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.”
It was interesting, given the degree of animus surrounding Rather, to hear him talk about happiness and satisfaction, neither of which has ever been considered indispensable to the Rather brand. One reason I was talking to him was that there was something intriguing about the notion of Dan Rather at peace, even though I had never fully bought the various simplistic characterizations that he had been saddled with over the years, from “bizarro Rather” to “liberal Rather” to “folksy, sentimental Rather.” He dodges most questions that attempt to get at his place in history, but Wayne Nelson, his executive producer on Reports, told me that Rather is “enjoying life for the first time,” and I thought maybe he’d open up and talk candidly about his departure from CBS, and about his most dramatic career moments, many of which are among his most contentious. I wanted to reconcile all the ideas that people have about him with the ideas that he has about himself. I also thought that sooner or later he might revert to form. In June, he’d indicated the possibility of getting exclusive interviews with the presidential candidates for what he called “a sit down, not a debate—a talk about things not normally talked about, like crumbling national infrastructure and schools.” Given his notorious run-ins with politicians—he once publicly mocked President Nixon at a press conference in Houston during the Watergate crisis, and later sparred with vice president George H. W. Bush during an interview about the Iran-Contra scandal—I wondered what might happen if he sat with, say, John McCain, and dug into the senator’s positions on the war in Iraq.