The saddest thing about Dan Rather's unceremonious departure from CBS News is the botched report that undoubtedly led to his downfall probably should have been avoided.
While it makes abundant sense for a reporter to take a big gamble with a potentially breakthrough story, it seems highly questionable to do so with a well-worn one. And in this case, it doesn't appear as if the risk was worth the possible reward.
As has been well-documented, Rather headlined the September 2004 "60 Minutes II" piece that raised new questions about President Bush's military service during Vietnam. Several months later, CBS acknowledged it could not substantiate the report that Bush had essentially dodged the draft by receiving help in securing a National Guard assignment, making it unlikely he'd be sent into combat. It also suggested Bush received further assistance in shirking his Guard duties.
The irony is the story ultimately received more coverage for its dubious reporting than it ever would have had it been a factual slam dunk. The reason: Bush's draft-dodging and questionable Guard service had been an issue for years, going back to at least the 2000 campaign. It seems likely the American people, both liberals and conservatives, had evaluated the charges back then - probably even believed them - yet a large portion decided to vote for him anyway (to be sure, not enough to win the popular vote and who knows how many in Florida?, but enough to ultimately win). The dynamic was very similar to Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, where the American public more than likely believed Clinton was also a draft evader and a philander as well, but the majority opted to support him anyway, perhaps with the implicit understanding that he would not carry on with the adultery in the White House.
Correct or not, it seems the Bush/draft issue was hardly a hot one by the time Rather and his team tried to advance the story two months before Bush's second election. While important stories -- especially where shady or unethical behavior is involved -- should be pursued doggedly, it seems Rather exercised poor judgment in merely trying to further a story without a smoking gun. Instead, Rather and company based the story in large part on the guidance of a "handwriting analyst" and "document expert," who merely believed documents that suggested Bush tried to avoid Guard obligations were authentic.
Reportorial instinct tends to give one the sense whether a story is nailed or not. Doubt percolates until facts can be confirmed. And a handwriting expert's opinion hardly seems to meet that standard. So Rather made dual mistakes of chasing an unoriginal story and then relying on shoddy reporting (it is still unclear how much Rather was involved in reporting the story, but as the one who delivered it on-air, he unavoidably became the lightning rod for its snafu). It was a colossal misjudgment for a man CBS News president Sean McManus Tuesday called "truly a 'reporter's reporter.'"
Rather could never recover from his association with the piece. He was forced to give up his CBS News anchor chair after 24 years; the energetic Rather hoped to make it to 25 or perhaps more. And despite reports to the contrary - the Los Angeles Times cited sources Wednesday who said Rather's departure from CBS "was not directly tied" to Bush-gate - it seems likely that executives were eager to remove all taint of the issue.
Another reason -- maybe a greater one -- for Rather's forced departure before his contract expired is clearly a desire to wipe the slate clean for the debut of Katie Couric in Rather's old "Evening News" seat. His shadow as a continuing CBS News correspondent could have given him an opening to upstage Couric with bombshell reports or other high-profile assignments. CBS has invested a reported $15 million a year in Couric, hoping it can project a younger image -- perhaps even redesign the newscast to turn the focus away from "the voice of God" (CBS President-CEO Leslie Moonves' phrase) tradition of evening news delivery. Having Rather still in the house would leave a former "voice of God" around and could counter an image makeover. Surprisingly, while some reports Wednesday raised the issue of the impact Couric's impending arrival had on Rather's departure, the seemingly obvious was ignored by publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter and even TV Week (whose Michele Greppi deserves immense credit for two big scoops recently, confirming both Couric's deal with CBS and Rather's exit).
So, with Rather in the rearview, the attention turns to Couric and the impact she may have on the evening news ratings horse race starting in September. (She's already apparently sparked interest on Madison Avenue with Moonves saying Couric's big contract has already paid for itself through larger upfront commitments than a year ago.) There's little doubt she'll start strong on the backs of the curiosity factor, likely winning the first week and perhaps continuing to lead for a while. She has a magnetic personality, cross-gender appeal and a loyal viewership that could follow from the "Today" show. But how many "Today" viewers are home by 6:30?
There's also a history of new talent creating a frisson that fades. Rather rode Cronkite's coattails to a lead, then faded to third. Letterman started out in his new CBS gig leading Leno, but NBC regained dominance in late-night. And so far, "Today" appears to be weathering Couric's departure quite well with its ratings lead increasing since she left.
With two new entrants in the evening news derby this year - Charlie Gibson on ABC and Couric - Moonves said last week that "the game of news has changed drastically this year." But by how much over the long haul? A year from now, the long-time pecking order of NBC followed by ABC and CBS could be unaltered. The more things change, the more...
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