It was January at the Ritz-Carlton Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, and CBS anchorman Dan Rather was fielding questions from television critics and reporters at a press conference.
"Dan, can we probably generally assume that you are now at last through your time in the wilderness when the big questions were: 'Who are they going to get to help Dan?' and 'Who are they getting to replace Dan?' " Rather was asked.
The questioner, who had not yet been born in 1963 when Rather was already a household name for his reporting on the assassination of President Kennedy, continued, "What has that done for you? It's supposed to be a character building experience, I guess. But, looking back, what was it like to go through that period when all those things were said?"
"Well, number one," Rather replied without hesitation, "I work in television; you're never out of the wilderness.
"Number two," and here he paused for a second, as if thinking about it. "Number two, I've had about as much character building as I reckon I can stand. And I'm not so sure that this so-called character building is all it's cracked up to be."
The room exploded in laughter – laughter with Dan Rather this time, not about Rather or his latest troubles with a CBS management that in the mid-1980s and early '90s seemed bent on destroying whatever was left of CBS News' reputation.
Up to that point, the press conference had already been unusual because Rather was not under fire. In fact, it was a regular love-in by Rather-meets-the-press standards.
He had just signed a new contract with CBS in November that nearly doubled his annual salary to a reported $7 million and guaranteed that he would stay at his anchor desk of "CBS Evening News" at least through 2000 and possibly 2002, which would give him the longest run of any anchor in network television history. He is now only two years shy of the tenure of Walter Cronkite, whom he succeeded in 1981.
A 66-year-old white male journalist getting his salary nearly doubled along with a job guarantee to age 69 is in and of itself a man-bites-dog story in these days of media downsizing
and corporate seniority dumping, especially in television, where the emphasis on youth borders on obsession.
There are two key reasons for the new contract that brings Rather parity with Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings, his younger counterparts at NBC and ABC: CNN had been publicly courting Rather to anchor a nightly newscast and, after several years of being mired in a barely competitive third place, "CBS Evening News" suddenly found itself in a world where on occasion only one-tenth of a ratings point separated the three newscasts. In fact, Rather recently finished first in the ratings for the first time in four years – though it was during a week when CBS had Olympics coverage.
While ABC News focused on the cosmetics of a new set with Jennings strolling about in its attempt to find an identity that would lead to better ratings, Rather's broadcast emphasized traditional "hard news," which he described as less celebrity coverage and more stories from Washington and abroad. In a multichannel universe where brand identity is crucial, "CBS Evening News With Dan Rather" had branded itself as "the hard news one," and it was working.
If Rather wasn't out of the wilderness, civilization – in the form of job security, prestige and an honored place in the history of broadcast journalism – seemed at last just around the next bend.
He had survived the attacks on his exclusive but flawed account of Abraham Zapruder's video of the Kennedy assassination in the 1960s, the Nixon administration's attempt to have him fired in the 1970s and the bloody bottom line of CBS owner Laurence Tisch in the mid-'80s and '90s, not to mention an attacker seeking Kenneth's frequency, a blowup over tennis coverage, a dust-up with then-Vice President George Bush on live TV, newscasts that closed with the word "courage" and a miserable coanchoring run with Connie Chung.
"I do sometimes look back, and it's like a huge lake frozen over," Rather says of his 37-year career at CBS News. "I look back and I say, 'Gosh, how did I walk over all of that?' And I say, 'Well, yes, I've broken through the ice several times, and there were times when I thought I was going all the way to the bottom, or I thought I was going to freeze to death or something.'
"I haven't finished crossing the ice, I pray to God and CBS News. And I don't want to sound like it's 'Texas Dan and the Temple of Doom,' but I do say 'Whew' when I look back across that frozen lake."
Tom Johnson, chairman and CEO of CNN, says he has admired Rather since the two met in Washington in 1965 when Rather joined the CBS bureau there and Johnson was an aide to President Lyndon Johnson. He emphasizes that his respect continues today. But Johnson acknowledges times when even he thought Rather might be going through the proverbial ice.
"Dan has taken some pretty hard shots over the years, many of which were the result of trying to do the right thing. He was very upset, for example, when tennis was permitted to invade the 'CBS Evening News,' " Johnson says, referring to a 1987 incident in which a women's U.S. Open tennis semi-final ran late, and CBS preempted the first two minutes of the newscast to carry it. There are varying accounts of what happened next, but the facts are that Rather was angry, left the anchor desk and was not in place when the network wanted to go to the news. As a result, CBS was black – no picture, no sound, nothing – for six minutes.
"But, whether it was that kind of thing or him asking the tough questions of President Bush or President Nixon, Rather has taken some very courageous stands over the years," Johnson says, "and I guess I worried that CBS management might not withstand the intense pressure that was coming as a result of Dan's very courageous reporting.
"Also, you have to remember the Kenneth episode where some people were trying to paint Dan as whacko. And now it has been confirmed that it did happen. Dan was attacked."
The "Kenneth episode" refers to an incident in 1986 when Rather said he was attacked on the streets of Manhattan one night by a man who repeatedly said, "Kenneth, what is the frequency?" as he kicked and punched the anchorman. Many in the media had a field day with it. Mike Royko asked readers to solve "The Secret Frequency" mystery and claimed to have received 3,000 responses.
The rock group R.E.M. recorded a song about it in 1994 titled "What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" Lead singer Michael Stipe said of the occurance, "It remains the premier unsolved American surrealist act of the 20th century. It's a misunderstanding that was scarily random, media hyped and just plain bizarre."
"Surreal" and "bizarre" were the adjectives regularly used to describe what happened, and they sometimes became attached to the subsequent actions of Rather. In 1997, when the mystery suddenly appeared to be solved, it was far less widely reported.
A psychiatrist said that one of his patients, William Tager – now in prison for killing an NBC stagehand outside the "Today" show studios in 1994 – was the man who had attacked Rather 11 years earlier. The psychiatrist said Tager told him he thought the media had him under surveillance and were beaming hostile messages to him. Hence the demand to know the "frequency."
"There's no doubt in my mind that this is the person," Rather told the New York Daily News after viewing pictures of Tager. Looking back, Rather says he took notice of critics who, from the earliest days of his career, implied he was somehow over the top in one way or another, and that he is at peace with such talk today.
"I went through a period in my life – this is basically in my 20s, maybe my 30s – when people would use the word 'workaholic' to describe me so often that I would stop and ask myself about it. And I'd ask the people who love and care about me, first of all, what does that mean and am I that, because it carries a connotation – a negative connotation," Rather says. "Then it segued into 'driven' – 'Rather's driven. Rather's driven.' – during some parts of my 30s and on into my 40s...
"Well, I've thought it through, sought people who love me with their ideas. And I've come to the conclusion that it's a different thing to love your work. That's a different definition than 'workaholic' or 'driven.' Let me tell you, friend, you may not understand this, but this is a love of mine. This is the love of my life. I love the news."
Whether it's a matter of being driven or in love with his work, the pace does not appear to be ebbing for Rather at 66. In addition to anchoring the evening news five nights a week, he anchors the prime time newsmagazine "48 Hours," delivers radio commentary weekdays on the CBS Radio network, and on major breaking news stories is usually lead dog in the CBS hunt.
CBS News President Andrew Heyward cites that pace and intensity when asked what suddenly made Rather seem so valuable to CBS that it would renegotiate his contract with two years left. "First of all, in terms of the new contract, I think it's easy to overestimate the impact of CNN wanting Dan. I would say that CNN wanting him is more a reflection of what makes Dan valuable rather than the cause of anything," Heyward says, ticking off several other reasons.
"One, Dan is a very, very youthful 66. Two, 66 ain't what it used to be. The country has changed its views of that. Three, Dan is at the peak and prime of his skills and his value to CBS. Four, he's the embodiment of the CBS News tradition – what we stand for. Five, there aren't a lot of people coming up through the ranks at any of the networks who have anything like his credentials – who are making their bones as Dan did by covering every major story.
"Six, and probably most important in this time of fragmented audiences, itchy fingers on the remote control, the Internet and accelerating news cycles, the people who survive and thrive will be those whose credibility is well established. It's not an accident that all of the network anchors recently got big new contracts, because they are the personification of the brand. I hope that doesn't sound crass. They are one of the ways we identify ourselves," Heyward concludes.
Brand identity and the way the television industry – including the news divisions – has embraced that marketing concept are central to the new appreciation of Dan Rather, according to media buyer David Blum, vice president and associate director of strategic planning at Eisner & Associates, an advertising agency with offices in Washington and Baltimore.
"The whole notion of even branding news is a very recent development," Blum says. "..Look at the little logo down at the right hand corner of your screen – that's branding. It's designed to let the channel surfer know what channel he's on and, at the same time, to have an identity for the network." As Blum sees it, if you are trying to sell CBS to consumers as the hard news network, Rather is as important as the CBS eye.
"The underlying proposition of all branding is product differentiation – a unique selling position," Blum says. "Clearly, CBS is trying to talk about hard news as its unique selling position: CBS is the hard news one, and who better than Dan Rather as the embodiment of that positioning?" he asks.
In light of the imperative for brand identity in news, Rather would also be extremely valuable to CNN, Blum says. CNN's Johnson adds, Rather "has deserved greater recognition both by CBS News and the professional community for some time. Any day that CBS News is not happy with Dan Rather, Ted Turner and I would love to have him at CNN."
As for product positioning, Johnson says it is Rather who brings the substance to any CBS claims of being the network for hard news. "I think the most recent talks [between CNN and Rather] helped Dan push CBS back in the direction he wanted to go of doing more hard news in its evening newscast. I think the show today more reflects Dan's wishes than ever before."
Rather's competitors at NBC News, which generally has the highest-rated evening newscast, say his claims about CBS doing more hard news than anyone else is more a matter of semantics and spin than substance.
"I'd like to deal directly with the question of soft and hard news," said David Doss, executive producer of "NBC Nightly News With Tom Brokaw," at a Pasadena press conference three days after Rather had made "hard news" a mantra during his session with television critics.
"We spin, our competitors spin, you spin. There's a lot of spinning going on here," Doss said. "But we believe that that all comes under the heading of folks trying to put us into a box that we don't belong in.... We do very important news, and we do it every night."
When asked if he wanted to rebut Rather's claims, NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw said, "No. I think that we rebut him every night at 6:30... I think that you should let your work speak for the broadcast."
Paul Friedman, executive producer of "ABC World News Tonight With Peter Jennings," said at another press conference in Pasadena, "I like what Andrew Heyward apparently had to say..which is that 'the audience now has the advantage of three good, first-rate news organizations slugging it out, and that can only be good.' And I think we and CBS are trying very hard to be hard news broadcasts of record. NBC's doing something slightly different. So be it."
Peter Jennings concurred. " 'Hard news' is not a phrase I would use on a regular basis. I think every day presents itself.. and then you go and seize upon those stories which you think will have the greatest relevance to the greatest number of people. On any given day, that can be science, that can be economics, that can be disaster.... But I think this sort of arguing about what is hard news is slightly counterproductive to the general notion of what news is. I defer to Paul [Friedman], but I think, you know, news is news is news."
There's even talk at ABC News of moving "World News Tonight" to 10 p.m. and making it part of the softer newsmagazine lineup – an enormously risky relocation. From CBS' point of view, such a move would only further cede hard news territory to Rather.
Gail Shister, the Philadelphia Inquirer's television columnist since 1982, has followed Rather closely. "In terms of hard news, I think there is some validity to what Rather is saying. But I get very cautious when anchorpeople, or anyone connected to a news organization, start making claims about being harder than the next one, because it is so difficult to quantify a statement like that," Shister says.
"So, I am hesitant to label any of the Big Three newscasts harder. I don't see a huge difference among the three, but I do know that Rather is driven in a way as a hard newsman that is different than Jennings or Brokaw."
The best data relevant to the hard versus soft news debate come from a study conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, "Changing Definitions of News: A Look at the Mainstream Press Over 20 Years." It covered 1977 to 1997 and was released in March. For '97, the study found that "CBS Evening News" did, in fact, do more government and less celebrity reporting than "ABC World News Tonight" or "NBC Nightly News," but that Jennings' broadcast provided more foreign affairs coverage than Rather's.
But there is some spin involved, too, as when Rather says, "CBS News now has a rebuilt line-up [of reporters] in Washington that's the equivalent of the 1927 New York Yankees." Bob Schieffer, chief Washington correspondent for CBS News, is in that league, but chief White House correspondent Scott Pelley still has to prove he can run with the big dogs.
The irony is that CBS News has the fewest resources of the three in terms of correspondents, producers, editors and technicians in the very areas it is selling itself: Washington and international coverage. Considerable rebuilding has taken place since Westinghouse took over, but CBS News is still paying for the sins of Tisch, who slashed and burned the news division during the '80s and '90s. The kinds of holes that remain were most evident when Princess Diana was killed, and CBS News was hours behind everyone else in covering the story.
An indication of CBS' insecurity on breaking news coverage is found in a recent agreement between CNN and CBS' owned and operated stations that will allow the CBS stations to use CNN coverage. CBS declined comment on the talks between CBS and CNN, but the agreement was confirmed in March by Steve Haworth, vice president of publicity for CNN.
All of which only makes Rather that much more important to CBS today. The substance and symbolism of his career give the newscast the appearance of being the hardest and, perhaps, the most journalistically sound for some viewers.
You can't talk about Rather or any network anchor without discussing persona and image. If Walter Cronkite became Uncle Walter, what has Dan Rather become in the minds of millions of viewers? "To understand Rather's image I think you have to look at him in that way – as the successor of Cronkite," Blum says.
CNN's Johnson agrees. "Dan inherited the mantle from Walter Cronkite. It was a near impossible position because, in the early days, he was always compared with the most respected name in television news and, in fact, the most respected name in the U.S. It was a tough act to follow. In his soul, Dan's a reporter – a journalist – first and an anchorperson second."
Of Cronkite, Rather says, "I am proud to have worked for Walter on the 'Evening News.' He really cared about correspondents and looked out for us constantly – and as a result, we tried that much harder to do our best work for him."
Cronkite, who has criticized Rather and CBS News in the past, says, "I'll tell you what I think about Dan today. I think that he's doing a bang-up job as anchor of the 'CBS Evening News.' And I'm particularly pleased because – with Andrew Heyward, who runs CBS News – they have attempted to do a lot more news in their available time and get away from the featurized treatment that I had objected to over so many years. And I think, in that role, Dan comes alive again as the excellent newsman he is. I feel that has a lot to do with his sort of new emergence, if that's what it is, more than, perhaps, the new contract."
Of Rather's lucrative new deal, Cronkite adds, it "clearly indicates a major vote of confidence on the part of the company."
"Who is Dan Rather today?" asks the Inquirer's Shister. "Having known him for 15 years, I feel comfortable talking about what I think is a change in him at the personal and professional level. I think he is a man who in his entire professional life has been hearing footsteps. And I think that has affected him in ways we don't even know about. He has always felt he was one step ahead of the sheriff or whatever metaphor you want to use.
"But, since the last contract, I think he has reached a state of grace in the sense that he has his demons at bay in a way that I don't think he ever did before. I see a man who has in some ways made peace with himself and his demons and has let go of the reins a little bit.
"Not that I would ever use the 'm' word with Rather: mellow. No, no, no, no, no. Dan Rather is never going to be someone who ducks controversy. But I do see a change since the contract, and I am glad for him. I think he's certainly earned it."
Schieffer – who has known Rather since 1963 when, as a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Schieffer helped the young CBS correspondent get an interview with Lee Harvey Oswald's mother – sees the same kind of change in Rather. "I think he is pretty comfortable with himself right now and feeling pretty good about CBS these days....
"I think Dan has gotten the commitment out of CBS that, if he was going to stay, it was going to be a hard news broadcast, and hard news was going to drive it. Dan and I are from the same generation, and we have always preached hard news. And sometimes it seemed like we couldn't get anybody to listen but each other, so we just preached at each other."
But the fact is, says Schieffer, "there are people listening now at CBS, and I think that's part of the difference. This is who Dan Rather is. I think he's going to be remembered as somebody who covered every major story of his time. And Dan's great strength has been that he doesn't think covering the news is really all that complicated. He thinks that when you hear there may be some news someplace, you just go there and find out what's going on, and you tell people about it."
Schieffer thinks Rather's legacy will be "as a good, straight, hard news reporter who was not afraid to cover the news, was not afraid to go where it was and was not afraid to tell people exactly what he thought about it."