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Bitter-sweet so-long
for Dan Rather

Brief, clipped signoff for controversial anchor

By Diego Vasquez

  When Dan Rather walked onto the set last night to give his final “CBS Evening News” broadcast, he had one consolation, looking back over decades. No one in public life would not note his departure.
  In that regard, Rather's last broadcast was eerily reminiscent of the final moment in the White House of Richard Nixon, the president Republicans long accused the CBS anchor of helping topple three decades ago as a Washington correspondent.
  In Rather's final days, as in Nixon's, old enemies resurfaced to condemn, old allies to praise, as his life and work as a journalist were rolled out as entrails to be examined and reconsidered, debated and argued about. Rather's career has been long and as controversial as it has been long, and through it all the Texan has remained an enigma to all but a few close friends.
   For his viewers last night, Rather kept his shield intact, signing off exactly 24 years to the day from when he slid in for the retiring Walter Cronkite.
   Rather was subdued, his good-bye brief.

   “We have shared a lot in the 24 years we’ve been meeting here each evening,” he said. “And before I say good night this night, I need to say thank you. Thank you to the thousands of wonderful professionals at CBS News, past and present, with whom it has been my honor to work over these years.
   “And a deeply felt thank you to all of you, who have let us into your homes night after night. It has been a privilege and one never taken lightly.
  “Not long after I first came to the anchor chair I briefly signed off using the word ‘courage.’ I want to return to it now, in a different way, to a nation still nursing a broken heart for what happened here in 2001, and especially to those who found themselves closest to the events of September 11th.
   “To our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in dangerous places. To those who have endured the tsunami, and to all who have suffered natural disasters and who must now find the will to rebuild.
   “To the oppressed and to those whose lot it is to struggle in financial hardship and failing health. To my fellow journalists in places where reporting the truth means risking all.
   “And, to each of you, courage.”

   There is another irony to Rather's pained good-bye, one not talked about much in all the recent discussions of Memogate and the “60 Minutes II” story behind it last fall about President Bush’s National Guard service that appears to have been based on forged documents.
   Rather is being pushed out of the "Evening News" yet he's remaining with “60 Minutes,” where his botched story aired. Why? It suggests, as many have suspected in these recent months, that for all of the hullabaloo over Memogate, including a protracted CBS investigation and scathing independent report, the real issue for CBS was Rather's sinking "Evening News" ratings.
   And by all appearances, CBS has been most anxious to see Rather go. When Tom Brokaw stepped away from “NBC Nightly News” back in December, he was toasted for weeks, getting a warm and fuzzy sendoff on shows like “Today” and “Dateline.”
   All Rather got was a 60-minute “in his own words” retrospective on his career. That and an earful from CBS colleagues, little of it pleasant.
   In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Mike Wallace said, “He’s uptight and occasionally contrived. It’s his style, and it’s been a very effective style. God knows, I believe him. But I don’t find him as satisfying to watch.” Wallace said he preferred Brokaw or ABC’s Peter Jennings.
   In the same story “60 Minutes” creator Don Hewitt said: “The ‘Evening News’ is like Miss America, only it’s Mr. America. If you’re in a three-network race and you come in third, then the public is against you.”
   Hewitt also said he preferred Jennings.
   And earlier this week on CNN’s “Wolf Blitzer Reports,” Cronkite took his own shots, saying: “It surprised quite a few people at CBS and elsewhere that, without being able to pull up the ratings beyond third in a three-man field, that they tolerated his being there for so long.”
  About Rather’s replacement Bob Schieffer, Cronkite said, “He is, to my mind, the man who, quite frankly, although Dan did a fine job, I would like to have seen him there a long time ago. He would have given the others a real run for their money.”
  Some have stepped forward to defend Rather, and one is Carl Bernstein, the former Washington Post reporter who, with Bob Woodward, broke the original Watergate story that ended Nixon's term in the White House. Yesterday, appearing on Fox News Channel, Bernstein said Rather was still one of the nation's top TV reporters, and he disputed the contention of conservatives that Rather was driven by a liberal agenda.
   Most of all, opined Bernstein, Rather never walked away from a story. And in that one area conservative critics of Rather are in agreement. Ratings poison though he might be, Rather was best out reporting on the street. The honor of being named CBS anchor 24 years ago was a great one, but one bestowed on a man who probably would have been best left on his feet talking into a camera. Ultimately, and to his credit, Rather was a reporter who chased stories, not ratings.
   When he walked away last night, Rather was walking away from a job, not the story.

March 10, 2005 © 2005 Media Life

-  Diego Vasquez is a staff writer for Media Life.

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