Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather staunchly defended last year’s discredited story on President Bush’s National Guard service at the “Kalb Report” Monday night, saying he wouldn’t have acted differently if he could do it all over again.
Almost seven months after Rather retired from his post as the lead anchor of “CBS Evening News,” the veteran journalist spoke about his longtime career at Monday’s National Press Club event, sponsored by GW and the Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center for Press, Politics and Public Policy.
“To this day, no one has proven whether it was what it reported to be or not,” Rather said. “There’s part of me that says ‘Damn, I wish I hadn’t caved. I wish I had stuck with it.'”
The discredited National Guard story, which Rather anchored on “60 Minutes” in September 2004, two months before the 2004 presidential election, questioned Bush’s military record and alleged that he received preferential treatment to escape some of his military duties. CBS retracted the story after the network couldn’t verify the authenticity of documents cited in the report. Rather resigned from the anchor chair in March. He said at Monday’s show that his decision was completely voluntary.
Following the story’s retraction, CBS commissioned an internal panel to investigate the factors that led several high-level producers to back the story. The report criticized Rather for standing by the story too long, even when it became apparent that the documents cited were potentially falsified.
“We dealt with a story that had thermonuclear potential for reaction,” Rather said. “We did not do it perfectly.”
Monday’s hour-long interview centered on what Kalb introduced as “two deceptively simple questions” – the definition of journalism and journalists.
The advent of bloggers – authors of Internet Web logs – and other alternative media forums has caused many in the news industry to reevaluate the defining characteristics of journalism. Criticisms of the National Guard story originated with the blog freerepublic.com.
Rather said he did not consider radio personality Rush Limbaugh a journalist and said he remains skeptical of considering bloggers real journalists. About 27 percent of those surveyed by the Annenberg Public Policy Center said that Limbaugh, the conservative talk radio host, is a journalist.
“We may be in a transition period where the definitions of journalism and journalists are changing,” Rather said.
For some people in the audience, Monday’s “Kalb Report” was all about the chance to see the famous news anchor in person.
“He is one of a kind, a legend in the field,” said Mark Feldstein, a former CNN correspondent and journalism professor at GW’s School of Media and Public Affairs. “I became a television reporter in part inspired by him.”
GW Vice President of Communication Michael Freedman, a former general manager at CBS Radio News, said journalism students can learn from Rather.
“I think Dan is a perfect guest to open the season for the ‘Kalb Report’ because he is one of the last great T.V. anchormen that any of us will see,” Freedman said.
Along with former ABC anchor Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw of NBC News, Rather formed the “big three” of network nightly news anchors. Brokaw stepped down from the anchor chair in 2003, and Jennings retired from the news desk in April and died of lung cancer last month.
Rather downplayed what has been termed “the end of an era.” Responding to a comment by Kalb that millions of people watched the “big three” anchors host the news each night, Rather referenced the popular show “Desperate Housewives” when he joked, “You know, 50 million people watch nymphomaniac housewives every week.”