saw some pretty amazing things," he recalls. "But it was a different era...that's when I got onto cigars. Now, fortunately for me it was a short time. It was only the summer and I was gonna hold the line on cigarettes so cigars were all right. Didn't inhale--guess that has a bad connotation now. I got on that summer and I've smoked cigars ever since."
He mellows a bit and chuckles as he remembers how he unwittingly almost committed botanicide with a cigar he had received as a gift. "The year is 1957, possibly early 1958," he says, sounding like the start of a bad documentary. "I had just gotten married. We had gotten a plant, a very nice plant someone had given us for our apartment. And Jean, who's very good about plants, has a green thumb and kept this plant alive against all odds. It was an indoor plant. She was encouraging me not to smoke cigars in the house. She had no objection to me smoking cigars at that time and knew that I smoked cigars, but she was pregnant and preferred that I not smoke cigars in the house. I took a nice cigar [outside]; I can't remember what it was, but it was a far better cigar than I was accustomed to smoking.
"In those days I smoked 15-cent cigars," Rather continues. "This cigar was probably a dollar. Anyway, I didn't smoke it all the way down and said, 'Gosh, I'd hate to lose this thing,' so I put it out and I brought it back into the house and I thought, 'Well, where can I hide this where it won't attract any attention and I'll be able to pick him up again?' So I put him deep down at the base of this plant in a place where no one could see it. Already out.
"Weeks later, Jean says, 'You know, I just don't know what to do. The plant has been looking sickly for quite a little while.' And I remember almost choking, thinking, 'Damn, that cigar's stuck up in there and that's what might be wrong with that plant.' So, quietly, while she was preparing herself for bed, I slipped in there and extracted the cigar and did away with it. I actually threw it out the back door, and the next morning I retrieved it and hauled it away. And you know, the plant almost immediately started getting better."
"The only other cigar story I can think of," Rather says, pausing, though he will actually think of more later, "Fidel Castro had given me a cigar, and I brought it back hidden, which you had to do back then. In those days you did have to hide. I think he gave it to me in 1979. Fortunately for me, the people who were looking either didn't find it or found it and said, 'What the hell, let Dan have one good cigar.' It was one single cigar.
"Anyway, I had treasured that cigar [Rather referred to it in one of his books as a "big, obscene Cuban cigar"] and I thought to myself, 'I'll wait till some time when I really have a good occasion.' I took it with me when I went to Afghanistan and hauled it through Afghanistan, and there was a particular moment, well not to put too fine a point on it, it was a dangerous time. But I took it out after a meal and said, 'Who knows? I may not be here tomorrow to smoke this cigar. I think I'll smoke it tonight.' Unfortunately, the Mujahideen with whom we were traveling had light [as in illumination] discipline in effect and they reminded me of that. And so, having brought my wooden matches and the cigar out, I put it back in its case and took out my Red Man chewing tobacco. Of course, [the guerrilla fighters] were filled with guffaws and great laughter."
To his frustration, Rather's career has not just been about smoking cigars, covering wars and reporting great stories, but about surviving in the rough and tumble world of network news, and of avoiding the land mines associated with celebrity and power. He prefers the clarity of the risks inherent to reporting from places like Afghanistan where he traveled with the rebels: "You pretty much knew where the danger was and who the enemy was. In the badlands of big-time television news, you don't know who the enemy is, and that makes it more interesting--and in some ways more dangerous."
The way he does his job, Rather suggests, may explain the flak that seems to flow his way. "I want to do everything all the time," he says, lapsing into the lingo of radio news, the medium in which he began his career. "I'm all news, all the time. Tall tower, full power, we break in when the news breaks out."
He recognizes his style may attract heat. "That's the nature of being where I am. That's the result of being under the very large microscope. I understand that. I don't complain about it because it does go with the territory," he says, growing more thoughtful.
When he first got the anchor chair, Dan Rather did not sit. He sort of sat and he sort of stood, hanging his left hip on the anchor desk. That first night he was nearly shouting the introductions to Lesley Stahl at the White House and Phil Jones on Capitol Hill and was clearly nervous about filling Cronkite's shoes. Today, if you watch a tape of the inaugural "CBS Evening News with Dan Rather" and a lot of the ones that followed, you would not be surprised by what fright-meister novelist Stephen King once said of Rather: "I've got a sneaking admiration for Dan Rather because I'm never sure when he's going to go bonkers on you. He always looks like he's gonna just stop and say, 'All right, motherfuckers, here it comes. We've got the bodies in hangar 18, the government has been lying to you....' And then they're going to drag him off."
One reporter for a national newspaper always watches Rather instead of ABC's Peter Jennings or NBC's Tom Brokaw because he is convinced that "one day Dan's just going to spontaneously combust on the air, and I don't want to miss it."
"The core of it is," says Rather, "for better or for worse--and you could argue this a lot of different ways, I guess--is that I have tried to remain a working, cutting-edge journalist and I don't do it the way everybody else does it. And I think that's the difference."
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."
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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