After what he called "a protracted struggle" with his bosses at CBS, veteran newsman Dan Rather said yesterday that he is leaving his professional home of 44 years.
Although not a surprise, his decision, which comes 15 months after he stepped down as anchor of the CBS Evening News, prompted many in the media to chastise the network for mistreating one of the legends of television journalism.
"It was handled poorly," said Fred Brown, co-chair of the Society of Professional Journalists' ethics committee. "It's a sad way to end a long and, for the most part, distinguished career. Anybody would be proud to accomplish just a little bit of what he did. It all seems very cold and very corporate. It could have been done with more finesse."
Last night, CBS included a short retrospective of the longtime anchor's tenure on its evening news broadcast. "After a long and remarkable career here, Dan Rather is saying goodbye to CBS News," said interim anchor Bob Schieffer.
Schieffer, who met Rather when they both covered President John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas in November 1963, described Rather as "one of the great reporters of his time," and said he would miss him.
In a statement yesterday, Rather, 74, said his departure, well before his contract expires in November, represented "CBS's final acknowledgement that they had not lived up to their obligation to allow me to do substantive work there."
The network, he said, had offered him "a future with only an office but no assignments," an option he rejected. "It just isn't in me to sit around doing nothing."
Earlier in the day, CBS executives had issued statements full of praise for the former anchorman.
"With the utmost respect, we mark the extraordinary and singular role Dan has played in writing the script of not only CBS News, but of broadcast journalism," CBS News and Sports President Sean McManus said.
Les Moonves, CEO of CBS Corp., described Rather as having left an "indelible" mark on his craft.
"For more than four decades," Moonves said, "Dan Rather has approached the job of broadcast journalist with a singular passion, dedication and, always, an unwavering desire to tell the story to the American public."
CBS News announced it is working on a primetime special about Rather's career, set to be broadcast in the fall. The network also will make a contribution to Rather's alma mater in Texas, now known as Sam Houston State University.
Rather, whose tenure at CBS began in 1962, had continued working as a correspondent for 60 Minutes after stepping down as anchor of the CBS Evening News early last year. His high-profile career survived several mishaps, but he was unable to surmount the biggest calamity of all, a report on President Bush's military career using documents that ultimately proved unreliable.
Rather said he intends to remain in journalism, most likely as the host of a weekly interview program on a high-definition television channel co-founded in 2001 by Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team.
In an interview with Jacques Steinberg of The New York Times published on Saturday, Rather said he lately had been little used on 60 Minutes and had been given virtually nothing to do for the previous six weeks.
While at CBS, Rather reported from Vietnam during the war and famously took on President Richard M. Nixon in a 1974 news conference, at the height of the Watergate scandal. In March 1999, he obtained the first interview with President Bill Clinton after his impeachment, and in 2003 he sat down with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, the first time the Iraqi leader had talked with a U.S. journalist in 12 years.
He also has written six books, anchored six presidential election campaigns and covered a dozen wars on five continents, according to CBS' Web site. "He has braved hurricanes, waded through flood waters, dodged bullets, comforted wounded GIs, mouthed off to presidents, wept on camera, become a lightning rod for conservatives and been badly beaten by a dangerous maniac on Park Avenue," the site said.
Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, said today that Rather's departure and the hiring of Katie Couric as his replacement make sense in the current journalistic climate, where, he said, entertainment triumphs over substance. Couric left NBC's Today show last month to join CBS.
For Rather, Kaplan said, it must have been hard "to hang around like Banquo's ghost," a reference to the character in Macbeth who haunts his killer.
"I suspect that there are a number of examples of companies trying to graciously tell somebody, 'It's time to move on,' but is in fact being anything but gracious," Kaplan said. "The clock is always ticking in an arrangement like that."
In yesterday's statement, Rather said: "Too much is made of anchors and their personalities, their ups and downs. The larger issues - the role of a free press and of honest, real news in a democracy, the role of technology in supporting a free press, the 'corporatization' of news and its effects on news content - all deserve more attention, more discussion and more passionate debate. I'll see you soon."
Dan Rather's career highlights
He joins CBS News as chief of the network's Southwest bureau in Dallas, where it was his job to cover 23 states, Mexico and Central America.
Nov. 22, 1963:
He is the first to report from the scene of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas that Kennedy had died.
He asks to be sent to Vietnam to cover the war.
At a news conference, President Richard M. Nixon asks him, "Are you running for something?" "No, sir, Mr. President," the White House correspondent shoots back. "Are you?"
He earns the nickname "Gunga Dan," for slipping into Afghanistan in disguise after the Soviet invasion.
March 9, 1981:
He takes over CBS Evening News when anchor Walter Cronkite retires.
He is attacked on Park Avenue in New York by a deranged man later convicted of murdering an NBC stagehand. Rather's woozy recollection of his attacker's words, "What's the frequency, Kenneth?" becomes the title of a song by rock band R.E.M.
Rather walks off the Evening News set in anger after the network decides to let the U.S. Open tennis tournament run overtime, cutting into the news broadcast. CBS is left with dead air for six minutes.
Feb. 24, 2003:
He obtains an exclusive one-on-one interview with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.
March 9, 2005:
Rather steps down as anchor of the CBS Evening News.
Rather leaves CBS.