Rather's career put in harsh light

When an executive of long standing steps down, his farewell typically is accompanied by toasts, kudos and kind recollections. But the departure of 73-year-old anchorman Dan Rather from the CBS Evening News instead is generating an unprecedented wave of harsh assessments - and not just from longtime critics.

Voiced by many of the anchorman's peers and former colleagues, the negative comments resonate with anger toward Rather and are suffused with resentment over the blow to the credibility of the media dealt by a now-infamous 60 Minutes Wednesday report on the military career of President Bush. Rather reported the highly flawed segment on Sept. 8.

"There's this thing we have as Americans that you don't speak ill of the dead. Now we have someone's career dying here, and you are surprised that people are speaking ill?" said Lee Thornton, a former CBS White House correspondent who is now a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park.

"I just think people are being frank. There's this enormous wellspring of anger out there at what Dan Rather and company did with the Bush story, which was the height of Careless Journalism 101."

Such hard-edged judgments are being sounded even as CBS attempts with celebratory news releases, an appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman and a retrospective (scheduled to air Wednesday at 8 p.m. after Rather's final newscast) to match the feel-good sendoff that NBC gave Tom Brokaw, who retired last fall.

"A lot of people within CBS News - and outside CBS News - are angry about how the Bush story developed and was handled," said Sandy Socolow, former executive producer of the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. "They are angry that the news media as a whole - print as well as television - has been damaged. The credibility has been soiled, and God knows how long it's going to take to clean it up."

The scandal that surrounded the 60 Minutes Wednesday segment also has been the catalyst of a flow of other criticisms of Rather previously kept private by his colleagues. One of the most damaging charges - that the anchorman allowed a liberal bias to taint his report - now is being reiterated publicly by his colleagues.

In a book written by former CBS correspondent Tom Fenton and published this week, Bad News: The Decline of Reporting, the Business of News, and the Danger to Us All, the charge of bias is leveled against Rather by one of the most senior correspondents at CBS. "You know, they're acting as if he has only done this one bad thing, but he's been so blatantly one-sided," 60 Minutes commentator Andy Rooney is quoted as saying.

"He uses little words that are absolute cues, giveaways to his political opinions. Like saying 'Bush,' instead of 'President Bush' or "Mr. Bush.'"

Walter Cronkite, the 88-year-old dean of American broadcast news, also reveals in Fenton's book that he no longer watches the CBS Evening News, the broadcast he and producers like Socolow built into one the nation's most-respected journalistic institutions. "There's nothing there but crime and sob sister material. It's scandal sheet, tabloid stuff for the most part. ... I would like to see it more responsible, if you please."

Fenton, a former foreign correspondent for The Sun, argues in his book that the media - television news in particular - have abandoned a higher sense of purpose and responsibility to the American people in a chase for greater profits. The statements about the CBS anchorman are included because as managing editor of CBS Evening News for 24 years, Fenton states, Rather shares some of the blame.

But Rather, who declined to be interviewed for this article, is not without avid supporters, some of whom are angry about the way in which the curtain of kindness usually drawn around those who retire is being rent in Rather's case.

"The level of criticism and, in some cases, vitriol that is being leveled at Dan from some of his valued colleagues is completely inappropriate and uncalled for - particularly at this point in time," said CBS News White House correspondent John Roberts.

Comparing the harsh analyses of Rather to the criticism President Jimmy Carter endured when he left office in 1980, Roberts continued: "This whole thing with the National Guard memos created such a stir and got such play that it's sort of the prism through which many people are looking at him. But it's just one event in a career that's incredibly rich with huge stories, breaking news and wonderful reportage.

"And I think as people get further and further away from this, the really important stuff that happened in Dan's career will come into greater focus. ... Here is a man who's had one of the most important careers in the history of television news."

Few are denying Rather's many journalistic accomplishments. "In his time, there was no better broadcast news reporter than Dan Rather," Thornton said, adding that when she was starting her career, the anchorman showed her great kindness by writing notes of encouragement. But Rather could also be harsh and manipulative with those who worked for him at CBS News, and in that sense, he "may be reaping what he sowed," she said.

Describing the way Rather took control of the CBS Evening News after succeeding Cronkite in 1981, Thornton said, "This was a man who moved with a surefootedness and determination that if it wasn't ruthlessness, it was just short of it."

Terrence Smith, who spent 13 years as a correspondent at CBS News before joining PBS' NewsHour with Jim Lehrer as media correspondent, said that for two decades the take on Rather was "great reporter, awkward anchor."

"And, yet, nobody said it in public," Smith said. "Now you hear some of the most senior and respected voices at CBS - Andy Rooney, Mike Wallace and Walter Cronkite - saying these things. ... So, the question is: Why the bruising comments as he goes out the door?"

Smith suggests that while the flawed story on Bush is a key part of the explanation, the "real answer" goes beyond that: "In the end, I think it goes to a very deep-seated anxiety in people who spent their entire career at CBS News about where the institution is headed. I think they really fault management for all the trouble and uncertainty, but the comments are being laid at Dan's door."

Susan Zirinsky, a staunch Rather supporter and executive producer of Wednesday night's retrospective, also attributed some of the negative assessments of Rather to the volatility of a news division in transition. "This is a hard time at CBS. People feel very sad that Dan is leaving. His leaving has pushed CBS to take a look at where the evolution of news is, and I think some people may not be prepared for that."

While explanations - and degrees of sincerity - may vary, many television journalists say that it is sad to see Rather's tenure ending in this manner. "I think it's tragic that a guy who worked as hard as he did would have his career capped like this, because the Bush report is going to be what he's remembered for," Fenton said. "He'll carry this with him to his obituary. ... Tragic - that's the only word for it."