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Rather unbowed

The departing anchor stands firm on his record and the media's role

NEW YORK -- Dan Rather is trying to figure out how to say goodbye tomorrow night after 24 years in the CBS anchor chair.

Sitting in his office days before that exit, Rather says he's struggling to find the appropriate sign-off message to viewers. Whatever he comes up with, he vows it won't be too ''egocentric" or ''narcissistic."

''I don't want it to be about me," he says.

But ever since Rather's announcement in November -- in the midst of the furor created by the flawed Sept. 8 report on ''60 Minutes Wednesday" about George W. Bush's military service record -- that he would step down as anchor, it has been about him. In the six months since the Bush report aired, the 73-year-old anchor's reputation and departure have been the focus of intense discussion.

Tomorrow evening, a major chapter of a remarkable career that includes on-scene coverage of the 1963 Kennedy assassination, trips to the battlefields of Vietnam, famous confrontations with President Richard Nixon and Vice President George H. W. Bush, and two interviews with Saddam Hussein is ending. But if Rather -- known both as an ideological lightning rod and for occasionally unpredictable behavior -- is leaving under less than ideal circumstances, he is going out uncowed and unbowed. Instead, he is issuing warnings about the increasing ability of interest groups and politicians to intimidate journalists and discourage scrutiny from the press.

Asked why he has long been target of conservative critics complaining about a liberal bias in the media, Rather says: ''I am independent and fiercely independent. It's the role of movements and partisan political organizations to apply the pressure and to try and intimidate. It is the job of the journalist in a free society to say 'no.' . . . I haven't stopped trying."

Rather's big concern? ''That the American press as a whole will succumb to the undertow to be more docile, in some cases obsequious . . . to move in the middle, settle for mediocrity -- one, in exchange for access, and two, out of fear that you'd be called a bad name, unpatriotic, or radical right or liberal. What I'm talking about here is the increasing danger of being intimidated."

He praises the management of CBS but says today's corporate media managers may have less interest in standing up to this pressure. ''The bosses increasingly are more distant from the newsroom as we move more deeply into concentration of ownership," he says. ''They have tremendous financial interest in protecting all aspects of the conglomerate. ''Citizens need to pay attention to this," he says, ''because it can eat away at the vitals of our democratic system."

'It's who I am'
Although Rather will continue on in a post-anchor role as a ''60 Minutes" correspondent, there is an undeniable sense of transition surrounding him. His small but comfortable office at CBS headquarters -- decorated with such keepsakes as a Bible, an old Royal typewriter, and a record featuring Edward R. Murrow's World War II broadcasts -- is being packed up. Looking younger than his years but seeming a bit fatigued during a two-hour interview, Rather answers questions graciously and thoughtfully, mixing in lengthy anecdotes with the famous ''Danisms" that have become such a part of his on-air persona. (''I can be dumb as wallpaper about a lot of things," he says at one point.)

Rather can still recall battling a serious case of jitters as he prepared to succeed the legendary Walter Cronkite as CBS anchor on March 9, 1981. When asked about his most important journalistic accomplishments, he describes anchoring stories such as the Soviet Union's transition from communism and the showdown in China's Tiananmen Square. He also points proudly to what he says was CBS's early recognition of the impact of AIDS as well as its prescient attention to the crack epidemic.

He cites the civil rights struggle, Vietnam, and Watergate as crucial moments that helped define his career. But if forced to pick one event that stands out, Rather says it would be ''9/11 and the continuous on-air coverage of the . . . hours and days that followed that."

For better or worse, however, Rather's career has also been distinguished by some unusual and unscripted moments that built his reputation as the most emotional and mercurial of the three major broadcast anchors.

In 1974 he engaged in an exchange with a besieged Richard Nixon during which he responded to Nixon's question, ''Are you running for something?" with the memorable ad-lib: ''No sir, Mr. President, are you?" In 1987 he walked off the set in protest of a televised tennis match eating into the newscast's time. In 1988 he and Vice President Bush engaged in a heated and at times intemperate face-off over the Iran-Contra scandal that generated protests from viewers. And an emotional Rather choked up on several occasions when appearing on David Letterman's first show after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

''In many ways [Rather] was the most unpredictable anchor man we have ever experienced," says Larry Grossman, the former president of NBC News. Though acknowledging that Rather ''was certainly colorful," Grossman says he did not display the ''solidity and predictability and reliability" of his peers, ABC's Peter Jennings and NBC's Tom Brokaw.

Rather pleads guilty to sometimes wearing his heart on his sleeve. ''It's who I am," he says. ''I'm a pro, and, as such, my job is to deal my emotions out -- at the very least sublimate and suppress them. However, I am not a robot. . . . You can't do it perfectly. Sometimes, when I feel strongly about something, it shows through. My experience is that the public understands. They get it. They understand it. In some cases, they like it."

'A reporter who got lucky'
Last Sept. 8, ''60 Minutes Wednesday" aired a story that relied on documents suggesting Bush had failed to meet National Guard standards and had received preferential treatment. From the outset, there were questions about the authenticity of those documents. After initially defending the story, CBS apologized and ordered an independent investigation. On Nov. 23, as the network was awaiting the results, Rather suddenly announced he was stepping down as anchor.

But even in a new and reduced ''60 Minutes" role, he doesn't sound like a man who is eager to slow down.

''I don't know of any daily news program anywhere in the country that is anchored by a 73-year-old man," he says. He quickly jokes: ''By the way, 73 is the new 53."

''I feel good, I feel strong. . . . I want to go on to the next thing," he says. ''The transition will probably have its difficulties," he adds, but not insurmountable ones. Rather will concentrate on being a correspondent for ''60 Minutes Wednesday" -- a program whose future may be in doubt. ''I believe it will be on the schedule in the fall," he says. If the show is canceled, he says, he will continue to work for the original ''60 Minutes."

The abruptness of Rather's announcement that he was leaving CBS's newscast -- which has long trailed NBC and ABC in the ratings -- led to widespread speculation that the timing of his resignation had been altered by the fallout over the ''60 Minutes" scandal. In an interview in the April issue of Playboy, CBS chairman Leslie Moonves said Rather might have announced his departure sooner than planned ''in order to distance the announcement from the report," but Moonves stressed that Rather was already planning on retiring.

Rather contends that if it hadn't been for the terrorist attacks of 9/11, he might have left the anchor post as early as 2002. He says his initial hope was to stick around until March 2006, which would have been his 25th anniversary, but CBS was cool to that notion. Last summer, before the Sept. 8 broadcast, Rather said he and CBS executives agreed he would leave in the spring of 2005. In November, Rather says, the network accepted his suggestion that he exit on his 24th anniversary.

He is uncharacteristically tight-lipped about the conclusions in the 224-page postmortem on the Sept. 8 broadcast that was released Jan. 10. The report cost four staffers their jobs, was harshly critical of CBS's journalism, and offered a mixed verdict on Rather, saying his attention was diluted by his duties covering the Republican National Convention and Hurricane Frances.

''The panel gave their opinions, their judgments, their conclusions," he says. ''I took them seriously, but move on. I think CBS News is looking forward."

Even as the network moves forward -- anointing Bob Schieffer as interim anchor and floating the idea of using multiple anchors -- the question is how the controversy over the Sept. 8 report will affect the legacy of someone who has been a journalist for 55 years and a CBS employee for 43.

''He should be remembered as the complete reporter, a person who should be remembered for the hundreds and thousands of broadcasts he did," says Marvin Kalb, a former colleague of Rather's at CBS who is now a senior fellow at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. ''If we wish to be fair-minded rather than mean-spirited, we should not be fixated on the one story that went bad."

For his part, Rather insists: ''I have no illusions of a legacy, and one of the down sides of television news, if you aren't careful, is you can become convinced that you're a legend in your own mind. I'm a reporter who got lucky."

He makes his case for applying context and perspective to a long and eventful career.

''In baseball, in the end what counts is your record," Rather says. ''There it is on the page. The record doesn't just speak, but it shouts. And the whole record."

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