Before his acrimonious departure in 2006, Dan Rather spent 44 years at CBS News. For more than two decades he was the face of the network, anchor of the CBS Evening News, watched by millions of viewers every night. But it was never the right fit. He felt constrained by the anchor desk, unable to share opinions or analysis, and he was more interested in reporting in the field than reading a teleprompter in a Manhattan studio. Now at age 86, Rather, who started his reporting career before the advent of color TV, has found a medium that suits his personality and has revived his influence: near-daily Facebook posts in which he expounds on American life, politics, and, especially, Donald Trump.
“What I’m doing now gives me as much pleasure and satisfaction as anything I’ve done in my career,” Rather tells me in his instantly recognizable, barely changed baritone via telephone from Galveston, Texas.
Though hardly active two years ago, Rather’s Facebook page is now liked by more than two and a half million users, more than the pages of Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Megyn Kelly, or Anderson Cooper—let alone any standing network news anchor.
“What Facebook allows me to do is express myself with commentary that I couldn’t do at the network,” Rather says. “Facebook allows me to be myself. I answer to no one but myself.”
Rather has been especially popular with younger audiences on the platform, many of whom have no memory of him as a network anchor. In January, he started hosting a weekly YouTube show for The Young Turks, a progressive online network geared toward millennials. Billed as an “untraditional evening newscast,” Rather appears on the 30-minute show from his office desk. He also oversees a production company and website called News and Guts, hosts a weekly Sirius XM radio show called Dan Rather’s America, and hosts an entertainment-focused television show, The Big Interview, on AXS TV. Last fall, he co-authored a book with Elliot Kirschner, What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism, which debuted on The New York Times bestseller list.
Rather is receiving the adulation now that eluded him during much of his network anchoring career, where his ratings often came in last of the three nightly newscasts. Still, Rather is humble and even insecure about a career marked by dramatic highs and lows—or, as he puts it, “sunshine and stormy days.” He remains restless.
“I’ve always wanted to be a great reporter,” Rather says. “I have never achieved that, but it’s always been my polar star.”
On March 9, 2005, Rather anchored his last broadcast of The CBS Evening News—a stormy end to his long career. After introducing the night’s stories, Rather took a long pause and looked solemnly into the camera.
“We have shared a lot in the 24 years we’ve been meeting here each evening,” Rather said. “A deeply felt thanks to all of you who have let us into your homes, night after night.”
“Goodnight,” Rather said, as the screen faded to credits.
It was an unceremonious end, brought about by a flawed investigation into President George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard duty during the Vietnam War, a report Rather stands by to this day.
“I’m fully aware I’ve made a lot of mistakes,” Rather says. “I have my wounds, some of them self-inflicted.”
In September 2004, during the heated final months of the presidential campaign between George W. Bush and John Kerry, one of Rather’s longtime producers, Mary Mapes, told Rather she had found three documents proving Bush did not show up, nor take the physical examination required for the Texas National Guard. Mapes also said she had another document detailing how senior officers covered up for Bush.
“I’ve always wanted to be a great reporter,” Rather says. “I have never achieved that, but it’s always been my polar star.”
The story turned up at a frenetic time for Rather, who had just spent a week covering the Republican National Convention and a hurricane in Florida. But Rather was determined to air the story as quickly as possible, and, as is often the case with busy TV news anchors, he relied heavily on his producers for most of the reporting.
“There were a lot of people asleep at the switch,” recalls John Reade, who was a producer at CBS News from 1972 to 2009 and worked closely with Rather, though not on the National Guard story. “It was around the Labor Day weekend, and a lot of people were away.”
Almost as soon as the story aired, right-wing commentators assailed the documents as fake. Twelve days later, the president of CBS News, Andrew Heyward, issued a statement retracting the report: “Based on what we now know, CBS News cannot prove that the documents are authentic….We should not have used them. That was a mistake, which we deeply regret.”
After giving up the anchor chair, Rather planned to stay at CBS News as a contributor to 60 Minutes. However, after presenting just one piece for the short-lived 60 Minutes II, Rather had to give up that job, too.
“Frankly, I could not imagine myself being anywhere but CBS for the rest of my professional life,” Rather remembers. “I was somewhat downcast to leave a place I’d been for 44 years.”
In 2007, Rather filed a $70 million lawsuit against CBS and its executives, alleging the network marginalized him and tarnished his reputation to appease the White House. Rather played “largely a supervisory role” in reporting the story, according to the lawsuit, which painted a miserable picture of Rather’s final months at CBS. “CBS management coerced Mr. Rather into publicly apologizing and taking personal blame for alleged journalist errors in the Broadcast,” the suit read. “Even if any aspect of the Broadcast had not been accurate, which has never been established, Mr. Rather was not responsible for any such errors.” (There was also a generous salary; Rather was set to earn a reduced salary of $4 million in his new role, down from $6 million.)
A panel of judges of the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division dismissed the lawsuit in 2010. But for someone who had spent more than half a century working as a journalist, Rather’s legal action was tone-deaf. Media critics slammed him again, and former colleagues were dismayed he was positioning himself as an innocent victim. “I think he’s gone off the deep end,” Josh Howard, the executive producer of 60 Minutes II when Rather’s story aired, who was also dismissed because of the National Guard story, told The Washington Post. “He seems to be saying he was just the narrator. He did every interview. He worked the sources over the phone. He was there in the room with the so-called document experts. He argued over every line in the script. It’s laughable.”
In 2015, the screenwriter and director, James Vanderbilt, released a feature film about Rather’s downfall called Truth. Robert Redford starred as Rather. While the film was panned by most critics (“Truth: A Terrible, Terrible Movie About Journalism,” wrote The Atlantic), it provided Rather with another opportunity to defend his reporting.
“We reported a true story and contrary to CBS tradition and history, they caved,” Rather told Poynter after the movie was released. “I believed what was in the documents [was] true. I believed it then, I believe it now.” Rather says he is still hurt by “the effort to bury the record.”
Tom Bettag, who was executive producer of The CBS Evening News from 1986 to 1991 before he moved to ABC to oversee Nightline, largely agrees with Rather.
“CBS did what served its interests,” Bettag tells CJR. “What his team ran into with a single document does not invalidate the substance of the story. CBS News killed the whole investigation of Bush’s service because of that one document. That call by CBS remains questionable.”
After his painful exit from CBS News, Rather had no intention of retiring and was soon hired by the brash billionaire tech investor and Dallas Mavericks owner, Mark Cuban, to host a news magazine on Cuban’s fledgling HDNet, now called AXS TV. An anchor who had once been watched by 18 million viewers was now on a channel not even rated by Nielsen, sandwiched between a program about mixed martial arts and a travel show hosted by women in bikinis. Rather risked fading into obscurity. Then, in 2015, at the urging of his small team of producers, most of them under 30, he reluctantly agreed to start posting regular commentaries on social media.
“The argument that finally persuaded me is I was being told by the people who cared about me that if you want to be anywhere close to relevance—if you want to be part of the conversation—you have to be on Twitter and Facebook,” Rather says.
Rather, who still gets most of his news from reading five newspapers a day, says he was skeptical of entering such unfamiliar terrain. “Given his profile, it could have been an old-man-yells-at-a-crowd kind of thing,” says Martin Rather, Rather’s 20-year-old grandson.
“Truth be told, I didn’t see much of the use in it,” Rather wrote in a post last March celebrating his two-millionth like. “My journalistic mentors taught me to value depth and thoughtfulness and to be wary of PR. Facebook to me seemed like a place for promotion.”
It has also proven a place for trolls, propaganda, and clickbait. But with his blend of old-fashioned Texas folksiness and sharp knowledge of modern American political history, Rather seems to be one of the few people on Facebook who is able to elevate the medium. There are no listicles or memes, just relatively long—by Facebook standards—unvarnished reflections from someone who’s been covering politics since the Nixon administration. (“How Dan Rather Became the Only Good Newsman on Facebook” was the headline on a Daily Beast assessment in 2016.)
An anchor who had once been watched by 18 million viewers was now on a channel not even rated by Nielsen, sandwiched between a program about mixed martial arts and a travel show hosted by women in bikinis.
Rather had the good fortune to start regularly posting around the same time Donald Trump started his presidential campaign; it’s hard to imagine that writing about Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton would have attracted nearly as much attention. “I have never done anything like this before in my life,” Rather wrote in August of 2016. “I have peered into the abyss of dysfunction, and it is terrifying. And more than anything that is what is driving me to not be silent.”
Facebook has liberated Rather from the ideological confines of being a straight-down-the-middle TV newsman, which his critics never thought he was very good at in the first place. But he also avoids the trap some liberal commentators fall into of being overly sanctimonious or depressing. No matter how badly he thinks the country is being run, Rather tries to put things in perspective.
In January, between posts about the government shutdown and income inequality, Rather linked to a National Geographic story about the discovery of a giant underwater cave in Mexico, the sort of lighter item that he may have used to end a newscast. “Politics may be dispiriting, but the natural world can still surprise us and fill us with awe,” he wrote.
Marsha Robertson replied to Rather’s post: “Thank you. I needed that reminder of a world where discoveries are still being made, and science is still pursued.”
At CBS News, Rather was known for his folksy one-liners that were dubbed Ratherisms. On election night in 2000, Rather told viewers: “This race is as tight as the rusted lug nuts on a ’55 Ford.”
On election night in 2016, Rather reprised these eccentricities for social media. “Please keep in mind, exit polls can shift faster than a feather in a tornado,” Rather cautioned early in the night. A short time later, he added: “No matter who you support, I think the anxiety in this country is as nervous as bird dogs in a duck bind.” Then, with some optimism, Rather tweeted: “If Clinton wins Florida, this race will go faster than a Hamilton ticket at face value.” And later, with the electoral map looking increasingly red, Rather wrote: “The news out of Virginia [has] the Democrats shaking like a wet dog.” A little later: “Nearing cardiac arrest time for team Clinton. She trails in FL + VA. Early indications in Michigan are enough to give them heebie jeebies.”
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Early the next morning, Rather posted on Facebook in a more somber tone. “We are entering into uncharted territory as a nation with a now president-elect who has run roughshod over the norms of American presidential campaigns,” he wrote, before urging his followers to take a deep breath.
“I still believe that most Americans are kind and decent people, including—overwhelmingly—those who voted for Trump,” Rather wrote in a post liked more than 47,000 times. “I still believe we can work together.”
In the year since, Rather has given his followers historical context. “I haven’t been everywhere, but I’ve been a lot of places and seen a lot, so my hope was I could bring some perspective,” Rather says.
Less than a month after Trump took office, the Times reported Trump associates, including former Campaign Manager Paul Manafort, were in contact with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign.
“Watergate is the biggest political scandal of my lifetime, until maybe now,” Rather wrote following the news in a Facebook post on February 7, which itself made news in many media outlets, including The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC.
Rather’s most popular posts have been pithy rebuttals to Trump’s tweets. On the morning of September 30, Trump tweeted 13 times about Puerto Rico’s response to Hurricane Maria. “Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help,” Trump tweeted.
A couple of hours later, Rather scolded Trump: “Excuse me, Mr. President, but your tantrum tweet storm this morning attacking the mayor of San Juan, a fellow American citizen dealing with a real-time life and death struggle for hundreds of thousands of her constituents on an island of millions in crisis, is not only far below the dignity of the office you hold. It fails even the most basic test of humanity.” The post was liked more than half a million times and attracted more than 36,000 comments.
Rather says he is energized by the ability to instantly see how his followers are reacting. “Social media, more than anything I’ve ever been a part of, is more of a true conversation,” he says. “I love the sense of community. It’s a new experience for me. When you’re anchoring, the feedback tends to be very small.” (Still, the conversation has its limits, as Rather stays above the fray by not directly responding to his followers’ long threads of comments.)
During his time at CBS, Rather often came across as stiff and pretentious on screen. But now, unlike the “voice of god” perch of the network news anchor, Rather’s Facebook posts appear right alongside those of his followers’ friends, which naturally leads people to treat him as one, especially when he shares pictures of his life on the road. When Rather posted a photo on Twitter from a television green room of the Fritos and Dr. Pepper he was consuming on his long book tour, his followers reacted with alarm. “Please don’t compromise your health! Have an apple and protein shake!” wrote one user. “Nooooooo. We want you around for a long time sir,” wrote another.
The next day, Rather defiantly posted a picture of himself holding a milkshake at In-N-Out Burger. “I must confess that I am heartened and a bit bemused by comments from many of you wishing for my continued health,” he wrote. “I do like Fritos, but I try to limit myself to a few handfuls and I share the rest with guests who stop by.”
Just like other stars of social media, Rather gives his followers a seemingly unfiltered window into his life and thoughts—something that has helped make him an unlikely darling of millennials, who are notorious for shunning most television newscasts. (“I am restive…in mind and body,” Rather wrote in January when a cold snap hit the Northeast. “I worry about heading out, where the arctic gusts may reanimate a recent mild case of the flu and where icy sidewalks are treacherous, especially for those of us who may not be as spry on our feet as we once remembered.”) “When he left the air, I was seven years old,” says Martin, his grandson. “For my friends, they all know him through Facebook.”
Rather thinks he appeals to millennials for relatively straightforward reasons; “They are looking for an experienced, steady voice that doesn’t shout,” he says, “that tries to give them some context and perspective.” That Rather is in his mid-80s is irrelevant for young viewers, according to Cenk Uygur, Rather’s boss at The Young Turks Network. “What millennials respect and value is not based on age, it’s based on authenticity,” says Uygur. “That calm and reasoned analysis is exactly what the doctor ordered, and is what the news business needs right now.”
Rather’s former producers say no one should be surprised he has gained such a large following on Facebook so quickly. In a business nearly synonymous with hard work, they say Rather was always known as the hardest worker on staff. And then there’s Rather’s heartland appeal during a time in which the country is divided between elite coasts and so-called flyover country. He grew up poor in Texas, the son of an oil ditch digger and a seamstress.
“He has a lot of the old-time American qualities, trying to be honest and stick up to the little guy and speak truth to power,” says Reade.
“This is a time of unsettling turmoil,” Bettag says. “Few have witnessed—and been in the middle of—as much turmoil as Dan. He speaks clearly about what he considers the boundaries of ethical behavior. His voice is lucid when so many others are muddled.”
Rather says he has no desire to slow down, as long as he remains in good health. “I’m a child of the road,” he says. “I continue to go full throttle and full forward.”
When our conversation comes to an end, he thanks me profusely. “I’m flattered and honored you would call,” he says, before adding: “I’m going to go walk the beach.”
The next day, a photo of Rather standing on the boardwalk next to the beach in Galveston, smiling in the evening sun, appears on his Facebook page.
TOP IMAGE: Journalist Dan Rather in New York City. (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)