Rather Being Shown the Door at CBS
Long-time anchor likely to leave network for good soonNEW YORK --
The longtime correspondent, known for his travels to hot spots around the world, said he had asked to go to the Gulf Coast last fall to cover Hurricane Katrina and to visit Iraq and Afghanistan to cover the conflicts there, but his requests were denied.
"They just said, 'Not interested,' " he says.
It now seems clear that even then CBS News officials were moving to distance themselves from Rather, the face of their news division for almost a quarter-century. Network sources said Thursday -- and Rather confirmed -- that final negotiations are underway for the former anchor to leave before his contract expires at the end of November, even though he had hoped to stay on in a new role.
"If it had it worked out for me to be an important contributor to CBS, I would have liked that," Rather says in a phone interview. "The work has not turned out what I hoped it would be, and under those circumstances, the network executives decided that I should go onto the next step of my work."
The 74-year-old newsman said he doesn't view his departure with disappointment.
"My view of it is I'm a pro and it's a business and I'm focusing on the future," says Rather, who added that he is excited about other opportunities that he cannot discuss. "That's where my focus is. I tend to be an optimist by nature and by experience."
Still, those close to Rather say he has been dismayed and perplexed by the pressure for him to make an early exit.
"It's clear I have some difficulties with the current corporate management, but that's not unusual with reporters," he says.
The abrupt ending to his 44-year career at the network is widely seen as a painful conclusion for Rather, who stepped down as evening news anchor in March 2005 in the wake of criticism about a story he reported that raised questions about President Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard.
An independent panel commissioned by CBS concluded that the piece, which aired on the now-defunct "60 Minutes Wednesday" in September 2004, was based on documents that could not be corroborated. In the fallout, four staffers lost their jobs. Some colleagues, including "60 Minutes" correspondent Mike Wallace, suggested Rather should have quit as well.
Instead, the veteran broadcaster returned to reporting. This season, Rather was relegated to being one of nine correspondents on "60 Minutes" while network officials worked to repair the damage caused by the controversy. Longtime Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer was brought on to serve as interim anchor of "CBS Evening News," and a slew of new executives were installed in the news division, which has been buoyed by recent ratings gains by the third-place broadcast.
With Katie Couric taking over for Schieffer this fall in a closely scrutinized move, CBS officials decided they want to signal a fresh start for the news division and concluded there was no longer an appropriate role for Rather, according to people close to the process.
News executives sought an amicable agreement with the former anchor and, in negotiations, stressed their respect for his contributions to CBS, which include 24 years at the helm of the evening broadcast. They've cast his departure not as punishment for the Bush story but as a move that will allow the network to showcase a new generation of correspondents.
But Rather says he had more to contribute to the network that he first joined in 1962 as Dallas bureau chief.
"I think now as much or more than ever, Americans need hard-news reporting -- particularly hard-news reporting about foreign affairs and how their government works," he says. "I'm committed to that. When my feet hit the floor every morning, I'm looking for a great story."
Rather says he's had discussions to do work for other outlets but declined to elaborate, saying only, "There are things that interest me that I want to know more about."
Rather won't say whether he views the push for him to leave CBS before his contract expires as a betrayal, saying, "I'd leave it for others to define it."
The newsman says he tried to handle the discussions for him to leave "in a professional, classy, gentlemanly manner. This is a news operation, and professional jealousy and backbiting and backstabbing are common in newsrooms and common in ours, unfortunately."