The iconic newsman, now 83, hasn't stepped foot inside CBS in nearly 10 years. But he still has plenty to report about politics (Trump), network news ("I'm glad Brian Williams is back") and seeing his biggest mistake on the big screen. "It's astounding how little truth there is in 'Truth,'" counters CBS.
This story first appeared in the Oct. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
There is a single Emmy in the living room of Dan Rather's Upper East Side co-op. It is shoved a little haphazardly into the corner of a built-in bookcase that holds family pictures, a portrait of his daughter, Robin, dozens of books and a framed black-and-white snapshot of a younger Rather with his son, Danjack, taken on a reporting trip to Nixon's San Clemente estate during the Watergate scandal. The gold plate on the statue is worn almost completely away, exposing the hard, gray nickel underneath. It is the nature of gilding — the luster only lasts so long — and the inevitable consequence of too much handling.
"This one, something happened to it …" murmurs Rather as he rises from an upholstered side chair to pick up the statue. We squint at the engraved inscription: "The Agnew Resignation."
"Well, no wonder it's looking a little droopy," he laughs.
It's more than 40 years old, awarded for Rather's 1973 report on the CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite about the resignation of Richard Nixon's vice president, Spiro Agnew, under a cloud of corruption charges.
As he returns the Emmy to the shelf, Rather notes, "I have a Peabody for the Abu Ghraib story somewhere. I don't know where it is."
Abu Ghraib — the bombshell 2004 report that revealed the torture and murder of prisoners at the jail near Baghdad — was Rather's final journalistic triumph before his ignominious fall. The segment, which aired on the Wednesday edition of 60 Minutes, was produced by Mary Mapes, a talented and dogged producer and Rather's frequent collaborator. But on Sept. 8, 2004, a mere six months after their Iraq exposé humiliated the George W. Bush administration and less than two months before Bush would be re-elected, Rather and Mapes aired the story that would finish their CBS careers: "For the Record," an investigation of Bush's military service from 1968 to 1973 in the Texas Air National Guard's "champagne unit'' — so dubbed because it sheltered privileged progeny, and some Dallas Cowboys, from combat in Vietnam. The truly explosive revelation, based on photocopied memos purportedly written by Bush's squadron commander, was that Bush had disobeyed an order to appear for a physical in 1972, raising the specter that he may have gone AWOL from the Guard.
The White House did not initially raise any issues with the documents' provenance. But Bush maintained he did not get special treatment in the Guard; he was honorably discharged in 1973. The right wing blogosphere pounced immediately, depicting Mapes and Rather as lefty crusaders hell-bent on bringing down a president. The mainstream media quickly piled on, and after the dust settled, Mapes was fired (she never worked in TV news again) and Rather's reputation was forever tainted. Less than two years later, he left CBS News, where he had worked for 44 years, and filed a $70 million lawsuit against his former employer.
“[CBS hasn’t] had anybody who worked harder and cared more about the people and the place that CBS is — its history, its traditions — than I did. And still do,” says Rather, photographed Sept. 23 at Craig’s in West Hollywood.
And now Hollywood inserts a late chapter into the saga. Truth, based on Mapes' 2005 memoir, dramatizes the episode — with Oscar winners Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford as Mapes and Rather — in a narrative that depicts them as courageous reporters betrayed by a corporation that cared more about its standing in Washington than protecting its journalists. The film opens Oct. 16 via Sony Pictures Classics.
"It's astounding how little truth there is in Truth," says CBS in a statement to THR about the drama. "There are, in fact, too many distortions, evasions and baseless conspiracy theories to enumerate them all. The film tries to turn gross errors of journalism and judgment into acts of heroism and martyrdom. That's a disservice not just to the public but to journalists across the world who go out every day and do everything within their power, sometimes at great risk to themselves, to get the story right." (The makers of Truth fired back with a statement of their own: "Although we understand CBS wants to put this episode behind them, it's disappointing that they seem to be so concerned about our film … We hope people will see the film and judge for themselves.")
Director James Vanderbilt — a screenwriter who adapted Robert Graysmith's books about San Francisco's Zodiac serial killer for the David Fincher-directed film — optioned Mapes' book soon after reading a 2005 excerpt in Vanity Fair. Mapes initially was hesitant to allow Hollywood to get its hands on her story. "She was still in the swirl of it and in a little bit of a defensive crouch," says Vanderbilt. "So I asked Robert Graysmith to write her a letter, to basically say he's not a monster, he's a nice guy, and you should consider talking to him."
Mapes, five years before the scandal, in 1999. “Dan never turned on me,” she says.
Rather and Mapes have no official credit on the film. And both say they initially were skeptical that their story ever would make it to the screen. Rather met with Vanderbilt and Brad Fischer, Vanderbilt's partner at production shingle Mythology Entertainment and a producer on Truth, soon after Mapes granted the option. "Somebody comes to you and says, 'We want to make a movie about one of the darkest periods in your life,' " says Fischer. "To go along with that takes a great degree of trust."
During our two hours together in his living room, Rather says repeatedly that he is "at peace" and that he's "moved on." In many ways he has; at 83, he still works full time and travels constantly. But it also is clear that he will never get over it.
"CBS," says Rather, his voice almost a whisper, "has a great history of backing its reporters, Ed Murrow with McCarthy, Cronkite with the Vietnam War, myself and others during Watergate. The movie has brought it back into focus. I have been and still am trying to be deep into humility and modesty, grateful for being able to make a living at this. I mean, CBS may have correspondents and anchors who are better at it than I've ever been. But they haven't had anybody who worked harder and cared more about the people and the place that CBS is — its history, its traditions — than I did. And still do."
Rather had an almost mythical, Zelig-like presence in the second half of the 20th century. He was on the motorcade route in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, the day President Kennedy was shot, and on countless battlefields of Vietnam. As CBS News' White House correspondent during the Nixon administration, he was among the president's most reliable antagonists, and his reporting from the front lines during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, wearing a mujahideen headdress, earned him the nickname "Gunga Dan." Rather never could resist racing to the scene of a big storm, even though, as he puts it, he "was raised by people who taught me to fear only God and hurricanes." After years as a correspondent, he replaced Cronkite at the helm of CBS Evening News in 1981 and often was the first of the big three anchors to fly into a hotspot, forcing ABC's Peter Jennings and NBC's Tom Brokaw to follow. Charismatic, inspiring and with a militaristic moral code that prized loyalty, he was a favorite among field producers.
"Dan was very loyal to people who worked hard for him," notes Jim Murphy, who was Rather's executive producer during his last five years on CBS Evening News. "He was a gentleman, which is a very pleasant thing when you're on the road in lousy places. And he'd put up with what anybody else could put up with. He was never a prima donna in the field. He could be a prima donna in certain ways because he was a big star, but not when it came to dealing with dirt in Afghanistan."
Truth picks up Rather's story in October 2004, opening with a scene in which Blanchett, as Mapes, pops a Xanax as she prepares to go over her testimony to the independent panel enlisted by CBS to investigate the debacle. "It is one of the most difficult things I've ever gone through in my life," says Mapes, who lives in Dallas and writes for policy groups and corporations and works as a ghostwriter. "But Dan never turned on me, he never blamed me, he never made me feel bad, he never made me feel like a failure. Of course, I did all that to myself, on some level. But Dan was incredibly loyal."
The anchor prepared for a broadcast of 'CBS Evening News With Dan Rather' in 2000.
Mapes and Rather were attacked for their perceived liberal bias. And Mapes was the target of a barrage of misogynist insults. In one scene, Blanchett scrolls through a litany of vile anonymous comments before slamming her laptop shut. "It's tragically normal now to see someone get chewed up and spit out on the Internet," says Mapes. "It happens every day. But that hadn't happened before. We hadn't had a big Internet takedown."
Though Rather was forced to apologize for the report — and specifically for using documents that could not be authenticated — today he steadfastly maintains that the story was factually accurate. "We reported a true story," he says. "There wasn't any doubt then, and there is no doubt in any reasonable person's mind now, the story was true." This in spite of the fact that the documents' source — Bill Burkett, retired lieutenant colonel from the Texas Air National Guard and a known Bush critic — lied to them about where he got them.
The independent investigation — which was led by Dick Thornburgh, a veteran of the administrations of Nixon and George H.W. Bush, and Louis Boccardi, former president of the Associated Press — concluded in a report released in January 2005 that Mapes, Rather and others involved in the story disregarded "fundamental journalistic principles." And while the panel stopped short of labeling the documents forgeries, serious questions were raised about their authenticity.
"CBS," says Rather, his voice almost a whisper, “has a great history of backing its reporters, Ed Murrow with McCarthy, Cronkite with the Vietnam War, myself and others during Watergate. The movie has brought it back into focus."
By the time the report was made public, Rather had announced that he would step down as anchor (but not until March 9, 2005, exactly 24 years after he succeeded Cronkite). After that he would work full time at 60 Minutes. But he was not greeted warmly by his colleagues there. The other 60 correspondents — a notoriously sharp-elbowed group — descended en masse into executive producer Jeff Fager's office to protest Rather's addition to their ranks. In another incident, Mike Wallace upbraided Rather in the men's room for not falling on his sword sooner and sparing the news division more damage.
Still, Rather did good work at 60 Minutes, filing several noteworthy reports that year about North Korea, prison gangs and the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. But he was nursing resentments and became increasingly isolated. When his contract came up in 2006, he received what was known internally as the "Cronkite offer": an office, a secretary and emeritus status in perpetuity. But Rather resisted being shunted into what he viewed as a largely irrelevant role. And so on June 19, 2006, he left CBS News, where he was earning $6 million a year.
Of course, that wasn't the end of it. More than a year later, in September 2007, Rather would fire the broadside that would make his exile from CBS News permanent; he sued his former employers for $70 million. Sumner Redstone, chairman of then-CBS parent Viacom, CBS president Leslie Moonves and CBS News president Andrew Heyward were named in the suit, which accused CBS of mishandling the National Guard investigation and scapegoating Rather. The case dragged on for two years, finally ending when a New York state appeals court dismissed it in 2009. Truth does not cover the lawsuit. It ends with Mapes and three other CBS News staffers losing their jobs and Rather stepping down from the anchor desk. Instead, Vanderbilt, who harbored early aspirations to become a journalist, was drawn to the how-the-sausage-gets-made aspects of the story.
"We get to see how our media is packaged and delivered to us and then how it all falls apart," he says.
He'd been working on the script off and on for several years. And in March 2014, the day after Blanchett won an Oscar for Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, he sent her the script. Three months later, she signed on. Redford, who famously played Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in 1976's All the President's Men, soon followed.
Rather says he was stunned into silence when Vanderbilt told him Redford would play him. He first met the actor — a veteran environmentalist — back in the 1970s, when Redford called 60 Minutes to persuade the newsmagazine to do a piece about plans for coal-fired power plants across the Southwest states, including Utah, where Redford is a longtime homeowner. Rather ended up being the correspondent on the piece.
"This is another example to me of [the Bush] administration worried about what was going to be exposed about a reputation that had holes in it," explains Redford about why he wanted to play the news anchor. "And so they tried to discredit the journalist. And to me, that's a story about where the truth is. And that's a worthy story to go after."
From left: Redford as Rather, Blanchett as Mapes and Bruce Greenwood as CBS News president Heyward in 'Truth.'
After leaving CBS, Rather was hired by Mark Cuban to create an investigative newsmagazine for HDNet, the network Cuban started in 2001. Launched in October 2006, Dan Rather Reports produced 42 installments a year and earned accolades for segments on counterfeit drugs from China, Iran's nuclear program and the war in Afghanistan. In 2012, HDNet was rebranded as AXS, with a focus on music. (In an ironic twist, CBS Corp. took an equity stake in AXS in 2013.) And Rather switched gears and now interviews music stars like the Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead, Melissa Etheridge and Jack White. His own taste in music hews toward old-school country (Bob Wills, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams). But he says his 14-year-old grandson Andy is teaching him about rap; they recently saw Straight Outta Compton together. And while he appreciates the new beat, he admits "it's like landing on a planet in a distant universe."
Cuban is effusive about Rather. "I have yet to stump him on current or historic events," wrote Cuban in an email. "Not only can he recount almost any situation, but he will give you an anecdote that somehow connects him to it."
With seed money from Cuban (Cuban won't say how much), Rather also is pitching projects through his independent production company News & Guts. He's reluctant to say too much "because people steal ideas." But he reveals that there is interest from a cable network in an unscripted travelogue series informed by his work as a journalist in foreign datelines.
"I learned as a younger reporter that the quickest way to learn about the people is to quickly go see a birth, a wedding and a funeral. That will tell you a great deal about the culture and ethos of the country," he explains. "So we have this idea of pairing a young reporter with a more experienced reporter, perhaps myself."
He also recently signed on as a contributor at the website Mashable, where he writes columns about major news events and hosts an interview program called Drinking With Dan, where he recently questioned comedian Josh Ostrovsky, aka The Fat Jew, about accusations of joke-stealing. (After Ostrovsky concluded a long-winded and twisted denial, Rather asks: "Now, on a four-eyes basis, man-to-man, what are the chances that what you've just given me is just a blizzard of bullshit?")
Rather interviewed then-presidential candidate George W. Bush inside the Governor’s Mansion in Austin in 2000.
All of this necessitates a peripatetic lifestyle that is unusual for a man in his 80s; during a recent week, he traveled from Austin (where he has a second home) to New York to Canada (for the Toronto Film Festival premiere of Truth) to Nashville (to interview Connie Britton for his AXS show) to Savannah, Ga., to Bentonville, Ark., to Tulsa, Okla., to Dallas to Los Angeles to Palm Springs, back to L.A. and back to New York. His wife, Jean (they've been married 58 years), spends a fair amount of time in Austin — "We're both fifth-generation Texans," he says.
His travel schedule does not allow much TV, but he watches the news when he can. He offers ABC's World News Tonight anchor David Muir a "tip of the Stetson" for his interview with Pope Francis. He also tilts his hat to Donald Trump — "I said at the beginning he's smarter than people think" — but is skeptical of the Republican frontrunner's on-again, off-again feud with Fox News and its chairman, Roger Ailes. "I'm not suggesting a conspiracy — I'm just saying I think each understands the other's needs." Occasionally, Rather even finds time to tune in to his old show on CBS. "I respect 60 Minutes," he says. "I wish they did more investigative reporting."
If he has an opinion on more recent TV news controversies — like 60 Minutes' proved-to-be-false story about the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi (correspondent Lara Logan still has her job; her contract was extended last summer) — he's keeping them to himself. "I'm not an authority on how they handled that case, but I will say: different time, different story, different set of circumstances. It's a separate case. The Brian Williams case is a separate case."
Rather publicly defended Williams during his own credibility crisis at NBC. While Williams was sitting out his six-month suspension, Rather says he reached out to the former Nightly News anchor. "I don't want to go into it because it's personal," is all he'll say of that conversation. "I'm glad to see him back, and I wish him well."
Still, it's been nearly 10 years since Rather last set foot inside CBS News headquarters on West 57th Street, his professional home for more than four decades. His 2012 memoir, Rather Outspoken, is absent any note of contrition. He says he does not regret the lawsuit. He won't say how much it cost him, except that it was "very expensive." (Sources at CBS News estimate that he spent between $3 million and $5 million; Rather contends CBS Corp. spent $20 million defending itself.) He was warned he had little chance of prevailing, but he went ahead anyway: "I wanted to find out what really happened, as opposed to what I had been told happened. Some things are worth fighting for, even if you lose.
"I have a lot of flaws and a lot of vulnerabilities," he says at the end of the two-hour interview. "I've made a lot of mistakes. I have a lot of wounds, some of them self-inflicted, some of them still partially open. But I'm a fighter."