Drudge has a question mark by this quote, and rightfully so. In Art Buchwald’s latest column in the Washington Post, there is a remark, attributed to Dan Rather, on whether his “replacement” (Katie Couric) can prevail in the evening network news war. (Supposedly) Dan said:
“In time, I think she will. It took her 15 years to make the ‘Today’ show a hit. I’m sure it will take her longer than that to beat Charlie Gibson and Brian Williams.”
Of course, Mr. Buchwald writes a humor column, so his quotes and observations should be taken with a large grain of salt. In fact, a later quote sounds more like Buchwald’s imagination that something The Dan would actually say. At one point, Rather describes himself as “one of the greats,” along with the recently retired Mike Wallace. “Mike and I will go down in history along with Walter Cronkite and Maury Povich,” observes Rather. Nod, nod; wink, wink.
Still, Rather and Buchwald have been friends for decades, and it’s not beyond the departed CBS anchorman to use a media buddy to take a few digs at the competition. As readers of Bernie Goldberg’s book Bias may recall, Rather went to great lengths to undercut his co-anchor, Connie Chung, in the mid-1990s.
When Ms. Chung received critical praise for her coverage of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Rather returned early from vacation and became CBS’s primary anchor on the scene. Network staffers told Goldberg that Rather spent much of his “off-duty” time on the phone with friendly television writers (notably) Peter Johnson of USA Today, criticizing Chung and her reporting. Rather’s comments were subsequently attributed to anonmyous network sources, and over time, they produced the desired effect. Ms. Chung’s tenure on the CBS Evening News ended less than two years later, and Rather remained as sole anchor until being forced out last year.
If Rather actually made the remark about Couric, there is a certain irony in his words. It may actually take 15 years for CBS to climb out of the rating hole that Rather dug for his old network. During his two decades in the anchor chair, The Dan took the Evening News from #1 to #3, and drove away millions of viewers in the process. If CBS affiliates had their way, Rather would have been booted from the anchor desk years earlier, because the ratings-challenged network broadcast provided a meager lead-in audience for their local newscasts. By some accounts, the CBS-owned stations in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other markets lost millions in ad revenue because Rather drove down audience levels for local news programs.
At the end of his column, Buchwald provides CBS’s supposed reaction to Rather’s comments. “When I called back to CBS,” he claims, “they said the last they’d see of Rather, he was flying down outside the 30th floor window of the CBS building.” I’m sure there are lots of folks at CBS who would have preferred that Dan take the plunge.