Anchor's weight matters to a president

Rather's clout gave American viewers a chance to see how Hussein thinks

Television

March 02, 2003|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,Sun Television Writer

When CBS veteran anchor Dan Rather met last week with Iraq's Saddam Hussein at an Iraqi palace for a rare interview, each man sat in a padded throne-like chair with gilt backing. An Iraqi flag stood to Hussein's right, and a hand- woven silk tapestry covered the wall behind him.

It was as though the heads of two very different kinds of states were meeting -- and, in a sense, they were.

The interview, which aired Wednesday night for the full episode of 60 Minutes II, drew the ire of the White House, attracted 17 million viewers and was widely quoted, including by such disparate media outlets as the Biloxi, Miss., Sun-Herald, the French daily Le Monde, and Rather's competitor Peter Jennings on ABC's World News Tonight.

None of this hullabaloo would likely have happened had the journalist conducting the interview not been Dan Rather -- the marquee player for CBS News -- or someone of his ilk.

The presence of Rather "adds more than an exclamation point," says former ABC News correspondent Robert Zelnick. "It adds a stamp of legitimacy to the coverage."

There are reporters at CBS -- David Martin and Bob Simon come to mind -- who have greater expertise than Rather in Middle Eastern politics or modern warfare. But the caste system as it exists in the American broadcast world transforms television anchors and a few select correspondents -- Rather, ABC's Jennings, NBC's Tom Brokaw and perhaps ABC's Diane Sawyer or Barbara Walters -- into megastars. With that stardom comes power.

Foreign leaders (like the rest of us) want to rub shoulders with people famous from television, people who will be equally well-known to their inner circles and, in their case, the citizens they rule. When they consider requests for interviews, journalists say, status plays a role. In times of crisis, this is the way news outlets get face time with heads of state.

"A world leader is not going to say, 'I hear they have a great Pentagon reporter, I'll sit down with him'," says Jim Murphy, the executive producer of CBS Evening News. "They understand that the American public knows that it's big if [the anchors] are involved."

'He wanted to be first'

Zelnick, who clashed with Jennings before leaving ABC in 1998, admits to a "jaundiced eye" on the network star system. "It's very hard for outsiders to understand the impact of the anchors in shaping the newscast," says Zelnick, now chairman of the journalism department at Boston University. "These guys tend to put so much of their stamp of their personalities on it."

Rather has interviewed Hussein before, in 1990 -- before the Gulf War against Iraq waged by President Bush's father. In last week's session, Hussein alluded to the earlier meeting and expressed trust in Rather.

Nonetheless, when he headed to the Middle East last month, the CBS anchor was not assured of the opportunity for a second interview. Murphy, Rather and other CBS colleagues wheedled and cajoled people they believed would be able to crack Hussein's inner circle. Indeed, Rather has credited former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark -- now a committed anti-war activist who has been warmly welcomed by Iraqi officials -- with smoothing the way for him in Baghdad.

"The competitive juices are ever-flowing," says Bernard Shaw, the former chief anchor for CNN. "Rather has worked that story very intensely. He wanted to be first." Like Rather, Shaw interviewed Hussein in Baghdad before the Gulf War, just days before hostilities started.

Earlier last month -- before agreeing to meet with Rather -- Hussein answered questions posed by another Westerner in an interview, part of which was also broadcast by CBS. That time, the excerpt was shown on 60 Minutes for several minutes. The interlocutor was Tony Benn, a leftist former Member of Parliament who openly opposes war with Iraq.

"One of the reasons [Rather's interview] happened, I believe, is how little impact the Benn interview had," Murphy says. "It was conducted by a person with a political agenda." When Benn asked Hussein about possible links with al-Qaida, "he practically choked on the question," Murphy says.

White House displeased

Rather's interview last week had far more impact than Benn's: In the days preceding the 60 Minutes II show, CBS carefully doled out excerpts from the anchor's conversation with Hussein. The network promoted it on several CBS programs, including Late Night With David Letterman. Many news organizations credited CBS and rebroadcast Hussein's remarks. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer lauded Rather but chastised CBS for broadcasting what he called "propaganda" and for not allowing the White House spokesman to rebut the Iraqi leader point by point. (CBS offered to make time available for President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney or Secretary of State Colin Powell. The administration demurred.)

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