Cast Away

As we all now know, Dan Rather was kicked to the curb by CBS after more than four storied decades at the network. He may land softly at Mark Cuban's high-def channel HDNet, where he would host a weekly newsmagazine.

Ever since Rather had to apologize on-air for his flawed 2004 election-year report on George W. Bush's Vietnam-era National Guard service, CBS has been doing its best to disappear Dan. After he was pressed to step down as anchor of the CBS Evening News in March 2005, a year shy of his 25th anniversary, the network offered him the consolation prize of a full-time gig as a correspondent on 60 Minutes.

But you have to wonder if CBS was ever serious about that; Rather has been persona non grata on the show. One of the handful of segments he has been able to get on-air ran last Christmas, the other on New Year's Day—hardly big TV-viewing nights.

Meanwhile, when many lesser lights were making names for themselves covering Hurricane Katrina, the guy who practically invented the gale-force standup—who was almost crying “Put me in coach, put me in!”—was told, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Hey, I know Rather screwed up big-time on the National Guard story. It cost the jobs of the piece's producer Mary Mapes, the show's executive producer Josh Howard and his deputy Mary Murphy, and CBS News Division VP Betsy West.

I've seen other journalists get burned by ill-conceived stories that never should have made it to air, and they still enjoy the support of their networks. ABC suspended John Stossel over his specious report on organic food, then welcomed him back. Hell, CBS even stood by Mike Wallace after his 1982 report on General William Westmoreland blew up into a lawsuit.

But no such luck for Rather, 74, who told me that he'd really “hoped to stay at CBS News and continue to make a meaningful contribution.”

The line from the CBS executives, who attempted to get in front of Rather's firing with a calculated leak to the Washington Post last week, is that there's simply no room for him at 60 Minutes, what with Katie Couric, CNN's Anderson Cooper and CBS News lead foreign correspondent Lara Logan expected to contribute alongside veterans Ed Bradley, Lesley Stahl and Bob Simon.

Yeah, sure. If they wanted Rather aboard, they'd make room for him. The guy is as good as, if not better than, anyone still welcome at the 60 Minutes party.

So what's really going on here? It's obvious that the CBS brass think Rather is radioactive. The National Guard fiasco only encouraged Rather's many critics on the political right, and with the youthful Couric set to take over at the CBS Evening News in September, nobody wants the old guy to hang around and kill the buzz.

Naturally, a new stage set is in the works for The Evening NewsWith Katie Couric, and I hear that a lot of the veteran technicians who worked with Rather and stayed through Bob Scheiffer's interim run are likely to be swapped out, too.

Network leakmeisters are now trying to head off comparisons to Rather's supposed banishment of Walter Cronkite when Dan replaced “the most trusted man in America,” discretely telling the press that Rather's exit is no dictate from Couric.

I believe that. I doubt Couric holds any animus or feels threatened in any way by Rather. My guess is that she's a fan. But you would be hard-pressed to find any fans among those for whom Rather has toiled so long and hard—not to mention risked his life covering wars from Vietnam to Iraq.

Dan deserves better than this.

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