Rather ankles CBS evening news amid memo probe

NEW YORK — Dan Rather will step down in March as anchor and managing editor of the Tiffany Network’s faded jewel, the “CBS Evening News,” after 24 years on the job.

Announcement comes two months after the anchor — whose folksy delivery and combative style won him many admirers and detractors alike — acknowledged documents used in a story about President Bush’s National Guard record were probably fakes.

Rather will continue to work full-time for the net as a correspondent for the Wednesday edition of “60 Minutes” and on other investigative assignments.

“I have always said that I’d know when the time was right to step away from the anchor chair,” Rather said in a statement. “This past summer, CBS and I began to discuss this matter in earnest — and we decided that the close of the election cycle would be the appropriate time.”

Network executives insisted the timing of Rather’s departure had nothing to do with the National Guard documents flap that put the 73-year-old anchor on the defensive.

CBS launched an independent investigation into the story that is expected to reach a conclusion early next month. Executives said discussions about Rather’s departure had long been under way, but they wanted to make an announcement before the results of the investigation became public.

A successor has not been named, but a CBS spokeswoman said a permanent replacement will be chosen before Rather’s final sign-off March 9.

Unlike NBC, which has been very publicly grooming Brian Williams to take over for Tom Brokaw next week, CBS has no obvious heir apparent for Rather. Chief White House correspondent John Roberts and “60 Minutes” Wednesday correspondent Scott Pelley are thought to be frontrunners, but the network could look outside CBS for anchor talent as well.

The departure of Rather throws an already wide-open network news race into complete disarray, with the most likely beneficiaries being ABC’s Peter Jennings, the last of the old guard remaining, and cable news outlets that every year erode the networks’ market share.

The institution of the network news anchor, inherited from the age of radio, is eroding amid the flood of digital outlets. And fewer Americans have 9-5 jobs that permit the kind of appointment-viewing that made network news a staple among most families from the 1950s through the 1970s.

In the 1976-77 season, for example, 30% of American TV households, on average, tuned in to Walter Cronkite’s “CBS Evening News.” That share dwindled to 24% when Rather took the anchor’s chair in 1981 and now stands at 10%.

Still, in a world of niche cable channels, 10% of American TV households is a formidable number, and the nets’ evening newscasts together serve more than 25 million viewers a night.

Rather cut his teeth as a White House correspondent who famously confronted President Nixon in a televised press conference, jumping in when the president wouldn’t acknowledge his question.

“Thank you, Mr. President. Dan Rather of CBS News. Mr. President…” This prompted Nixon to respond, “Are you running for something?” Rather replied, “No, sir, are you?”

His claim that he’d been accosted on the street by someone saying “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” was enshrined in pop culture by R.E.M., which recorded a song of that title.

Rather never allowed viewers to forget his West Texas roots, coloring his election-night coverage with colloquial “Ratherisms” like “This race is closer than too-tight spandex,” “This race is hotter than a devil’s anvil” and “Do you hear that knocking? President Bush’s re-election is at the door.”

Part of Rather’s legacy as a newsman hinges on his culpability in “Docugate,” which is being investigated by an independent committee led by former Associated Press topper Louis Boccardi and former U.S. attorney general Dick Thornburgh, who served under presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

At issue is the source of the forged National Guard documents and who’s ultimately responsible for vouching for their authenticity. The content of the documents, which describe pressure at the Guard to “sugar coat” Bush’s failure to report, were corroborated by a secretary at the unit. Bush’s commander, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, is now deceased.

Viacom topper Sumner Redstone told CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo in an interview that the results of the inquiry would be announced “soon,” and based on those conclusions, “we’ll reach decisions as to responsibility and consequences.”

(Pamela McClintock contributed to this report.)

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