CBS Cuts Ties With Rather, Ushers New Era With Couric
Rather is leaving CBS News before his contract expires after he and the network failed to agree on a role for him going forward. After succeeding Walter Cronkite in 1981, Rather held the anchor job until March 2005, during which he became a household name along with competitors Peter Jennings on ABC and Tom Brokaw on NBC. But he was nudged, if not forced, aside for his involvement in a disputed 2004 "60 Minutes II" report about President Bush's National Guard service. He then segued into a correspondent's role at "60 Minutes," but felt he was underutilized.
"My departure before the term of my contract represents CBS's final acknowledgement, after a protracted struggle, that they had not lived up to their obligation to allow me to do substantive work there," Rather said in a statement.
CBS had offered Rather an office but no role in newsgathering, and he said "it just isn't in me to sit around doing nothing." Rather, 74, added that he would continue reporting and will seek opportunities elsewhere.
Rather was known for an often dogged reporting style (his 1988 grilling of the first President Bush about the Iran-Contra affair is mentioned repeatedly as an example) and a sometimes folksy manner that might prompt him to say that there was "a better chance of a hippopotamus running through this room" than the 2000 election being sorted out on election night.
CBS News was conciliatory in its goodbye to Rather, announcing that it plans a prime-time special dedicated to his career this fall and would make a contribution to his alma mater, Sam Houston State.
"With the utmost respect, we mark the extraordinary and singular role Dan has played in writing the script of not only CBS News, but of broadcast journalism," said Sean McManus, CBS News president, in a statement. "There will always be a part of Dan Rather at CBS News. He is truly a 'reporter's reporter,' and he has helped to train several generations of broadcast journalists. His legacy cannot be replicated."
Still, CBS News' desire to separate itself from Rather--perhaps due to a perception that he represents a bygone era in network news and carries a taint from the 2004 reporting snafu--is palpable. When Brokaw stepped down, he received a 10-year contract from NBC, while ABC appeared ready to stick with Jennings as its lead anchor until his untimely death.
Couric can now serve as the face of a "new" CBS News without having the possibility of Rather upstage her with attention he could gain from his "60 Minutes" reporting via a breakthrough interview landed or perhaps another controversy started. She will take over for Bob Schieffer, who succeeded Rather, in September under a contract that reportedly is paying her in the range of $15 million a year.
Last week, CBS President-CEO Leslie Moonves said "Katie Couric is going to end up being one of the best bargains we ever made" and she has already "paid for herself" through increased upfront sales.
"I got $15 million more for the evening news," Moonves said, while also trumpeting the role Couric, the NBC "Today" veteran, will play in energizing CBS' "Early Show."
However, in a report issued Monday, Merrill Lynch analyst Jessica Reif Cohen wrote that the upfront evening news market is "flat at best," though she partly reserved judgment on Couric's ultimate impact. She wrote "it is unclear if Ms. Couric's departure from NBC's 'Today' will have a positive impact on ABC and CBS's morning shows or how large an impact her addition will have on CBS's Evening News."
With Couric starting at CBS, Charlie Gibson anchoring at ABC and Brian Williams having succeeded Brokaw at NBC, the ratings horse race for the evening news will generate considerable interest this fall.
"The game of news has changed drastically this year," Moonves said.