TERENCE SMITH: In his announcement, Dan Rather said his last night in the anchor chair at the CBS Evening News would be March 9 of next year, 24 years to the day after he took over from the retiring Walter Cronkite.
Some months ago, NBC announced that Tom Brokaw, the anchor of the NBC Nightly News, will step down Dec. 1, after a 22-year run. He will be succeeded by Brian Williams.
Joining me now to discuss these changes is Ken Auletta, who chronicles the media industry for the New Yorker. Ken, welcome.
KEN AULETTA: Thanks, Terry.
TERENCE SMITH: This Rather announcement and its timing, what do you make of it?
KEN AULETTA: Well, I mean, obviously if you're Dan Rather you're in your 24th year of being an anchor, 50th year of being a reporter.
You've got this report coming out -- probably in a couple weeks -- and you're concerned that it's going to cast a pall after your career, a cloud over your reputation.
You say let me get ahead of the cycle here and let me announce my departure on my terms and try and avoid that cloud. Now, I don't know what that report is going to say and I don't think Dan Rather knows what that report is going to say but this is his way, I think, of trying to control his own exit.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. This report that you're referring to is an investigation of the case involving the documents on President Bush's National Guard Service. There's a two-man panel looking into it, and their report is expected soon. So to some degree you see this as anticipatory for that?
KEN AULETTA: I do. And I think by the way it's something that any of us in Dan Rather's shoes would do the same thing. We would say, I want to be able to look my grandchildren in the eye if I return to Texas as Dan Rather and they say, grandpa, what kind of career did you have? And I want to say I had a noble career and I did these following stories and I had things I'm really proud of. On the other hand, I don't want to be talking to them about a mistake that was made on Sept. 8 when CBS did make a mistake and aired a report where they didn't have full confidence and knowledge of the documents they were airing and then for the next 12 days did not make a full disclosure -- until 12 days later that they made some mistakes.
So there were mistakes made, but there are in the span of Dan Rather's career a blip.
TERENCE SMITH: If the report, as some suggest, is in fact critical of Dan Rather himself individually and yet he has months to go in the anchor chair, does that put CBS News in an awkward position?
KEN AULETTA: Well, I think less awkward by the fact that he's announced he's stepping down on March 9. He gets ahead of the report.
If he had waited and the report came out -- and let's say that arguably it was very severely critical of Dan Rather -- then I think CBS would be in more of a box than they are today. Because then what they could say when the report comes out in a couple of weeks, well, we already have an announcement that Dan Rather who has distinguished himself in 24 years in the anchor chair is leaving in March and we're going to spend this next period of time figuring out who our next anchor is.
What they have to hope at CBS is that they don't have to answer more questions than that. They may have to answer questions. Who are the people they're going to lay off or fire because of this report if the report is savage enough.
TERENCE SMITH: Dan Rather has long been a polarizing figure and especially the target of conservative critics and I wonder how you see him in that context this day?
KEN AULETTA: Well, you know, it's interesting, Terry. One of the things an anchor really wears several different hats. One hat they wear is as the genial host. They are entering your living room every night. They're offering you a menu of the choices of news for that day that they are presenting and usually doing it in a very even-handed fashion.
The other hat they sometimes wear is as an aggressive reporter. Now Dan Rather wearing the aggressive reporter hat tended to engage in less foreplay than, say, Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings did, tended to be more of a "punch you in the nose" kind of an anchor.
I think it sometimes jarred people. They couldn't get over what happened to the genial host who'd suddenly become this punch 'em in the nose reporter? And I think Rather has done that. Now in his view of himself, he's proud of that.
He's proud of the fact that he's been a tough reporter. They're all tough and good reporters, these anchors. They have a terribly difficult job to do.
But Dan Rather, if you look at the poll measurements that networks do -- and they all claim not to, but they do, do them -- there are two essential measurements for an anchor. One is what is his or her authority rating? Do people think of that person as authoritative? The second is what is their likeability? Now it happens that anchors tend to have a very high authority rating. Rather does and Brokaw and Jennings do. But the likeability rating, Dan Rather's is lower than the other two anchors. And that accounts in part for his lower ratings.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. With Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw stepping down next week you have two of these three very long-serving network anchors.
Is this the beginning of the end of an era of the sort of mega-anchor?
KEN AULETTA: Well, you know, I'm sure people, if you go back 24 years when Walter Cronkite was stepping down, if you go back to the early '80s when John Chancellor was stepping down and Brokaw was about to step in for him, if you go back to Charles Kuralt stepping down from Sunday Morning -- or leaving it suddenly actually -- people all said the same thing. Can we ever have an icon like Cronkite, Chancellor, Huntley, Brinkley, et cetera? And the wind-up is that we do. I mean, we have Rather and we have Brokaw and we have Jennings.
KEN AULETTA: So will the Brian Williamses and whoever succeeds Dan Rather, will they have the same iconic stature that Rather and Brokaw have? We don't know the answer to that now, but based on history you'd have to say they will.
What works against them historically is that when Brokaw took over and Rather took over and Jennings took over, the network news ratings were much higher than they are today. And as that news rating and network ratings in general slip, will they have the same kind of reach? Obviously they won't. Will that affect their iconic status? Unclear.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, when you analyze that diminished audience, what is the impact today of these evenings news broadcasts taken either singly or together?
KEN AULETTA: Well, Terry, 27 million people every night, roughly, are watching the three evening newscasts. That's an awful lot of people. If you walk through an airport with any one of the anchors, I dare say that they are better known than, say, Tom Cruise is. You think that's probably not true but it actually is because every day seven to eight or so million people are watching Dan Rather every night.
And they're watching him talk about things that are familiar to them, that they care about. It's in their living room not in some foreign movie theater.
So if you walk down the street where Rather or an airport with Brokaw, people call out. They not only say hello to them. They'll call out and say, hey, Dan, what about Afghanistan? There's a familiarity there.
It's really amazing. It's actually one of the reasons why anchors sometimes get in trouble because they're always being watched. They always feel like, my God, who is going to protect me? So, yes you get the reservations in a restaurant, but boy you take a lot of pressure with you as you're an icon because you're really famous.
TERENCE SMITH: What do you think will be the change from the news consumer's point of view? Is it just a change of faces or is it more than that? Is it a change of format or approach or a different presentation of the news?
KEN AULETTA: Well, I think one of the things we have to look at here is because they are iconic figures and they are large figures, when Brokaw leaves next week and Rather leaves in March and Jennings, who is 66 at some point he's going to leave, they have enormous clout within their news divisions.
They have the ability at times to withstand... to stand up to the people who sign their checks and say, I don't want to do this, or to get it in their mind and where the people who sign their checks say, hey, I'm not sure we should do this because Dan may object or Dan may not want to do this.
Will the Brian Williamses, will the people who succeed Rather and eventually Jennings have that kind of clout where their bosses have to be concerned what does the anchor think?
We don't know the answer to that, but that's a concern for the public.
TERENCE SMITH: Of course the network news divisions over which they preside and will preside are much diminished from what they were 24 years ago when Dan Rather sat down in the chair.
KEN AULETTA: When Dan Rather sat down in the chair, first of all if you look at the evening news, there was more international news. They had more bureaus overseas, all three networks did. But in addition to that all three networks did serious documentaries then. You don't see those serious documentaries very often on the networks today.
So it's a very different place, the networks, in part because they're no longer monopolies. As they lose audience and gain competition from Fox and CNN and PBS and a lot of other places, inevitably they figure out or they try and figure out, how do we get back some of our audience? And inevitably what they do is they begin to show a little more skin or a little more leg which means a little more lifestyle, a little more infotainment and therefore to potentially diminish the brand that made them CBS, NBC or ABC News.
TERENCE SMITH: Ken Auletta of the New Yorker, thanks very much.
KEN AULETTA: My pleasure.