DENVER — Dan Rather found a receptive audience for a contrite apology over his handling of last September’s “60 Minutes II” report on President Bush’s National Guard Service.
“I should be paying you,” Rather said in opening remarks to more than 500 journalists at the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference.
Rather admitted he had improperly defended the story after questions arose about the veracity of its documentation. CBS subsequently acknowledged the documents were unverified and an independent panel investigating the story for the network criticized Rather’s conduct.
“I was guilty of standing by and standing up for the story,” he said. “I accept the panel’s criticism that I shouldn’t have done that.”
The biggest lesson he learned, Rather said, was that the American people are “fair and fair-minded.” And he refused to shift blame when asked if other journalists should have pursued the National Guard story as aggressively as they covered the “60 Minutes II” scandal.
“You have to look to yourself,” he responded.
Rather, who choked up several times, received standing ovations at the start and end of his 45-minute appearance. He urged the journos to take their watchdog role seriously and said his biggest worry stems from the American public’s “increasing lack of understanding” of the importance of First Amendment protections of the press.
Rather retired in March as anchor of the CBS Evening News but still works for “60 Minutes.” He said his greatest surprise as a journalist came in 1968 when President Johnson said he wouldn’t seek re-election, adding, “I wouldn’t have been more surprised if Fidel Castro had come riding through on a giraffe.”