Rather clears the air about departure


Dan Rather, who stepped down from his 24-year stint as anchor of the CBS Evening News in March, seemed intent last night in a speech at Goucher College to dispel what he said was a misperception.

Asked whether his decision to leave his post was prompted by the furor over documents he cited in a Sept. 8, 2004, story about President Bush's Air National Guard service - memos that turned out to be of dubious provenance - Rather acknowledged that "we didn't do the story perfectly," but insisted his decision had been planned all along.

"It had already been agreed that I'd be leaving in the spring of 2005," Rather said. "I've moved on from that."

But Rather, now a correspondent for 60 Minutes - his first story for the program aired a little more than a week ago - let his audience in the college's packed Kraushaar Auditorium know that he feels "humility."

"I've had successes and I've also made my mistakes - have I ever," said Rather, whose tenure in the anchor chair at CBS News was the longest in American television history.

The story that, in many people's eyes, put a stain on his long and varied career was centered upon documents three decades old that purported to show that a senior officer had declared Bush unfit for flight status because he disobeyed an order to submit to a physical examination. Although the authenticity of the documents was challenged, Rather and his producer, Mary Mapes, defended them for almost two weeks. Eventually, Rather and his network conceded that they could not vouch for the documents and apologized.

Still, Rather remains a stalwart of journalism and has an office full of awards, including several Emmys and Peabodys, to show for it.

His career, which began in 1950 in his native Texas, has taken him around the world, including coverage of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the Vietnam War and the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Covering the war on terror, he went to Iraq - where he interviewed Saddam Hussein - as well as Kuwait, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Rather was the first reporter to sit down with President Bill Clinton, in March 1999, in the wake of Clinton's impeachment by the House of Representatives.

But at Goucher College, the story that kept coming up was the time he faced down President Richard M. Nixon in 1974 in Houston. Nixon, in the midst of the Watergate scandal, made a habit of warding off probing questions from reporters. Rather related that when he stood up to ask Nixon just such a question, Nixon cut him off: "Well, Mr. Rather, are you running for something?"

"No, sir, Mr. President," Rather replied. "Are you?"

The incident made Rather notorious. Although he did not tie it to any events in the present day, he commented that many reporters now seem intimidated by power and neglect to ask tough questions.

"Government officials still have tremendous power to shape their own image," he said, posing a question as to whether journalists have become "fearful" and even "spineless."

Journalism, he said, is at "a powerful crossroads," and he did not have to specify that he was referring to the ethical transgressions that have landed some of his colleagues in trouble.

Nevertheless, he said, the use of anonymous sources - which, most recently, was an issue with Bob Woodward of The Washington Post and Judith Miller, formerly of The New York Times - is "essential" to a properly functioning democracy. Trouble arises, he said, when such sources are overused.

Journalism overall, he said, is "battered and tarnished."

Rather, who stayed well away from the quaint analogies he sometimes used on the CBS Evening News - "He swept through the South like a tornado through a trailer park," for instance - came down hard on some of the current practices of television shows and personalities. The "obsession with celebrity," he said, "breeds cynicism in the audience."

"There's a war between seriousness and sensationalism," he said, "and sensationalism is winning."


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