Dan Rather Was First to Congratulate Scott Pelley on 'CBS Evening News' Gig

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Scott Pelley

CBS News chairman Jeff Fager says Rather "means so much to our organization" but it "ended so badly" and addresses Katie Couric's exit, pay-to-play and the News Corp. hacking scandal.

BEVERLY HILLS – The first letter of congratulations Scott Pelley received upon his promotion to anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News was from Dan Rather.

Pelley revealed at the Television Critics Association press tour Wednesday morning that Rather sent him a hand-written note via “courier” on Rather’s signature grey stationary.

"It said, congratulations, well-done and well-deserved," said Pelley.

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Rather anchored the CBS Evening News for 24 years and spent more than four decades at the news division. He was ousted from the anchor chair over a faulty 60 Minutes II report about George W. Bush’s Vietnam-era National Guard service. He subsequently mounted an ugly and protracted $70 million lawsuit against his former employer.

“Dan was a great friend of mine and a mentor,” said Pelley, who like Rather hails from Texas. 

“[He] has an important and enduring place in the history of CBS News. I hate the way it ended,” he added. “But he will always have that important place in CBS News history.”

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CBS News chairman Jeff Fager echoed Pelley’s sentiments about Rather’s legacy. But that does not mean there is any change that Rather will ever return to CBS News.

“I loved working with him,” said Fager. “He means so much to our organization. We worked together for years. It ended so badly, it’s hard to see how it could be reconciled.”

Pelley, who inherited the CBS Evening News from Katie Couric, has grown the broadcast's total viewer tune-in since he took over last June. Fager and CBS News president David Rhodes, who assumed their positions last February, presided over the transition.

Fager said the choice to leave was Couric’s.

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“I think at some point she realized she really needed to move on and spread her wings in a way that is more appropriate for her,” he said. “I think she was frustrated [on the Evening News]. She handled it as well as she could. And I think they have a lot over those years to be very proud of.”

Couric will mount a daytime talk show on ABC next year and will contribute to ABC News. She recently made her debut on The View, where she co-hosted the network’s daytime show with Barbara Walters and her longtime couch-mates.

“I think [Couric] was the best person ever on the morning program,” added Fager. “There’s a lot going for her. She’s incredibly spontaneous. She’s great live. I loved her on 60 Minutes. She did some stories that we’re so proud of.”

Speaking of 60 Minutes, Fager said the broadcast was not pressured to stay away from covering the network’s primetime troubles with Charlie Sheen. But he told the Hollywood Reporter recently that 60 Minutes has no plans for an interview with Two And A Half Men creator Chuck Lorre. He also reiterated the news division’s policy of not paying license fees to interview subjects for personal photos or home video. Though he said 60 Minutes producers are often deflecting requests for remuneration from potential interview subjects.

“I think it’s a terrible practice,” said Fager. “For our organization, it goes against what we believe in. I’m against it. I’m against it for our organization. I think if others want to do it; fine. There are so many sorties out there to tell. And we don’t need to get involved in that.”

Pay-to-play has certainly given the TV news industry a black eye. (ABC News recently instituted a new policy banning it after it was revealed that the news division had paid Casey Anthony $200,000.) But the News of the World hacking scandal has lifted a rock on the seamy practices in print journalism.

“I think it was surprising to people,” said Fager. “I think reporters already have problems with where they stand in terms of their rank as human beings. We all know it. We all share it. We sort of switch places with lawyers a lot. What they were willing to do to get a story is frightening. I think it’s a little scary and it will be interesting to see if any of that bleeds into practices in this country.”