CBSers are kicking Rather when he's down

Have you been struck by the way some of the mainstays of CBS News have rushed to kick Dan Rather when he is down? It’s a pretty unedifying spectacle, especially since a number of the kickers are in their 80s and have apparently been nursing grudges for decades. Of course, Rather is on the receiving end of some kicks today in part because of the kicks he himself has delivered over the years. Go back to March 1980, when network management picked Rather to succeed Walter Cronkite as anchor of the “Evening News.”

Have you been struck by the way some of the mainstays of CBS News have rushed to kick Dan Rather when he is down?

It’s a pretty unedifying spectacle, especially since a number of the kickers are in their 80s and have apparently been nursing grudges for decades.

Of course, Rather is on the receiving end of some kicks today in part because of the kicks he himself has delivered over the years. Go back to March 1980, when network management picked Rather to succeed Walter Cronkite as anchor of the “Evening News.”

In an interview with The Washington Post’s Tom Shales, Rather reflected on the man he would be replacing — the man who had kept the CBS newscast at the top of the ratings heap for a full decade.

“Walter can get overbearing sometimes,” Rather told Shales. “He can hold on to the microphone too long.”

Imagine that. Rather, the man who last night was finally pried from the anchor desk at the age of 73, after having redefined the very concept of holding on to the microphone too long, suggesting that Cronkite — who was all of 63 when he announced that he would leave the “Evening News” — had overstayed his welcome.

To be fair, in the Shales interview Rather softened his comments just a bit, saying that Cronkite’s faults were “small potatoes compared to the enthusiasms he brings to it.”

Nevertheless, Rather’s comments set a certain tone.

He also reminded Shales that Cronkite had had his troubles with ratings in earlier years.

“Walter hasn’t always been No. 1,” he said. “We went through the better part of eight years — eight years! In this business, that’s an eternity, and beyond — in which he was certainly not clearly No. 1.”

That was then. Now, it’s payback time.

A few days ago, Cronkite, now 88 years old, went on CNN to remind the world what a longtime ratings loser Rather has been.

“It’s quite a tribute to him that he — that CBS held on to him so long under those circumstances,” Cronkite said. “It surprised quite a few people at CBS and elsewhere that, without being able to pull up the ratings beyond third in a three-man field, that they tolerated his being there for so long.”

Cronkite also made it clear that he thinks Rather’s interim successor, Bob Schieffer, will do a better job than Rather.

“Although Dan did a fine job, I would like to have seen [Schieffer] there a long time ago,” Cronkite said.

Earlier, Cronkite joined a gaggle of CBS veterans to cast aspersions on Rather’s record, telling The New Yorker that viewers sensed that Rather was “playing the role of newsman.”

“60 Minutes” star Mike Wallace told the magazine that Rather is “not as easy to watch as [ABC’s Peter] Jennings or [NBC’s Tom] Brokaw” because his on-air performance is “uptight and occasionally contrived.”

Former “60 Minutes” chief Don Hewitt said viewers just never liked Rather very much. “If you’re in a three-network race and you come in third,” Hewitt told The New Yorker, “then the public is against you.”

And “60 Minutes” commentator Andy Rooney called anchoring “a dumb job” and said of Rather and his fellow anchormen, who often like to anchor from the site of news events, “To gain some credibility, they all feel obliged to go out and stand in the wind. They should either accept their role as a news reader or become a reporter.”

It’s been so bad that the old saying, normally applied to life in Washington, should be reformulated for the former Tiffany Network: If you want a friend at CBS, get a dog.

Of course, it’s indisputably true that Rather has led CBS to decades-long also-ran status. When he took over in 1981, he inherited a winning broadcast from Cronkite — and lost the lead in the short span of five months.

So it was no surprise when, years later, when he had held on to the microphone too long and had belligerently defended his dreadfully wrong fake-document story on President Bush’s Air National Guard record, his colleagues were more than happy to tell the world that he was a big-time loser.

Kick, kick, kick.

By the end, even the viewers were getting their kicks in.

In late February, the Gallup polling organization asked respondents to rate each anchorman “on a scale of 4 to 1, where ‘4’ means you can believe all or most of what the person says and ‘1’ means you believe almost nothing of what they say.”

An impressive 19 percent of those who responded said they believed almost nothing Rather said — nearly four times the number of those who didn’t believe ABC’s Jennings or NBC’s Brian Williams.

Put it all together and it’s a pretty bad end for Dan Rather. But it’s been coming for a long, long time.

York is a White House correspondent for National Review. His column appears in The Hill each week. E-mail: byork@thehill.com

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