Dan Rather Reportedly Out At CBS (UPDATED)


For some time now an eyebrow has been raised over the CBS Eye when it came to former news megastar Dan Rather.

Now Rather is reportedly out, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer:

After 44 years, Dan Rather will leave CBS by the end of the month, at the latest, industry sources said Friday. His departure could come as early as next week.

Rather, 74, whose contract runs until late November, is working out the final details of his exit agreement, the sources say.

Money is not an issue, they say. Among the sticking points: Whether Rather will have access to his archival CBS material.

CBS issues its standard non-denial denial: “Dan is a 60 Minutes correspondent, and we don’t comment on contractual matters.” Rather declined to comment.

Anchor of CBS Evening News for a record 24 years until being forced out in March ’05 by the Memogate scandal, Rather was fighting to stay at the network in some “meaningful” capacity. It was clear that the network wanted him gone.

The bottom line if you looked at the pattern of ratings: once Rather became damaged goods, from an ideological standpoint (conservatives felt he was biased), the CBS Evening News ratings went south. And when Rather was forced to retire earlier than most expected, his replacement, veteran newsman Bob Schieffer, showed that the newscast could regain viewers steadily and strongly — even though some had said Schieffer would never succeed because of his age. (In fact, now CBS‘s problem is to make sure the newscast doesn’t lose ratings in the long-term when Katie Couric takes over from Schieffer). MORE:

Like virtually all CBS executives, network czar Les Moonves, once a Rather supporter, had distanced himself from the newsman. They had not had a real conversation for more than eight months, newsroom sources say.

That’s a VERY BAD sign in terms of office politics. AND:

Many inside CBS feel that Rather triggered his own demise by vigorously defending his flawed 60 Minutes II report in September ’04 that questioned President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard, even after the authenticity of the documents used in the piece could not be proved.

Rather later apologized to viewers, but his fate within CBS had been sealed. The only difference: It would take longer for him to leave. Unlike several of his coworkers in the scandal, Rather escaped the noose. Rather’s last 60 Minutes piece, on the Whole Foods empire, ran June 4.

CBS News‘ website (which is quite good between its stories and its news blog) has a story from the AP which plays it this way:

Dan Rather, who has been working at “60 Minutes” since leaving as “CBS Evening News” anchor last year, apparently is in his final days at CBS News.

CBS executives and Rather’s representatives appear close to a deal that will end Rather’s association with CBS News after more than 40 years, according to an executive knowledgeable about the situation who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity on Thursday.

And what will Rather do next? He’s considering hosting and producing a program on High Definition TV, the New York Times reports:

Dan Rather, whose agreement to leave CBS News after 44 years could be final as soon as this evening, said in an interview today that he was seriously considering an offer from Mark Cuban, the unbridled owner of the Dallas Mavericks, to be the host and producer of a one-hour weekly news program for HDNet, a high-definition television channel that Mr. Cuban’s company owns.

After being told by CBS News in recent weeks that it would not extend his contract on “60 Minutes” past its expiration date in late November, Mr. Rather and the network have been trying to negotiate a deal that would enable him to leave early.

Mr. Rather, 74, said today that he had already been sifting several offers for future work, including two from what he described as major networks — a group that he defined as including ABC and NBC, as well as CNN and Fox News.

But at least as of today, Mr. Rather said, “What I expect to do, what I hope to do, is bring this HDNet thing to fruition.”

Even though the conventional wisdom blames Memogate for Rather’s exit, if you look at his career, it has not been a smooth ride. A few quick points:

  • Rather burst onto the national scene due to his coverage of the 1963 assassination of JFK. He quickly began being used more and positioned more as a big news star by CBS, which made him White House correspondent in 1964.

  • CBS basically forced Walter Cronkite into premature retirement to keep Dan Rather and jettisoned Roger Mudd, Rather’s rival for the CBS newscast spot, who later went over to PBS. There was some initial resentment on the part of some at the time that Cronkite was being forced out early to make room for Rather (in later years Cronkite made it clear he was not one of Rather’s biggest newscast fans).
  • Cronkite was often called “the most trusted man in America” and used to end his newscast with “And that’s the way it is.” Rather tried the phrase “courage” and it sparked immediate national derision. Rather took Cronkite’s job but — the blunt truth is — he never quite filled his shoes. CBS News‘ ratings declined (in retrospect, Schieffer would have probably filled Cronkite’s post, maintained the stature and kept the ratings up). On the other hand, the industry changed drastically during Rather’s tenure: it was a time when cable news networks drew viewers away, the Internet grew and a younger generation was less impressed with evening newscasts overall. But still: Rather ended his string with his newscast in terrible shape in terms of ratings.
  • Various news stories that had items about small but quirky things about Rather, or some bizarre incidents, didn’t enhance his stature.
  • Rather’s fascinating confrontation with Richard Nixon created something of a news legend, but poisoned his objectivity in the eyes of some on the right. He also drew much praise (and criticism, depending on the part of the person doing the criticism) of his coverage of Nixon’s impeachment and resignation.
  • Many conservatives always felt that Rather was biased. Memogate merely seemed to confirm it for them. The difference between this perception and how Cronkite and Schieffer have been received is that viewers may have felt these other two newsmen had political preferences, but felt they were more able to put them aside when doing a newscast or reporting a story. Fairly or otherwise, Rather at the end was viewed as a partisan by some.

This is pure speculation but if the CBS Evening News ratings had gone in the toilet after Schieffer took over (instead of going up) and if Rather had been younger, CBS would most likely try to keep him on. But at this point in his career Rather had become damaged baggage and did not look like “young blood” on the screen. He was no longer an audience builder, even with his extensive experience and journalistic know-how.

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