October 31, 1931 • Wharton, Texas
Veteran Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) news anchor Dan Rather retired in 2005 after twenty-four years at the desk of the television network's nightly newscast CBS Evening News. Long known in the industry for his aggressive reporting and folksy sayings, Rather is one of the most famous television news journalists of the twentieth century. When he retired, he was the longest-serving anchor on a nightly network newscast in American broadcast history.
Born in rural Texas
Rather was born on October 31,1931, and was the first of three children in his family. His mother was named Veda, and his father, Daniel Irvin Rather, laid pipeline for Texas oil fields. The family moved to Houston about a year after Rather was born and settled into a working-class neighborhood there. Rather has said that his father was devoted to two things: reading the daily newspapers, and his employer, Humble Oil. He would not buy gas, for example, at any filling station that was not part of the company network.
As a child, Rather's interest in journalism was sparked by a bout of rheumatic fever, an inflammatory reaction that affects the heart, that came on when he was ten years old. He was forced to spend weeks resting in bed, and so he listened to the radio to pass the time. The broadcasts he loved best were the reports delivered by pioneering American war correspondents such as Eric Sevareid (1912–1992) and Edward R. Murrow (1908–1965). They were filing radio news stories from European capitals and battlefields during World War II (1939–45; war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Italy, and Japan). By the time he reached his teen years, Rather had decided to become a journalist, though his goal was to work for a major daily newspaper, not a radio network.
"Rather is the last of his breed, a junkyard dog in anchor's clothing, hard-charging and afraid of nothing except maybe getting caught behind the desk while the town is burning."
Reporter Gary Cartwright in Texas Monthly
Rather entered Sam Houston State Teachers College in Huntsville, Texas, and in 1953 became the first member of his family to earn a college degree. He majored in journalism, but the college's program was not a strong one in that subject, and so he took a series of jobs while still in school that gave him hands-on experience. He worked part time at a Huntsville radio station and then worked as a reporter for the Associated Press wire service; later, he moved on to its competitor, United Press International (UPI). He also served as editor of the campus newspaper.
Rather served a brief stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, but when his superior officers learned about his childhood bout with rheumatic fever, he was disqualified for military service for health reasons. In 1954, he went to work at the Houston Chronicle —but not at the paper itself, which had been his longtime career goal. Instead he worked at a radio station owned by the newspaper, KTRH. "I came in at four in the morning," Rather recalled in an interview with Gary Cartwright for Texas Monthly, "and read the pork belly futures out of Chicago," or the Chicago Mercantile Exchange trading price for the bacon-providing part of a hog. Eager to prove himself, he persuaded his boss to give him his own show during an open time slot on Sunday, which had been his only day off.
Earns nickname "Hurricane Dan"
Rather tried to land a job at the Houston Chronicle newspaper, but he was a poor speller—print journalists of the era needed to be able to write quickly with few errors. His on-air talents were noticed by his station bosses, however, and he was made KTRH's news director in 1956. Three years later, he moved on to the relatively new medium of television as a reporter for KTRK-TV, also in Houston. In January 1960, he became news director for another Houston television station, KHOU, which was an affiliate of CBS. By this time he had married Jean Goebel, whom he met when she was hired as a secretary at KTRH, and they had two small children.
Rather's career moved to a national level thanks to a terrible tropical storm. In September 1961, Hurricane Carla headed toward the American coastline along the Gulf of Mexico. It hit at full force near Galveston, Texas, and became one of the worst storms ever to reach the U.S. mainland. Rather and his team were the only live television news source broadcasting from Galveston when Carla hit, and he delivered one of his reports by hanging onto a palm tree. Rather also persuaded the director of the local weather-reporting station to let his crew put a television camera in front of the radar screen, which tracked storms from high above Earth's atmosphere. "That day," noted Cartwright, "viewers saw something they had never seen on live television: the image of a four-hundred-mile-wide hurricane superimposed over a map of the Texas Gulf Coast. The coverage spurred a mass evacuation of the coast and probably saved thousands of lives."
"What's the frequency, Kenneth?"
Veteran CBS anchor Dan Rather was a victim of one of the strangest celebrity-stalking incidents of the modern age. One night in October 1986, he was returning from dinner at a friend's house and walking along Park Avenue in a relatively high-class part of New York City. He was approached by two men, one of whom punched him in the jaw; when Rather ran off, he was chased into a building and kicked. His attacker repeatedly asked him, "Kenneth, what is the frequency?" The assailant, or pair of assailants, ran off. The odd incident inspired a song by alternative rock group R.E.M., "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?," and Rather even joined the band once on stage and sang it with lead singer Michael Stipe.
In 1997, a man in prison for the 1994 murder of an NBC stagehand outside the Today Show told his prison psychiatrist that he had attacked Rather back in 1986. Shown photographs of the prisoner, Rather identified William Tager as his attacker. Tager had believed that the news media were trying to send him coded messages, and the matter seemed to rest with that confession.
In 2001, Harper's magazine published a piece by Paul Allman that posed several semi-comical questions about the "Kenneth" incident. Allman pointed out that the writer Donald Barthelme (1931–), sometimes called the father of postmodern literary American fiction, had once written a short story containing the phrase "What's the frequency?" as well as the name "Kenneth." In another story of Barthelme's, there is an arrogant "editor-king" named Mr. Lather. Allman's article, and a subsequent stage play produced in New York City, hinted that Barthelme possibly may have been connected to the attack. Allman pointed out that both Barthelme and Rather were Texas natives, born just six months apart, and both had worked in Houston early in their careers—Barthelme as a reporter for the Houston Post, while Rather was a radio newsperson. "Is it possible that they could not have known each other, or of each other, in the Houston of the late 1950s and early 1960s?" Allman wondered. "That they could not have attended the same journalistic functions? Or that Rather, the rising star, could not have been the object of envy and speculation on the part of his peers?"
Rather's fearless reporting earned the attention of CBS executives in New York City and forever earned him the nickname "Hurricane Dan" among his professional colleagues in the media. Shortly after Hurricane Carla, he was promoted to serve as the network's national news correspondent for its southwestern bureau, which included several southern U.S. states as well as Mexico and Central America. On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963; served 1961–63) was assassinated in his presidential motorcade in Dallas, and Rather once again became the frontperson for CBS coverage on the scene. Within months, he was promoted again, this time to White House correspondent for CBS in Washington, D.C.
Critics call him biased
As a national news reporter, Rather went on to cover some of the most important news stories of the era, including the Vietnam War (1954–75; a controversial war in which the United States aided South Vietnam in its fight against a takeover by Communist North Vietnam) and the series of scandals known as Watergate, which forced the resignation of two-term Republican president Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74). Rather's aggressive coverage of the Watergate story brought some criticism. He was condemned by Nixon supporters for what they viewed as his liberal bias, or favoritism toward Democratic politics. The unofficial code of ethics for journalists calls for them to remain neutral in their news reporting.
Rather had an infamous exchange with Nixon that caused hundreds of viewers to call or write CBS headquarters in New York City and demand that the network fire him. At a National Association of Broadcasters convention in Houston in March 1974, Nixon was part of one day's program of events. Rather rose to ask the president a question, and some other journalists began booing Rather—but others quickly responded with applause. Taken by surprise at the outburst, Nixon asked Rather, "Are you running for something?" according to Ken Auletta in the New Yorker. Rather's response, as quoted by Auletta, was "No, sir, Mr. President. Are you?" The remark was viewed by some as disrespectful, and there were rumors that CBS executives were indeed thinking about firing him for such a daring breach of press–presidential etiquette.
Instead, Rather was taken off the White House beat, and he spent a few years producing documentaries for the network in New York City; he also anchored the CBS Weekend News. In 1975, he became a correspondent on the highly rated newsmagazine 60 Minutes. When veteran CBS news journalist Walter Cronkite (1916–) announced that he would retire as the anchor of CBS's flagship broadcast, the CBS Evening News, Rather was named his successor. It was a tremendous accomplishment, for Cronkite was a giant among broadcast journalists of his era and regularly cited in U.S. public opinion polls as the most trusted person in television news. Rather made his debut on the CBS Weekend News on March 9, 1981, and retired exactly twenty-four years later. His tenure made him the longest-serving anchor of a nightly national newscast in U.S. media history.
But Rather was not always at the desk. Again, he took his camera crews to the field and reported from around the world to cover breaking stories and planned events, too. In September 1987, he was in Miami to cover the visit of Pope John Paul II (1920–2005) to that city, but that day his broadcast was to follow CBS Sports's coverage of the U.S. Open tennis match. When one of the games ran into overtime, the network decided to keep it on the air and not switch over to the CBS Evening News. Angered, Rather walked off the set to call his boss, the president of CBS News, but then the match ended unexpectedly just two minutes into the hour, and Rather was missing when the cameras began rolling. He was gone for over six minutes in what is known in live radio and television broadcasting as "dead air."
Angers vice president
Rather was again criticized for his behavior, and even other journalists called him unprofessional. The incident returned to the headlines several months later, when Rather was interviewing George H.W. Bush (1924–), who was serving as Republican vice president under Ronald Reagan (1911–2004; served 1981–89). At the time, the Reagan White House was involved in a political scandal known as the Iran-Contra affair, in which some members of the administration were linked to the illegal sale of arms to Iran, an enemy of the United States, in order to finance secret operations in Central America. On the air, Rather questioned Bush relentlessly, as was his style, and the exchange became heated. Finally, according to the New Yorker, the vice president responded, "It's not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran. How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set?"
Once again, Rather was accused of showing disrespect to the highest elected officials in the nation, and particularly to Republicans. His daily newscasts were even monitored on a Web site, RatherBiased.com, which tracked the news anchor's alleged lack of impartiality. "I do have my biases," Rather joked in an interview with Auletta in the New Yorker, "such as, I'm hard to herd and impossible to stampede," meaning he won't follow the crowd or be pushed over.
That stubbornness was widely suspected of spurring Rather's somewhat unexpected decision to retire from CBS Evening News, which was announced in November 2004. Two months earlier, Rather delivered a report on 60 Minutes II that was based on a series of recently uncovered documents related to George W. Bush's (1946–) service in the Texas Air National Guard between 1968 and 1973. One of the documents was a memo that seemed to confirm rumors that a young Bush had received special treatment thanks to his family connections. During the Vietnam War era, there was a draft that required young men to register for possible military service; one way to avoid being sent to fight overseas was to serve instead at home in a National Guard unit, which generally required a weekend of service each month at a training camp in one's home state. Rather's report about Bush's record, which seemed to show that the future president often failed to report for Guard duty, was a major journalistic triumph. Most of the major U.S. news organizations had long tried to find documents that would prove the rumors true about Bush's record. Almost immediately, however, the authenticity of the documents was questioned.
Blames "partisan political operatives"
Rather called on Bush to answer the lingering questions about his military service, and he mentioned on CBS Evening News that "partisan political operatives" seemed to be behind the controversy over his report, according to a New York Observer article by Joe Hagan. In an interview with Hagan, Rather defended his 60 Minutes II staff who had put together the story, and he pointed out that the debate seemed rather fishy. "If you can't deny the information," he theorized in the interview, "then attack and seek to destroy the credibility of the messenger, the bearer of the information." Rather stood by the report and his staff, but CBS called for an independent investigation into the matter. In the end, four members of the 60 Minutes II team, including Rather's longtime producer, lost their jobs.
In November 2004, not long after the independent review panel was summoned, Rather announced his decision to retire from the CBS Evening News. His last broadcast came in March 2005, a full year ahead of his twenty-fifth anniversary, which he had often said would be his retirement date. Some media analysts and critics of Rather's claimed the National Guard story was the real reason behind the decision, and more moderate voices noted that the rush to get the story on the air without first verifying the authenticity of the documents was merely a sign of the decline of network news. Others called it a triumph of amateur blog (Web log) journalists, who had rushed to post stories questioning the authenticity of the documents while the 60 Minutes II broadcast was still on the air.
Though Rather officially retired from the CBS Evening News anchor desk, he continued to serve as a 60 Minutes II correspondent. Just before his final broadcast, after twenty-four years on the air, Rather reflected on his long career as CBS's leading newsperson. "My hope has always been, for all my flaws and weaknesses," he told Cartwright in Texas Monthly, "that people will say this: 'He wanted to be a reporter and he is.' I think they know that I love this country."
For More Information
Allman, Paul Limbert. "The Frequency: Solving the Riddle of the Dan Rather Beating." Harper's (December 2001): p. 69.
Auletta, Ken. "Sign-Off." New Yorker (March 7, 2005): p. 48.
Cartwright, Gary. "Dan Rather Retorting." Texas Monthly (March 2005): p. 136.
Gay, Jason. "Hurricane Dan's Last Stand." New York Observer (May 14, 2001): p. 1.
Hagan, Joe. "Dan Rather to Bush: 'Answer the Questions."' New York Observer (September 20, 2004): p. 1.
Morrow, Lance. "In the Kingdom of Television." Time (February 8, 1988): p. 27.
"Rather Identifies Man He Said Beat Him in '86." San Francisco Chronicle (January 30, 1997): p. A3.
Zinoman, Jason. "Socking It to Dan Rather: A Nonpolitical Whodunit." New York Times (October 29, 2004): p. E2.
CBS Evening News: Dan Rather.http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2002/02/25/eveningnews/main502026.shtml (accessed on August 23, 2005).
RatherBiased.com: Documenting America's Most Politicized Journalist.http://www.ratherbiased.com (accessed on September 25, 2005).