I’ve learned to live with the money, the celebrity, the criticism. They come with the territory. — Dan Rather
For almost five years, Rather and his CBS Evening News have been number one, the program the others have tried to overtake. He’s the front page of CBS News and, like Jennings and Brokaw, is worth every penny of his salary. If his presence can contribute to a shift of just one rating point in the Nielsen numbers, from, say, a 10 to an 11, it can mean as much as $15 million in what CBS can charge advertisers.
Rather doesn’t make the first nights, the power meals, the New York scene. He claims to be happiest lunching on a tuna-fish sandwich at the news desk in the Broadcast Center with the evening-news staff, working on the story lineup. His daily prayer is, he says, “God, give me one more day at my work.”
Some of this is the kind of “log cabinizing” that politicians do: self-serving stories showcasing their modest beginnings, diligent work habits and simple desires. Rather today is a sophisticated journalist who seems to be consciously gearing down his high-intensity persona. A good performer, he’s careful not to appear too fast for the room he’s working. Yet “the book” on Rather, to borrow a Ratherism, does begin in hardscrabble East Texas. He remembers that Depression-era kids like himself aspired, at most, to be high-school football coaches or airline pilots (in fact, Rather’s younger brother is a high-school principal, and his sister is a high-school teacher).
Rather’s critics accuse him of constantly redefining himself, pulling on or peeling off sweaters at a tremor in the ratings, changing the color of his hair from black to gray to black again (a charge Rather denies). “Who is that guy inside the suit anyway?” asks a CBS colleague. “The one running around here saying, ‘I’m Dan Rather.’ ” Rather says he knows who he is: “I am a reporter who cares about people.” In his autobiography, The Camera Never Blinks, he describes his father, Irwin “Rags” Rather, as an oil-pipeline worker — a ditch digger — and his mother as a waitress. As a young man, Rather got down into the trenches himself — humbling up still more his humble past.
One of the longstanding indictments of network news — thunder from the left and the right — is that the decision makers are an elite, cut off from “the people,” hooked to their closed-circuit communications and their regular morning diets of the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal (more input from people just like them). The state-of-the-art facility deep inside the CBS Broadcast Center where Rather and his producers determine the nightly play of stories is held up as symbolic of their isolation, as are the similar rooms at ABC and NBC across Manhattan. The conference rooms look out on news desks and internal monitors, not the “real world.”
But Rather claims to have a different perspective. “If you’ve come from where I’ve come from,” he says, “standing in a ditch, shovel in hand, working with your back, that’s a never-to-be-forgotten experience. No matter how high you rise, you can never get away from those formative years….” Then leaning forward, he smiles. “You’re thinking to yourself, ‘There goes the bullshit part….’ ” You are, in fact, wondering if Rather is fusing his life with Rags’s, but then he adds, “As Henry Kissinger once said, ‘And it has the added advantage of being true.’ ”
There it is: populism with an intellectual face. Not to put too fine a point on it, that’s as good a summary as there is of what The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather is all about. The CBS broadcast is the People’s Republic of Rather. Rather didn’t create this state of mind by himself. He had the help of Van Gordon Sauter, the president of CBS News. When the occasion demands, Sauter can put up his own log cabins. He’s also from Small Town, U.S.A. — Middletown, Ohio, no less. His father was a fireman, his mother a saleslady. He went to Ohio University, studied journalism at the University of Missouri, worked on papers in Detroit and Chicago. Sauter knows the territory and when to talk from the heartland. While Arledge is running with the beautiful weekend people in the Hamptons, Sauter says, “I’m fishing in the woods of Connecticut.”
When Rather took over the Evening News in 1981, and the ratings sagged a bit, it was Sauter who figured out the problem. “Dan was doing the CBS Evening News — with Walter Cronkite,” he says. CBS’s coverage was still Cronkite’s straight-ahead wire-service report — headlines, a lot of them from congressional hearings, told with pictures. Rather and Sauter began taking the Evening News out of Washington and into the country. They wanted stories for television, built around people and their emotions.
Part of this change was generational, the slaying of the father Cronkite and the older executives who had worked with him and shared his print background. Cronkite wasn’t in a hurry to leave, and the memory of the changes still rankles (asked for his opinion of today’s CBS news programs in a recent Washington Post interview, Cronkite expressed admiration for Entertainment Tonight). The Rather-Sauter regime promoted producers whose sole experience was in television, who liked video and worked to achieve visual epiphanies or, in Sauter’s phrase, “moments.” But this change also involved the Reagan Eighties gestalt: antigovernment and antipolitics; Miller Time instead of hearings time; This Broadcast’s for You evocations of ordinary people’s lives; and the community of feelings rather than the parade of authority (including the old authority figure of the anchor).
This doesn’t mean the Rather news is an upbeat, Reaganite “shining city on a hill” vision, or the fluff of airhead local news. A few weeks ago, when The CBS Evening News reported that USX was shutting down mills and that LTV was going into Chapter 11, Rather quickly moved from the institutional report of Big Steel in trouble to the little people’s story of how the closings are affecting one disabled worker, depriving him of medical benefits. “Someone loses his or her job,” Rather says, “and I want to show what’s being said and felt.”
More than sixty years ago, the philosopher George Herbert Mead looked at the newspapers of his day and suggested that there were two models of journalism: informational news based on fact (e.g., Cronkite) and story news intended to create an aesthetic experience and help people relate events to their own lives — the Rather show. “The olds” as much as “the news.”