The headquarters of Dan Rather Reports is a small, disheveled space just off Times Square in Manhattan, cluttered with temporary office equipment and distinguished by a low drop ceiling that evokes the abode of an insurgency of pamphleteers. In a far corner is Rather’s office. Much of his old furniture has been transplanted from CBS, and a khaki trench coat from his globetrotting days hangs nostalgically in a nook. On a sea chest rests a plaque bearing advice from Benjamin Franklin: “If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you were dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.” Rather is enmeshed in a $70 million breach-of-contract lawsuit against CBS that could help determine how he will be remembered, but the quote registers more as inspiration than epitaph. “I’m still trying to do great journalism,” he told me. “I don’t feel I’ve ever really done that. I keep hoping there’s the potential. Kennedy, Vietnam, Watergate, Afghanistan, any number of exposés for 60 Minutes, Tiananmen Square, 9/11—all of that is part of the record, which is not yet complete.”
Like a lot of things in Rather’s world, Reports was conceived as an ode to his “polar star,” Edward R. Murrow, and specifically as an update on See It Now, Murrow’s landmark television show from the 1950s. Notwithstanding the persistent attempts over the years to decipher Rather’s personality and the odd moments that have pocked his career, his allegiance to Murrow is often missed, or misunderstood. Rather, who turned seventy-seven in October, has been imitating Murrow ever since he was a child bedridden for months with rheumatic fever, inhabiting the universe of Murrow’s radio dispatches from Europe during World War II. When he took over the CBS anchor chair from Walter Cronkite in 1981, Rather decided to “dance with the one that brought me” and emphasize his reporting skills; against many peoples’ advice, he exhumed the reporter-anchor hybrid created by Murrow and made it his own. When George Clooney’s biopic on Murrow, Good Night, and Good Luck, arrived in New York in 2005, Rather saw it immediately—and then he saw it several more times. At the Manhattan premiere, Rather said, he “nearly levitated” from his chair. “It brought back a flood of memories. I was humbled. Here’s Murrow, who could have retired in 1947 and been on everybody’s all-time team, but he didn’t. I was the last person to leave the screening. I wanted to learn.” Rather, of course, was suggesting that in 2004, after CBS eased him off the air over his unsubstantiated report that President Bush got preferential treatment in the Texas Air National Guard, he could have retired, too.
On See It Now, Murrow gave the audience what Rather likes to call “added value”—his high standard for depth and originality. But Murrow was, more essentially, a television pioneer, and a central attraction of Rather’s show is seeing a former stalwart of the establishment, a millionaire and an icon of a decidedly different era, recast in similar terms, on HDNet, a boutique cable channel and with a fraction of his former audience (HDNet has around ten million subscribers, but won’t release numbers for how many watch Reports; when Rather left the anchor chair at CBS Evening News, he had nearly eight million viewers nightly). Playing Rather’s William Paley in this improbable sequel is Mark Cuban, the billionaire Internet entrepreneur who co-founded HDNet hoping to cash in on the high-definition technology craze, and who, in the summer of 2006, plucked Rather from the purgatorial aftermath of his 60 Minutes II report on Bush, offering him carte blanche to develop an investigative news show that would function as a counterpoint to the superficial inclinations of network news. While the analogy isn’t perfect, the show is, surely, a throwback. Many of the twenty-five staff members are exiles from big media companies, happily untethered from the burden of ratings, and the productions have an anachronistic bent: long, sober, and largely advertisement-free documentaries thoroughly devoid of excessive sentiment and the “gets” and “money shots” of prime-time TV. “Cuban deserves a lot of credit. I had my doubts,” Rather told me. “But the only thing he ever said to me was, ‘Have guts and do excellent work.’ ” The effect, Rather claims, has been rejuvenating. “This is sheer joy for me. I’ve never been happier or more satisfied. One reason I’m talking to you is to spread the word.”