Rather to Step Down in March
'CBS Evening News' Anchor to Leave on 24th Anniversary
By Howard Kurtz Washington Post Staff Writer
Dan Rather said today he will end his nearly 24-year reign as CBS News anchor early next year, setting the terms of his departure instead of waiting for an investigative report on his rushed and admittedly flawed story on President Bush's National Guard service.
In saying he will step down in March, the 73-year-old anchor said he was making a "separate decision" from the fallout over his "60 Minutes Wednesday" report but that he wanted "to get as much separation as possible" between the announcement and the findings of an outside panel likely to be released next month.
"It was time," said Rather, who has held the anchor job longer than anyone else at CBS, including Walter Cronkite. "It just felt right."
CBS News President Andrew Heyward said the decision was timed to be made public "after the election and before the report comes out, to make clear this is his call and it's happening before we've seen any findings. You have an extraordinary record of achievement by one of the most significant people in the history of journalism. Certainly it would be unfortunate if that were all overshadowed by this story, which is not to minimize how importantly CBS takes this story."
Whatever Rather's reasoning -- and colleagues say he thought hard for months about relinquishing the anchor job and becoming a "60 Minutes" correspondent -- it is also possible that the report on CBS's use of apparently bogus National Guard documents would have intensified calls for Rather's dismissal.
"Dan Rather did the Texas two-step, one step ahead of the posse," said Tobe Berkovitz, associate dean of Boston University's school of communication. "It was inevitable that Viacom and CBS were going to have to get rid of him."
Richard Leibner, Rather's agent, said the discussions about Rather moving on began last summer and that, as of two years ago, his contract has not guaranteed him the right to remain as anchor. Even without the Guard story, "he never would have been there another year or two."
Rather told a cheering newsroom staff meeting in New York, where several people choked up, that discussions about his eventual transition were put on hold when "the hippopotamus entered the room," a reference to the National Guard controversy.
Once he set his departure date -- March 9, his 24th anniversary as anchor -- "I've been at peace with it," Rather said in the interview. "I'd like to think even my enemies would give me that I'm a pro. I had to stand back with a wide shot and assess the situation."
Rather said he did not want to wait until next week to announce his decision because NBC's Tom Brokaw is stepping down as anchor in favor of Brian Williams. "Next week should be Tom's week," Rather said.
CBS has made no decision about a successor, but knowledgeable insiders say White House correspondent John Roberts, Rather's principal substitute, is the leading candidate. The network could also go with "60 Minutes" reporter Scott Pelley or, on an interim basis, "Face the Nation" host Bob Schieffer. Taken together, the CBS and NBC moves mark a changing of the generational guard for network news for the first time in more than two decades. During that period, the networks' once-dominant audience share has eroded in the face of 24-hour competition from cable, talk radio and the Internet, and the most loyal newscast viewers have aged along with the anchors.
Rather apologized in September for a "mistake in judgment" in relying on apparently bogus documents for a "60 Minutes Wednesday" report charging that Bush received favorable treatment in the Texas Air National Guard three decades ago. But the apology followed 10 days in which Rather and his network doggedly defended the story despite mounting evidence, some of it assembled by Internet bloggers, that the memos in question could not have been written on an early 1970s government typewriter. CBS asked former attorney general Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press chief Louis D. Boccardi to head an outside inquiry.
The uproar cast a shadow over Rather's 43-year CBS career, which took the Sam Houston State Teachers College graduate from covering Texas hurricanes to challenging Richard M. Nixon at a news conference, from walking off the set and leaving the network without programming for six crucial minutes to an on-air shouting match with George H.W. Bush over the Iran-contra affair to a much-debated interview with Saddam Hussein before last year's U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Rather has always been the most colorful and intense of the Big Three anchors, winning plaudits for investigative work and flying into war zones even as detractors accused him of grandstanding and liberal bias.
Jim Murphy, executive producer of the "CBS Evening News," said of the National Guard controversy: "There's no denying this is hanging over the place right now." But, he said of Rather, "his body of work will withstand the scrutiny of history, as opposed to people who scream on talk television."
Berkovitz said Rather is a "hard-hitting" reporter, "but there was always that quirky, flaky edge that most of the network personnel don't display. He always had that fighter-pilot attitude."
Brent Bozell, who runs the conservative Media Research Center, attributed Rather's departure to "the loss of credibility" over the National Guard story. "What made it worse was the 10 days of denial by Dan Rather. He was starting to look bizarre toward the end." While the anchor was flagrantly biased against conservatives, Bozell said, "Dan Rather is a fierce patriot who loves his country and no one can take that away from him."
Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia's School of Journalism, said that "just because of his age and the ratings, you can pretty safely surmise that his bosses were musing over lunch whether there'd be any way to persuade him to retire" before the report. Rather's newscast has been mired in third place for years.
Rather's colleagues describe him in reverent tones. Roberts, who said he has not been contacted about the succession issue, described an "amazing" career in which Rather "has been witness to every major historical event from the Kennedy assassination on up. It's just a spectacular run he had. I don't think anyone will be able to have the kind of career Dan did."
Pelley, who also said he has not been contacted, said Rather "has been America's reporter. The timing of the National Guard story is unfortunate because there are those who are going to link that story with Dan's departure from the evening news. But it will ultimately pale when people look back across this remarkable career and all the datelines and deadlines and exclusives."
Brokaw called Rather "a tough but fair competitor" and said that when he joined Rather as a correspondent at the Nixon White House, "it was literally like going against a heavyweight champ."
Much of the reporting for the National Guard story was done by Rather's producer, Mary Mapes, who also helped him break the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal last spring. Rather reported on what purported to be memos from Bush's late squadron commander that were supplied by Bill Burkett, a retired Texas National Guard official and fierce critic of the president.
Rather later said Burkett had "lied" to the network about the ultimate source of the memos, which remains unclear. CBS rushed the story was rushed on the air within days, ignoring the advice of its own outside experts, who said they could not authenticate the documents. The commander's 86-year-old former secretary later told Rather that the memos were faked but that she had typed similar ones questioning Bush's Guard service.
"The last line on that story has yet to be written," Rather said. Thornburgh and Boccardi have mounted an aggressive probe that includes reading internal e-mail to network journalists during lengthy interviews, CBS staffers say.
Asked how he wants people to look back on his career, Rather said: "You work hard, you try hard, you report as best you can, playing no favorites and pulling no punches. When you're dedicated to that kind of reporting, you're going to take your shots. Some will be fair, some will be unfair. Dogs are going to bark and the caravan moves on."
Dan Rather to Step Down at CBS in March
By JACQUES STEINBERG The New York Times
Two months after acknowledging that he could not authenticate documents central to a broadcast report that raised fresh questions about President Bush's National Guard service, Dan Rather announced today that he would step down as anchor and managing editor of the "CBS Evening News" on March 9, on what will be his 24th anniversary behind the anchor desk.
"I have been lucky and blessed over these years to have what is, to me, the best job in the world and to have it at CBS News," Mr. Rather said in a statement issued by the network. "Along the way I've had the honor of working with some of the most talented, dedicated professionals in the world, and I'm appreciative of the opportunity to continue doing so in the years years ahead."
Mr. Rather will continue to work full time at CBS News, as a correspondent for the Sunday and Wednesday editions of "60 Minutes." There was no word from CBS News on a successor as anchor, although the front-runners in the view of network reporters and producers have long been John Roberts, the chief White House correspondent for CBS News, and Scott Pelley, a correspondent for the Wednesday edition of "60 Minutes." But neither is considered to have strong name recognition among viewers, and the network has not ruled out looking beyond its own news division.
Mr. Rather's decision represents an abrupt, somewhat ignominious end to the nearly quarter of a century that he spent in one of the most visible jobs in journalism. In announcing his decision now to quit the anchor desk, Mr. Rather, 73, is seeking to act ahead of an independent panel investigating the journalistic breakdowns that led CBS News to broadcast and then vigorously defend the Guard segment, which it later acknowledged to be based on documents whose genuineness and origins it could not substantiate.
But Mr. Rather is also choosing to depart at a moment of generational transition atop the network news divisions, as their flagship programs continue to lose viewers. On Dec. 1, Tom Brokaw, 66, will deliver his last broadcast as anchor of the "NBC Nightly News," the highest rated of the three evening newscasts. He will be succeeded the next night by Brian Williams, 45. Among the emotions that had long kept Mr. Rather from announcing his own retirement was his hope that in the wake of Mr. Brokaw's departure, he might pick up enough of Mr. Brokaw's nearly 10 million viewers to lift his program out of third place, where it has lagged behind "World News Tonight" on ABC for nearly a decade.
At least until recently, Mr. Rather had told colleagues that he hoped to remain behind the CBS anchor desk until March 2006, when he would mark the 25th anniversary of the day he succeeded Walter Cronkite. But even before the broadcast of the discredited Guard report, executives of the network, which is owned by Viacom, had begun to discuss an earlier end date with Mr. Rather's representatives. Among the scenarios being discussed was one in which he would depart the anchor chair next May, but continue to report for CBS News, most likely on "60 Minutes."
But for Mr. Rather, all that calculus was apparently erased by the strain and scrutiny of the investigation.
The inquiry's two panelists, Louis D. Boccardi, the former chief executive of The Associated Press, and Dick Thornburgh, a former United States attorney general, have interviewed dozens of people - from the highest echelons of CBS News to its rank and file, as well as outside it - and are expected to submit their report to senior network executives early next month. Among the central questions they are examining is why Mr. Rather, who anchored the segment, and Mary Mapes, the producer who shepherded it, were so convinced of the authenticity of four memorandums purportedly drawn from the personal files of Mr. Bush's Vietnam-era squadron commander.
In the documents, which were dated in the early 1970's, Mr. Bush's commander, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, now deceased, appeared to describe the pressure he was under to "sugar coat" the record of Mr. Bush, then a young lieutenant, who was said to have disobeyed a direct order to take a physical. Surfacing less than two months before the presidential election, the documents were presented by CBS as filling gaps in Mr. Bush's official record, including questions about why he had failed to take his pilot physical.
Immediately after the report was first broadcast, on the evening news on Sept. 8 and later that night on the Wednesday edition of "60 Minutes," intense criticism arose from the purveyors of Web logs and other commentators who contended that the documents - all apparently copies, none on official letterhead stationery and two without signatures - appeared to have been typed on a modern computer, not a typewriter in typical use in the early 1970's. For nearly two weeks, Mr. Rather - sometimes speaking from behind the anchor desk - asserted that the wide questioning of the records was coming, in large measure, from Republican partisans.
But on Sept. 20, Mr. Rather and his bosses reversed course. Speaking again from the anchor desk, Mr. Rather told his viewers that a former Texas National Guard officer had misled him and his producers about how the officer had obtained the documents and that relying on them to buttress the report had been a "mistake in judgment."
"I want to say personally and directly I'm sorry," Mr. Rather said, before adding, "This was an error made in good faith."
Mr. Rather's apology represented an unlikely low point in a year in which, despite the clock's ticking down on his career, he had notched some of the more memorable achievements of his more than four decades at CBS News. Just a few months before the Guard report, he joined forces with Ms. Mapes, one of the most respected producers at the network, for a segment on the Wednesday edition of "60 Minutes," then known as "60 Minutes II," which reported in detail on the abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
In a statement from CBS News today, senior CBS executives made no mention of the controversy over the documents and instead hailed Mr. Rather's longevity at the anchor desk and the record he has compiled throughout his entire career.
"Dan's 24 years at the CBS 'Evening News' is the longest run of any evening news anchor in history and is a singular achievement in broadcast journalism," the chairman of CBS, Les Moonves, said. "He has been an eyewitness to the most important events for more than 40 years and played a crucial role in keeping the American public informed about those events and their larger significance."
The president of CBS News, Andrew Heyward, who began working with Mr. Rather as a producer two decades ago, said that Mr. Rather "has symbolized the CBS 'Evening News' for nearly a quarter century," and noted that Mr. Rather would "continue to apply his talents to everything he does at CBS News."
Dan Rather to Quit 'CBS Evening News'
By Mary MacVean Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
NEW YORK Dan Rather will step down as anchor and managing editor of the "CBS Evening News" next March, on the 24th anniversary of the day he took over the job from Walter Cronkite, Rather announced today.
"I have been lucky and blessed over these years to have what is, to me, the best job in the world and to have it at CBS News. Along the way, I've had the honor of working with some of the most talented, dedicated professionals in the world, and I'm appreciative of the opportunity to continue doing so in the years ahead," Rather said in a statement posted on the network's website.
The hard-charging Rather has been under fire in recent months for his role in a "60 Minutes Wednesday" story that questioned President Bush's service in the National Guard, which turned out to be based on allegedly forged documents.
Rather, 73, said he will continue to work for CBS as a correspondent for both editions of "60 Minutes," Associated Press reported. He said he had agreed with CBS executives last summer that after the Nov. 2 election would be the right time to leave, AP said.
CBS made no mention of a potential successor.
Rather's NBC rival, Tom Brokaw, is stepping down as "Nightly News" anchor next month and is being replaced by Brian Williams.
"Dan's dedication to his craft and his remarkable skills as a reporter are legendary," said CBS News President Andrew Heyward. "He has symbolized the 'CBS Evening News' for nearly a quarter century. He'll continue to apply his talents to everything he does at CBS News."
A report investigating the "60 Minutes" report on Bush is due out soon from former U.S. Atty. Gen. Richard L. Thornburgh and former Associated Press President and Chief Executive Louis Boccardi.
"I believe that CBS will somehow survive this," Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said in September. "But whether there will still be a Dan Rather is something we have yet to find out."
This month, in what turned out to be his final election night, Rather peppered the broadcast with his patented down-home aphorisms, including: "This race is hotter than a Times Square Rolex."
"He has been an eyewitness to the most important events for more than 40 years and played a crucial role in keeping the American public informed about those events and their larger significance," CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves said today.
In the early 1960s, Rather became known for dramatic, marathon coverage of Hurricane Carla from the seawall in Galveston, Texas. He subsequently broke the news about President John F. Kennedy's assassination, and was one of the first to report about Abraham Zapruder's film of the shooting.
Promoted to the White House beat in 1964, he stirred GOP anger in 1974, when Nixon taunted him at a news conference.
"Are you running for something?" Nixon asked.
Rather shot back: "No sir, Mr. President. Are you?"
Millions watched him tussle with Chicago police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. He made headlines by slipping into Afghanistan after the Soviet Union's 1980 invasion, but also earned the sarcastic moniker "Gunga Dan."
Rather embarrassed CBS in 1987 when he walked off the set and caused the network to go dark, angered that a tennis match had preempted the start of the news. The year before, he made headlines and engendered a fair amount of joking after a strange incident in which he was beaten by a man who confronted him on Park Avenue and asked: "What's the frequency, Kenneth?"
Throughout his career, Rather has displayed two qualities that may help him ride out this storm: a devotion to the values embodied by old-style network news impartiality, sobriety, responsibility to the public trust and a personal resilience that may seem surprising in someone often accused of having so big an ego.
"With Dan, what you see is what you get," said Alex Jones, head of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University. "He has been far more willing to talk about the problems of network news than other anchors. He has been willing to flagellate himself in public. He truly cares."
Times staff writers Josh Getlin and Elizabeth Jensen and wire services contributed to this story.