Kicking Dan When He's Down

The CBS executives who leaked the story of Dan Rather's imminent exit from the news division to Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post today clearly despise the former anchorman. They blame him for the 2004 National Guard documents scandal that tarnished the reputation of CBS News. They hate him for the ratings slide of the CBS Evening News that began in the final years of his tenure. They resent him for his oddball persona, his addiction to the red light of the camera, and his multi-million-dollar annual salary. It all seems a bit harsh when you consider his enormous contributions to the history of television news -- his reporting from the front lines of hurricanes, assassinations and wars; his classic confrontations with Richard Nixon during Watergate; his memorable "60 Minutes" stories that helped the show achieve its first number-one Nielsen rating in 1975, and even his absurdist but groundbreaking "Gunga Dan" reporting from Afghanistan in 1979. In light of those legendary achievements, it seems coldhearted and callous for CBS to cast Rather out so mercilessly, and so publicly, in the twilight of his career.

But then you remember what happened to Walter Cronkite when Rather got hired as the anchor of the CBS Evening News in 1980. Perhaps to those executives, today's events seem like perfect payback for the man who himself once booted the most trusted man in America off the airwaves. When CBS agreed to pay Rather $2.2 million a year to replace Cronkite and keep the young star from bolting to ABC News, it also acquiesed to push the former anchor into an "emeritus" position. With Rather's blessing, CBS prevented the 64-year-old Cronkite from any active role in the network's news coverage. Despite Cronkite's expertise and popularity, Rather boxed out the once-beloved anchorman forever. Cronkite was never again allowed to cover a space launch or report an election or conduct an interview on CBS News. Rather wanted the spotlight to himself, and CBS News allowed its new anchor whatever he wanted.

With the arrival of Katie Couric at CBS News this September, CBS wants to create a similar sense of freedom for its latest star. Pushing Rather aside, the way Cronkite got shoved, seems a necessary step in making sure there's no shadow cast on her debut. And perhaps there's a perfect symmetry to the situation: after 44 years at CBS News, Rather has long outlasted most of his colleagues, including Cronkite, and it's high time for younger talent (like Couric and Anderson Cooper) to get space on the network's most prestigious shows, like "60 Minutes." But for anyone who knows Rather -- and that includes just about everyone in America, thanks to his highly personal style and his longevity -- it's going to be sad to imagine him wandering around the streets of New York, searching for the red light of a camera. Maybe there ought to be a kinder way for business executives to treat legends of the news business -- at least by doing something nicer than leaking stories of their dismissal to media reporters hungry to cover the latest casualty of progress.