Tuesday, September 28, 2004

CBS Mum On When Rather To Retire
By Jacques Steinberg
The New York Times - Via Gail DePoli

Dan Rather's acknowledgment that he erred in broadcasting a recent "60 Minutes" report about President George W. Bush's National Guard service has further complicated two of the most delicate questions in television news: When and to whom will Rather relinquish the anchor chair of "The CBS Evening News"?

CBS has never disclosed a timetable for replacing Rather, who will turn 73 next month and has been the anchor of the nightly news since March 1981. But executives atop the network and its news division had begun discussing a transition plan in the weeks before Sept. 8, when the Wednesday edition of "60 Minutes" broadcast its report based on documents that CBS officials now say cannot be authenticated, one of the executives said late last week.

The options under consideration include having Rather step down sometime next spring, perhaps near the end of the prime-time season in May, giving his replacement the relatively low-profile summer months to find his bearings, said the executive, who requested anonymity out of fear of being fired at a time of turmoil at CBS News. But no date had been fixed.

Although the networks' evening newscasts have seen their ratings and influence whittled away by the rise of 24-hour cable news channels and the availability of news on the Internet, the anchor chair remains one of the most prestigious positions in television journalism. The two most likely successors to Rather, at least as handicapped by the network's rank-and-file correspondents and producers, have long been considered to be John Roberts, the chief White House correspondent for CBS News, and Scott Pelley, a correspondent for the Wednesday edition of "60 Minutes." Neither has strong name recognition among viewers, and the network has not ruled out looking beyond its own news division.

Now, however, whatever transition discussions were under way have been upended. Last week CBS commissioned two outsiders to investigate the journalistic breakdowns that resulted in the broadcast not only of the flawed report but of Rather's early, emphatic assurances that the documents were authentic, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

Depending on how damaging the final report is to Rather, it could hasten his departure - or it could extend his stay at the anchor desk, particularly if network executives decide they cannot make a move until the controversy over the report has sufficiently cooled.

"Just dealing with this," the CBS executive said of the investigation and its fallout, "takes priority for the next one, two, three months."

The final decision on Rather's future is expected to rest with two people: Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News; and Leslie Moonves, the chairman of CBS and the co-president and co-chief operating officer of Viacom, the network's parent company. In an interview on Friday, Heyward declined to answer questions about the most recent conversations surrounding any transfer of the anchor post, other than to say that "there is no timetable in place."

"We have always said that there would be an orderly transition at an appropriate time," Heyward said, "and any discussions we have had are part of that process."
A spokeswoman for Rather, Kim Akhtar, said Sunday that she would refer any questions about his future to Heyward.

The question of what to do about Rather - whose broadcast has languished in third place, behind NBC and ABC, for nearly a decade - began to take on greater urgency in recent months, as NBC has prepared to pass the baton of its nightly newscast from Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams.

That generational change, which NBC announced more than two years ago and which represents the first shuffling of network anchor chairs in two decades, will happen in December.

The installation of Williams, 45, a former White House correspondent perhaps best known for anchoring newscasts on NBC's cable networks, is expected to touch off a period of anchor-shopping among viewers.