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Rather, CBS fight allegations of bias

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CBS News anchor Dan Rather has always loved to be in the thick of the big story - whether that story was the Watergate scandal, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, or as recently as Labor Day, a hurricane bearing down on the United States.

He finds himself at the center of a very different storm today, however, as the public face of his network's recent story questioning George W. Bush's record in the Texas Air National Guard. The report, which aired Sept. 8 on 60 Minutes, for which Rather served as the on-air correspondent, relied upon documents said to come from the personal files of Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, the squadron commander. According to the report, Killian had complained in writing that Bush used connections to avoid fulfilling his military obligations. But the authenticity of those documents has come under sharp attack.

CBS stood resolutely behind the documents until Wednesday night, when it conceded that legitimate questions had been raised about their authenticity. And Rather's dual role as reporter and anchor has come under scrutiny -from conservative critics who have long said they perceive a liberal bias in his broadcasts and from journalists watching the network's defense unfold.

Like ABC's Peter Jennings and NBC's Tom Brokaw, Rather is considered the defining personality of his network's news division. Now 72, the Texas native has sat behind the anchor's desk longer than anyone in the network's history, longer even than his predecessor Walter Cronkite, who was once called the most trusted man in America. Considered a tireless journalist, Rather often seems most comfortable when outside the studio, on the trail of a story.

But he also seems to attract controversy - on and off the air - more than anyone else in network news. "Bad things seem to happen around Dan Rather," says Ed Fouhy, former executive vice president of CBS News. "He's a lightning rod."

Rather has clashed with presidents and was once attacked on the street by a man who chanted, "What's the frequency, Kenneth?" That incident inspired a hit song by the musical group R.E.M.

The furor over the Bush military records story could damage Rather's credibility in the twilight of his professional career, Fouhy says. "It would be regrettable if that happens."

Ken Auletta, a journalist who has written several books about the television news business, says Rather's initially defiant response is typical. "He sees himself, to his credit, as a fearless person who will not be intimidated."

But Auletta adds that the anchor's past behavior has deepened the controversy. "If this had happened to Jennings or Brokaw, would it have gotten the same play? I suspect not."

Should the documents prove falsified, the question of reputation and credibility is not an idle one for the network. Scandals have cost prominent journalists their jobs.

In 1992, NBC News President Michael Gartner resigned after a Dateline NBC segment was revealed to have used explosives to simulate alleged dangers of a GM truck's design. In 1998, CNN fired two producers for their role in a report that alleged the U.S. military knowingly dropped nerve gas on Americans during the Vietnam War. Correspondent Peter Arnett, who narrated the report, left the network shortly after. CNN disavowed the story after it did not withstand scrutiny. Recent scandals involving fabricated stories - a charge not levied at CBS - led to the resignations of top editors at USA Today and The New York Times.

Although several experts - including two hired by CBS to review the documents before the broadcast - have questioned the story, the network stands by its report. CBS executives say they will continue to investigate whether the memos are real. And they point to the comments of Killian's former secretary, Marian Carr Knox. Despite her conclusion that the documents are forgeries, Knox said they reflect accurately Killian's belief that Bush had relied on connections to avoid military duties. Through a spokeswoman, Rather and CBS News President Andrew Heyward declined to comment for this article.

Rather joined CBS News after working for local radio and television stations in his home state of Texas. He later covered the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and was the White House correspondent during President Richard M. Nixon's administration.

Considered an energetic and capable reporter, he was dubbed "Gunga Dan" in 1980 after donning local garb to infiltrate Afghans' struggle against the Soviet occupation. In 1981, after jockeying for the position, Rather took over from Cronkite on the CBS Evening News. He continues to land interviews with major political figures and to do stories for 60 Minutes, as he also did, for several years, on the news magazine 48 Hours.

"Cronkite basically limited his role to the Evening News," says Sam Roberts, former CBS News foreign editor and national editor. "Dan's influence through the entire organization is far greater."

Rather raises eyebrows and occasionally courts derision with his distinctive approach to presenting the news. Cronkite used to sign off with his trademark phrase, "And that's the way it is." For a time in the early 1980s, Rather offered the single, bewildering word, "Courage." He is famous for distinctive sayings. In describing a hurricane's projected path in 1996, Rather told viewers it could "swoop down" on the Democratic National Convention "like ravens on roadkill."

Rather first attracted the attention of the political right during the Watergate scandal, when his pointed questions during a press conference drew a waspish response from Nixon. "Are you running for something?" Nixon asked. Rather replied: "No, Mr. President. Are you?"

A cottage industry has sprung up in the intervening years to attack Rather for what some conservatives say is his liberal bent. The Media Research Council, a conservative watchdog group, and the Web site RatherBiased.com have scoured his interviews and newscasts for signs that he is favoring Democrats over Republicans. In two books critical of CBS and the media, Bias and Arrogance, former CBS News correspondent Bernard Goldberg wrote that Rather is compromised by liberal beliefs that creep into his reporting.

An interview in January 1988 with then-Vice President George H.W. Bush about his role in the Iran-contra scandal involved a testy exchange. "The bastard didn't lay a glove on me," an angry Bush said the next day. Last year, Rather was denounced by many congressional Republicans for traveling to Baghdad to interview Saddam Hussein before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. But former colleagues say Rather's eagerness for the big story, whether Hussein or Hurricane Frances, even at his age, shows his resilience and competitive drive.

"He was absolutely indefatigable," Fouhy says admiringly.

"There is no one more competitive than Dan," Roberts says. "In baseball terms, he would much prefer a home run to four singles. He was always pushing for that big break."

Rather never cut corners in his reporting, the two CBS veterans say. But they also say the rules are different now. The presence of 24-hour cable news channels has prompted the big three broadcast networks to try to get stories on the air more quickly, Roberts says.

As CBS confronts the aftermath of last week's Bush military service story, it may prove difficult for viewers or network insiders to separate Rather the reporter from Rather the chief anchor for the news division.

"If you ask people what network they watch, they'll say Peter or Dan or Tom," says former CBS News producer Leroy Sievers, co-executive producer of ABC News' Nightline. "They are the embodiment of their news divisions, and that's a large responsibility, a large burden."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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