If it’s gonna be,” Dan Rather used to intone, striding through the CBS newsroom, “it’s up to me.”
But June 20, Mr. Rather could not call the shots at CBS any longer. All he could do was refuse to let CBS call the shots, either. When the long, sometimes awkward, always passionate marriage between man and network came to its end—announced in dual and sometimes dueling releases—it happened on neither Mr. Rather’s own terms nor CBS’s.
“If we had been able to come up with a level of work that was acceptable to Dan and was acceptable to us, we would have moved forward,” said CBS News president Sean McManus by phone after the separation was official. “We couldn’t do that. So we decided it was best to come up with an amicable parting of the ways.”
Mr. Rather’s office was already being cleaned out.
Till the end, Mr. Rather had held out hope, urging his three-producer team in recent weeks to submit “bluesheets” containing story pitches for the fall season of 60 Minutes.
“It was death by a thousand cuts,” said one CBS staffer, “and we probably could have ended it with four or five cuts.”
Instead, the conflict is open-ended. Mr. Rather has not agreed to any settlement with CBS; the network plans to keep paying out his current contract, which runs through November.
Mr. Rather has not signed a nondisclosure agreement—and he has not agreed to rule out legal action against the network. In his final statement, Mr. Rather emphasized that he was leaving “before the term of my contract” and wrote that CBS “had not lived up to their obligation to allow me to do substantive work.”
Asked about the possibility of legal action from Mr. Rather, Mr. McManus said, “It never occurred to me, nor am I going to address it.”
The cutting of Mr. Rather’s responsibilities began more than a year ago, with his demotion from the CBS Evening News anchor chair in March of 2005 after the network’s National Guard documents scandal. That ended Mr. Rather’s days of command at the network that had given him an outsized platform and purpose for decades. The following months would lead him from the heart of the broadcast establishment to the edge of its frontier— where he is apparently poised to join HDNet, a high-definition cable channel with about three million customers.
The HDNet plan, first reported in The New York Times on June 16, would pair Mr. Rather with another often-rambunctious personality: HDNet boss Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks, an avid blogger who’s not afraid to publicly defend his employees—even if they punch someone in the groin or clothesline an opponent on live TV.
“It smells right to me,” said Tom Bettag, who was Mr. Rather’s executive producer on the Evening News from 1986 to 1991. Mr. Bettag moved on to ABC’s Nightline from CBS; last year, he and anchor Ted Koppel left the program together and moved to the Discovery Channel. “Cuban’s obviously a very unusual guy who’s anything but a conventional C.E.O.,” Mr. Bettag said.
But no deal was done. “We are talking,” Mr. Cuban wrote in an e-mail to NYTV. “He is excited to do something outside the newsenomic world of CBS corporate and HDNet is excited to potentially unleash him.”
CBS had spent months trying to leash Mr. Rather instead, as the ex-anchor and CBS wrangled over how much of a reduced role he could accept.
“Dan wanted a permanent position at 60 Minutes,” a CBS staffer said. “Everybody came to an understanding that wasn’t going to work, and I don’t think he could live with that. He couldn’t live with less than the most of anybody there.”
Barring a position at 60 Minutes, Mr. Rather sought something akin to the deal NBC had made with Tom Brokaw in 2004, when that network eased the Nightly News anchor out of his chair. Mr. Brokaw got a hefty paycheck, the occasional prime-time documentary special and an emeritus role that entitled him to do commentary and analysis on NBC’s news programs when big stories broke.
Mr. Rather wanted something meaty like that: ample airtime, ample pay, the amenities to which an anchor becomes accustomed.
What he was offered instead, according to sources close to the negotiations, was a tidy corner office of the sort awarded to 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt, and a modest stipend.
“As for their offers of a future with only an office but no assignments, it just isn’t in me to sit around doing nothing,” Mr. Rather wrote in his exit statement.
Neither side seemed prepared to sit around till November. The impasse went public June 15, when The Washington Post, citing “network sources,” reported that CBS executives no longer saw a role for Mr. Rather, at 60 Minutes or anywhere else. The same day, The Philadelphia Inquirer ran an interview with Mr. Rather, who said he wanted to stay at CBS.
On June 16, Mr. Rather sat down with Times reporter Jacques Steinberg—over a “glass of milk” in an Upper East Side restaurant—and discussed his disappointment at being unwanted by CBS and his plans to join Mr. Cuban’s venture. He had, he revealed, formed a company called News and Guts.
Mr. Steinberg posted the news on the Web that day, and the CBS media-relations department divided up the inevitable press release into sections and started writing. It took three business days to get approval from all parties involved.
On June 17, Mr. Steinberg published a longer account of his meeting with Mr. Rather, in which the ex-anchor came across as just the sort of trudging atavist his critics have always suspected, slumping around with a Mets cap pulled over his eyes. Mr. Rather told Mr. Steinberg that he had seen Good Night, and Good Luck five times, most recently alone.
In the first version of the Times piece, Mr. Rather claimed to have gotten two offers from among the major broadcast and cable-news channels. High-level sources at the Fox News Channel, CNN, ABC and NBC denied any such dealings to NYTV, and the networks gave The Times denials for the second version of the Times story.
Mr. Rather also told The Times he had advised Mr. Cuban to give an unspecified Maverick more playing time in the N.B.A. playoffs and that the team was “using him more.”
Asked via e-mail about that claim, Mr. Cuban wrote back: “Did he give me advice on the mavs? Are you serious?”
The final CBS press release ran to some 1,700 words, and Mr. Rather declined to supply any quotes for it. Like a dissenting Supreme Court justice, he saved his material for his own separate statement, in which he wrote that he appreciated “the words and gestures” of the network’s statement.
He did not write that he appreciated the substance.
Mr. Rather did not respond to two e-mails sent to his work address, nor, over the course of several days, to multiple messages left with his assistant, Kim Akhtar; his agent, Richard Leibner; and his consulting publicist, Tom Goodman. Calls to his home on June 20 went unanswered.
Peter Boyer, the New Yorker writer and author of the 1989 book Who Killed CBS?, said, “Dan Rather is a creature of a strange, unrealistic, almost surreal arrangement that is so long past, and such an anachronism—which is to say three networks with a captive nationwide audience—that you wonder how he might psychically adapt to being part of the tiniest fraction of the most fragmented form of communication that exists. I don’t know. I guess that’ll be up to Dan and his shrinks in the future.”
Several long-term associates of Mr. Rather searched for the most appropriate analogy. “Is he Burt Lancaster to Tom Brokaw’s Jimmy Stewart?” asked one.
He is William Holden from The Wild Bunch, said another. Or Gary Cooper from High Noon.
“Dan is the lone gunfighter who squints into the sun, sets his horse into the wind and rides off to the next challenge,” said a third. “He’s had all these gun battles in the past, there’s a trail of bodies, but he knows he’s got it in him to rescue the townspeople. It’s just—well, he’s so fucking alone.”
“Dan is and always has been a reporter’s reporter,” said his now ex-boss, Mr. McManus. “He has an incredible passion for telling the story, and that is whether it was in Afghanistan or Iraq or in Dallas after the Kennedy assassination.
“He loves the story,” Mr. McManus said. “He loves telling the story; he loves searching for the truth. That’s never gonna change. He will be out there competing for stories against us in the future. He may beat us. That’ll be terrific.”
Mr. McManus noted that he and Mr. Rather had lunch plans for June 21. He declined to specify the restaurant, but said he expected to order the pasta.