Rather bows out tonight, a vet of TV's ups, downs
A career that flourished in the medium's heady '60s and '70s is wrapping up on a much different note.
Seattle Times TV critic
In January, the conservative and widely respected Heritage Foundation held a panel discussion called "Rather is Retiring: Is the Blogosphere the New Media Establishment?"
It was a moment to take stock. Significant trends have swept America in a few short years: the rise of the political right, the proliferation of Internet use and a growing grass-roots challenge to information supplied by the mainstream media.
At the center of this whirlwind convergence is Dan Rather, 73, the controversial Texan stepping down tonight after 24 years as anchorman of "The CBS Evening News."
Rather's career embodies the rise and fall of TV news and the culture it has represented for the past four decades — a culture now besieged on every front by political, technological and economic forces unimagined in 1963.
That was the year Rather came to national attention. As CBS's Dallas bureau chief, he broke the news of a president's murder with coolness, competency and an emotional flavoring that impressed bosses. In 1964, he was promoted to White House correspondent, then sent to London and Saigon.
Rather's final broadcast
Dan Rather's final appearance as anchorman of "The CBS Evening News" is at 5:30 tonight on KIRO-TV.
Yet later, many people came to see this period of media triumph as its undoing. While the news rose in prestige and influence, its popularity among average citizens began to decline in polls. Along the way were sown the seeds of a perceived bias and arrogance.
During this period, Rather thrived. He also became identified with liberal values that some thought affected his judgment and that over the years made him a target for media critics — none more zealous than the new, politically motivated generation of bloggers.
In part thanks to them, Rather will exit his evening newscast under mixed skies. His role in the story known as "Memogate" on the Wednesday edition of "60 Minutes" puts an asterisk next to more than 40 years of often stellar coverage, from John F. Kennedy's assassination to Abu Ghraib.
The story claimed President Bush got favorable treatment while in the Texas Air National Guard and rested its case on documents ultimately deemed unverifiable. Bloggers such as freerepublic.com and powerline.com were first to expose the shoddy journalism.
Weaned on FDRLike many Americans who came of age in the '50s and '60s, Rather was influenced by the New Deal.
Born Oct. 31, 1931, to an oil-pipeline worker and a waitress in the West Texas town of Wharton, he grew up with a keen sense of what Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt's policies accomplished for the poor and disenfranchised of the Depression.
As a teenager during World War II, Rather added new heroes. He was enthralled listening to CBS's live radio broadcasts whose correspondents — Edward R. Murrow and his "boys" — later formed the nucleus of TV's best-regarded news organization.
Rather set his sights on joining the fabled team. It did not take long.
After graduating from Sam Houston State Teachers College in 1953, he worked his way through a series of print, radio and TV jobs, eventually landing at CBS affiliate KHOU-TV in Houston. A greater chance presented itself when Hurricane Carla hit the region and his dogged presence out in the storm caught the ears and eyes of CBS managers.
In 1962, he became head of the Dallas bureau. In 1963, he and CBS anchor Walter Cronkite dominated television coverage of JFK's assassination.
If Rather was lucky to have two major news stories help leverage his career, he was even more fortunate to join CBS when changes were roiling the news.
The gentlemen's agreement between reporters and those in charge was giving way by the mid-'60s. Television, less mired in tradition than newspapers, was quicker to adapt an aggressive attitude as the civil-rights movement and Vietnam became issues.
TV also was TV. The impact of seeing African-American demonstrators attacked in Birmingham, Ala., of U.S. troops torching Vietnamese villages and of political and racial riots in U.S. cities influenced equal-rights legislation and the anti-war movement.
Rather's occasional bellicosity and go-get-'em bent suited the country's newly rebellious vibe. His colorful, folksy knack with language became a hallmark.
Over the years, he would travel to Beijing, Bosnia, Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf and Yugoslavia. He would win Peabodys and Emmys, and write seven books. He would extend himself — perhaps too much — to work at CBS's "48 Hours," "60 Minutes" and radio broadcasts.
Offsetting these considerable talents was a notoriety that stemmed from his tendency to tweak authority in attention-getting ways.
He scuffled with private cops at the 1968 Democratic Convention. In 1974, he asked to cover the White House again so he could report on Watergate, inevitably locking horns with President Nixon.
During a National Association of Broadcasters meeting attended by Nixon, Rather stood up to ask a question and the crowd cheered him.
"Are you running for something?" joked Nixon. Rather shot back: "No, sir, Mr. President. Are you?" Outraged CBS affiliates urged CBS to fire Rather. When Gerald Ford succeeded Nixon, Rather was taken off the White House beat.
Nonetheless, Rather — who in person exudes charm — became anchorman in 1981. Among those opposing the decision was Cronkite, who wanted veteran newsman Roger Mudd and who expressed surprise in a recent CNN interview that Rather had lasted so long.
Rather's tendency to tangle with Republicans more than Democrats also drew special notice from the awakening conservative movement, which had helped Ronald Reagan get elected in 1980 and soon would exert even greater influence on the Bush family.
The national climate, meanwhile, was again changing. A reaction against the 1960s and 1970s set in, and institutions such as religion and capitalism again found favor. The Berlin Wall fell in 1989, signaling to some America's Cold War triumph.
At the same time, the news media suffered a downturn. By the early '90s, all the networks belonged to large conglomerates that exerted unprecedented demands for profitability even as newly launched cable channels increased competition.
TV news divisions slashed budgets and personnel. The burden of stories per reporter rose and so did pressure to break stories. Mistakes became inevitable — as the misreported 2000 presidential election results demonstrated long before "Memogate."
Corporate ownership also altered the content of news. Conglomerates wanted favors from the same Congress and White House that their news divisions covered. It became easier and less problematic to do soft stories about celebrities and fads.
Rather was among the most vocal critics of these changes. In 1987, he walked off the set when a tennis match delayed his newscast. Curiously, his behavior was viewed widely as unprofessional rather than a stand against entertainment encroachment.
Rather's problems weren't just with money and ratings, although his newscast steadily declined throughout the 1990s to a perpetual third-place finish behind NBC and ABC. Like the rest of traditional media, he was under attack.
Conservative groups, tired of what they saw as a liberal tilt and perceiving opportunity in an untapped audience, began launching outlets that served up the news with a good dose of ideology. First came talk radio, then cable TV, then scores of Web sites.
Bloggers joined the fray, often specializing in specific issues or individuals. And few individuals were a bigger subject of examination than Rather, the target of a slew of adversarial sites with names such as ratherbiased.com and rathergate.com.
As Rather prepares to reflect on his half-century in news before Bob Schieffer takes over tomorrow, one looming question is how big a blow "Memogate" has been to the media's already damaged integrity.
The investigative report commissioned by CBS painted a dismal picture of haste, sloppiness and suspiciously absent supervision.
"Memogate" producer Mary Mapes was fired, and three higher-ups were asked to resign. Rather will stay on as a reporter at the Wednesday edition of "60 Minutes" if it is not canceled. CBS has hinted it will eliminate the traditional sole anchor.
To some, "Memogate" is the last nail in a news coffin full of scandals involving plagiarism, made-up stories and other dubious incidents.
But others think "Memogate" is no more than a well deserved shake-up. That view, surprisingly, was taken by a number of eminent bloggers who attended the Heritage Foundation panel and predicted a fruitful embrace between the blogosphere and — guess what? — the traditional media.
Kay McFadden: firstname.lastname@example.org
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