Face of US news for 24 years to retire

After 24 years at the frontlines of journalism in the United States, CBS News anchor Dan Rather will deliver the evening news for the last time on Wednesday, six months after apologising for an error-riddled report critical of US President George Bush’s military service.

Although Rather (73) will continue to collaborate with the US network’s 60 Minutes news magazine show as well as with CBS News, his five-decade career will effectively end under the cloud of the September report.

The world first glimpsed Rather on November 22 1963, when, as a CBS correspondent in Dallas, Texas, he reported the assassination of former US president John F Kennedy.

Since then, the square-jawed, deep-voiced Rather has been on the frontlines of the world’s most important events, from the Vietnam War to last year’s presidential elections.

His scoops include interviewing Saddam Hussein shortly before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, president Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal, and president Bill Clinton while he was being investigated in the Monica Lewinsky affair.

In 1981, the native Texan inherited the anchor’s chair at CBS Evening News from Walter Cronkite, the newsman who created the mold of a globe-trotting reporter-presenter and made the evening news an American institution.

“I have been lucky and blessed over these years to have what is, to me, the best job in the world,” Rather said when he announced his retirement last November.

Rather is known for his folksy style, sprinkling into news reports vivid, and sometimes obscure, aphorisms that became known as “Ratherisms”.

“If a frog had side pockets, he’d carry a handgun,” was one. Or, referring to presidential candidate John Kerry’s defeat in the 2004 election, Rather said: “In southern states, they beat him like a rented mule.”

Despite his long career, Rather retires under the cloud of a story he delivered last year that, citing documents of dubious origin, cast doubt on Bush’s military service record.

Within days, Rather was forced to retract and apologise on air.

An independent CBS commission investigating the blunder concluded that competitive pressure and fatigue drove Rather to put out the story despite evident problems with it.

While four senior CBS News officials were forced to resign in the wake of the commission’s report, Rather had already announced his retirement.

The faulty Bush story gave ammunition to those who accuse Rather of being a lifelong leftist who is biased against Republicans. They cite well-known incidents, such as his verbal attack on Bush’s father, then-vice president George Bush, during a 1988 interview, and Rather’s dry response to a joke made by Nixon during a press conference.

One internet site, Ratherbiased.com, is wholly dedicated to reporting “the partisan beliefs of one of the most politicised journalists of our time”.

“I have tried to speak the truth to power,” Rather said in a profile of him in The New Yorker magazine.

But Rather’s critics include not only politicians but also fellow newsmen.

“Dan gave the impression of playing a role more than simply trying to deliver the news to the audience,” Cronkite said on Monday in a television interview.

Rather’s tenure at CBS coincided with the decline of the institution of the evening news, which suffers from an ageing audience and the rise of 24-hour cable television news networks such as CNN and Fox News.

Moreover, under Rather CBS News lost ground to rival networks ABC and NBC, and currently ranks last in the big three networks.

Mike Wallace, one of the creators of 60 Minutes and a friend of Rather’s, conceded to The New Yorker that Rather’s style is “uptight and occasionally contrived”, and that his competitors are easier to watch.—Sapa-AFP