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Rather taken by storm,as Floyd threatens coast

Thursday, September 16, 1999

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Dan Rather had an executive producer tugging at one arm and a hurricane beckoning from the opposite coast. Neither could wait much longer.

"I'm going to have to go. I'm sorry to do this on the fly, but I've got an executive producer and I'm either going to leave here or he's going to have a heart attack, and he has two young kids" so no one wants that to happen, Rather says congenially, concluding a phone call in what's proving to be a very busy week.

On Monday afternoon, Rather was in California to help promote a new time slot for "The CBS Evening News" in Los Angeles. By Tuesday night, he was in Hurricane Floyd country -- Savannah, Ga. Yesterday afternoon, he was in a car headed for Myrtle Beach, S.C., where he planned to set up shop and anchor the network news.

It's too early to predict where he will be tonight. But, contrary to previously announced plans, he will not be in Pittsburgh today or tomorrow.

The hurricane has forced Rather to postpone his trip to Pittsburgh, where he had intended to anchor "The CBS Evening News" from Alcoa Corporate Center on the North Shore and attend a gala celebrating KDKA's 50th anniversary. Both events, along with an afternoon town meeting, are being postponed.

An assistant for Rather in New York said yesterday it was "sadly unfortunate that we have to reschedule, but this is a very large news story that has to be covered." Rather had laid the groundwork for a possible cancellation in that earlier phone call.

"I plan to be there, almost literally come hell or high water, but I have to be candid and I want to be forthright with our friends in Pittsburgh. ... We will have to assess when the hurricane comes in and how big it is when it gets there and what we can do."

As it turned out, the assessment was to stay with the story.

Rather, who will turn 68 on Halloween, has a history with hurricanes.

It was his round-the-clock coverage of Hurricane Carla from Texas in September 1961 that brought him to the network's attention. He and the program director at KHOU in Houston got the then-novel idea of showing the U.S. Weather Bureau's radar picture of the storm.

"It came up from the bottom of the screen in the shape of a half moon, white against black. Then, as it rose, you saw the eye, like the hole in a doughnut, with the swirl around it. At that point Carla was 400 miles wide, the eye 50 miles across," Rather wrote in his 1977 book "The Camera Never Blinks." Any doubts about the severity of the storm were erased. Immediately.

Four years ago, Rather wrapped himself around a pole during Hurricane Opal -- the better to brave the 140-mph winds -- while his competitors were safely ensconced inside.

Years after Carla and Opal, storm coverage remains a public service even as the competition to deliver the best pictures and stories has intensified. And so has the race for positioning for the next century.

Last week, Viacom Inc. announced it was acquiring CBS Inc. for $37.3 billion, creating the world's second-largest media company after Time Warner Inc.

"I don't profess to understand these kinds of extremely complicated financial arrangements. Like a lot of people, I have trouble balancing my checkbook, let alone figuring out this," Rather said.

"However, from everything I can figure out, I think this is a positive development for us, in that as electronic journalism moves into the 21st century, the reality is it's increasingly difficult to compete for quality unless you have a quantity of resources.

"We at CBS, in general, and CBS News, in particular, have felt a little bit disadvantaged in the most recent years because we were facing competitors who had deeper pockets and greater reach. For example, General Electric. For example, Disney. Now, we're able to compete on equal footing in terms of resources and reach."

Despite what a New York Times headline said a week ago, the merger will not mean cuts in the news division. In fact, the Times ran a correction Saturday saying the story did not support the headline's contention.

"There is absolutely and positively no empirical evidence, nor credible testimony, anywhere that this merger or purchase by Viacom of CBS leads to news cuts. Indeed, I have been told on a personal level, if it's necessary, you'll get what you need."

And don't look for the number of newsmagazine shows to shrink any time soon.

"Somewhere out there, there may be a saturation point but this is a reminder of what we all know but sometimes tend to forget: Reality is stranger than fiction and with news, there's always a new story right around the corner."

Rather predicts more reality-based programming in prime time for a couple for reasons, including a better chance at quality ("my friends in the entertainment side might argue with that") and ability to control costs, plus make a bigger profit.

"Now my job is news, but it's also delivering stockholder value, and we are a business and I want our business to succeed because if our business succeeds, then we're able to provide the kind of coverage I want to provide."

Looking back, what about the coverage of the deaths of John F. Kennedy Jr., his wife and sister-in-law, a story reported exhaustively by the media? The anchor, somewhat surprisingly, agrees that the story was overcovered and "I do not exclude myself or CBS from that."

Their deaths in a plane crash were significant and noteworthy but, he adds, "I'm particularly regretful that between the death of John F. Kennedy coverage and the return of the first woman commander of a space shuttle, what got lost between those two was the death of five brave Americans in a crash of a U.S. military plane in Colombia."

Rather isn't just lamenting a missed opportunity to explore what happened to the plane, equipped with sophisticated radar and eavesdropping equipment. He is working on a story about it for "60 Minutes II" for late September or early October.

"Was this plane shot down or did it crash? There were conflicting stories about that. Why were the bodies brought back at 1:30 in the morning rather than given full military honors?" Those are among the questions he's been asking at home and abroad for his report.

Another big, ongoing story, of course, is the 2000 presidential race which is "further along earlier than any presidential campaign in our history. It's also a historic campaign because it will be our first billion-dollar presidential campaign. There will be a billion dollars spent -- that's with a 'b' -- on this presidential campaign. We're deep into it."

Asked his thoughts about the scrutiny Gov. George W. Bush is receiving, the newsman says it's justified.

"First of all, whether you like him, don't like him or don't know, he has distanced himself from the other Republican contenders. He is not, in my opinion, in the position of being unstoppable. At least not yet.

"If he isn't stopped in New Hampshire and-or South Carolina, it's very difficult to see how he will be. He's run a very effective campaign and, particularly, he's raised a lot of money from people who want things out of candidates. Democrats have done the same thing, but Gov. Bush has done a better job than the others."

If anything, though, where Bush stands on the issues has not been covered enough. "What does he stand for? What are the specifics?" The Republican promises to provide specifics, which Rather says is the "good and decent thing to let people know where you stand."

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