NEW YORK — As Dan Rather finishes his 24-year run at the helm of “Evening News” tonight, CBS News finds itself trying to fete the veteran journalist while salvaging an institution hit by scandal and freefalling ratings.
Rather, who began his CBS career covering Hurricane Carla in 1961, leaves tonight the chair and a body of work that spans 42 years at the network.
Eye execs had hoped Rather’s departure from the anchor chair would allow the network to close the book on the Memogate scandal and set the stage for a remake of “Evening News.” CBS prexy and Viacom co-prexy Leslie Moonves — who has taken charge of that remake — has put longtime Washington correspondent Bob Schieffer in the anchor spot temporarily.
But seven months after “60 Minutes Wednesday” aired a flawed segment on President Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service that was reported by Rather, the scandal still casts a shadow over the Eye, complicating plans to honor Rather’s storied career.
Three execs left in the wake of the scandal, but one, former “60 Minutes Wednesday” executive producer Josh Howard, refused to resign.
Morale at CBS News has plummeted, with a few staffers believing the blame for the errant report fell disproportionately on Howard, who was the only top news exec to urge that the network move quickly to address concerns raised about the report. Howard, a protege of “60 Minutes” founder Don Hewitt, continues to enjoy strong support within the news org.
Moonves didn’t ask CBS News prexy Andrew Heyward to resign, although Heyward has been completely absent from public view since the independent report dissecting the “60 Minutes” segment came out.
In a new book, “Bad News,” longtime London correspondent Tom Fenton portrays a ratings-obsessed evening newscast so dumbed-down and disengaged from foreign news that it cut a mention of Osama bin Laden in a 1997 story about Saudi terrorism because it had “too many foreign names.”
All-time low ratings
Ratings for “Evening News” hit an all-time February sweeps low last month with an average of just under 7.4 million viewers each night. That’s down from 9.4 million from the same period last year and marks the widest margin since 1995 between second and third place among the evening newscasts.
NBC’s “Nightly News” retained its overall lead, with more than 10.4 million viewers, but ABC’s “World News Tonight” was a close second with more than 10.2 million. NBC’s Brian Williams and ABC’s Peter Jennings are separated by a mere 70,000 viewers in the 25-54 demographic, on which advertising on the evening newscasts is sold.
Meanwhile, “60 Minutes Wednesday” as well as “48 Hours Mystery” on Saturdays are struggling in the ratings and could face cancellation.
Against this backdrop, the Eye will air the retrospective “Dan Rather: A Reporter Remembers,” preempting the show that started it all, “60 Minutes Wednesday.”
Spec, produced by Rather’s longtime colleague and exec producer of “48 Hours Mystery” Susan Zirinsky, does a credible job of putting Rather’s career in context while dealing with the scandal over the forged Texas Air National Guard memos and explaining how Rather became a lightning rod for critics over the years.
Zirinsky traces anti-Rather sentiment back to his coverage of the civil rights movement and then his confrontations with Richard Nixon. Rather said it was about that time he was first tarred with the pejorative “liberal.” Rather famously received a chorus of both applause and boos when he stood up to ask Nixon a question in Houston, the anchor’s hometown, in the waning days of his presidency.
“Are you running for something?” Nixon asked, to throw Rather off balance. Rather went for humor but appeared to showboat by responding, “No, sir, are you?”
His biggest regret about the exchange is that no one remembers the actual question: “How can the House meet its constitutional responsibility while you, the person under investigation, are allowed to limit their access to potential evidence?”
“I am suggesting that the House follow the Constitution,” Nixon responded. “And if they do, I will.”
(Pamela McClintock contributed to this report.)