Dan Rather’s Legacy

Dan Rather looks back (CNN-AP)

When Dan Rather thinks back on all his years as anchorman of the “CBS Evening News,” his role reporting 9/11 comes to mind. And Tiananmen Square. The fall of the Berlin Wall. The two Gulf wars.


Rather’s work has been constant and often outstanding during his long reign. But there was no settling down. Storms have never let up. From his testy face-off with Vice President George H.W. Bush during a live “Evening News” interview in 1988, to bizarre incidents like his mysterious 1986 mugging (which plugged “Kenneth, what’s the frequency?” into the pop-culture phrasebook), Rather became news in ignoble ways — not just delivered it.

Walter Cronkite would likely be quite amused that the story is in the Entertainment section.

Photo: Network News Ratings Chart Otherwise, this story encapsulates Rather’s career quite well. His work has often been exceedingly good. He wouldn’t have risen to what was then the most prestigious job in all of broadcast journalism otherwise. Of course, the CBS anchor chair no longer has the esteem that it had been Cronkite was sitting in it. While it’s not his fault that the network news has lost its stature, he certainly bears some responsibility for the fact that the Tiffany Network’s broadcast has been in last place in that group for years.

Photo: Slate graphic with CBS eyes cryingUpdate (1006): Slate’s Jack Shafer and Tom Shales at WaPo have more. The image to the left, from the Shafer piece, is classic. He both defends and slams Rather:

In 1980, 75 percent of televisions in use during the dinner hour were airing an evening news broadcast from one of three networks. By 2003, the number was down to 40 percent. Of the three retreating network mammoths, CBS has stumbled the worst. Dan Rather’s CBS Evening News show has finished a distant third during most ratings periods since 1993. And though all three evening news shows continue to lose viewers, the rate of defection from Rather’s continues to be the highest. The New York Times reports that Rather’s program is down 10.8 percent over a similar period a year ago, compared to 4.4 percent for ABC’s program and 6.7 for NBC’s.

Granted, Rather’s goofy style makes your eyes bulge and your ears buzz. He’s so unpopular that there are probably more Arizona Cardinals fans than Rather fans. But is the failure of the CBS Evening News all his fault? I’d argue that 1) he’s mostly a victim of a changing media environment and 2) CBS helped dig the ditch Dan vacates this week, one so deep that not even Walter Cronkite could have climbed out of it.

He recounts a series of awful business decisions by CBS executives that put Rather at a distinct disadvantage. Most notable was Fox’s buying of a lot of local stations that had been CBS affiliates and CBS’s incredibly slow counter-reaction.

Shales writes more of a mash note, as one would guess by the title: “Dan Rather, Leaving By the High Road.” Like Rather himself, the piece is a bit unfocused and hard to follow. It defies excerpting. The thesis, if there can be said to be one, is buried deep in the story: “Rather believes the news is serious business. He’s not going to lean back in his chair and deliver it to viewers conversationally. He’s not trying to be your friend.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. LJD says:

    “In 1980, 75 percent of televisions in use during the dinner hour were airing an evening news broadcast from one of three networks”

    You used to be able to trust the content. News programs were based on integrity, credibility.

    Now it’s just a show. They push sensationalism for ratings, propaganda for political uproar. It’s not a story unless it’s negative, even if you have to make it up.

  2. Jim Henley says:

    Does CBS/Viacom own any significant cable franchises? It seems like ABC, NBC and Fox have all tried to adapt to the changing TV landscape. (MTV, right? Anything else?)

  3. James Joyner says:

    According to their site, “Viacom’s well-known brands include CBS, MTV, Nickelodeon, Nick at Nite, VH1, BET, Paramount Pictures, Infinity Broadcasting, Viacom Outdoor, UPN, TV Land, Comedy Central, CMT: Country Music Television, King World, Spike TV, Showtime, and Simon & Schuster.”

    So, yes, they own a lot of other media companies–but they’re all entertainment focused.

  4. I worked for CBS during the Tisch years, and I feel sadness for what happened to CBS News during the Rather era. I discuss the decline of CBS in today’s online column on my own weblog, RED-STATE.COM.

  5. Jack Tanner says:

    ‘Granted, Rather’s goofy style makes your eyes bulge and your ears buzz.’

    Umm…not mine. I’m sure i haven’t seen him for 25 years.

    ‘You used to be able to trust the content. News programs were based on integrity, credibility.’

    No – their lies just didn’t get exposed.