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RATHER'S DEPARTURE VIEWED AS DAMAGE CONTROL

During the recent presidental election coverage, CBS anchor Dan Rather ran like a strong third-party candidate in Western New York.

Despite having news leader WIVB-TV as his partner, the coverage anchored by Rather had a 5.7 rating here. NBC's final election with Tom Brokaw (and Buffalo native son Tim Russert) on the third-rated local news operation had a 9.9. ABC's coverage anchored by Peter Jennings on WKBW-TV had a 9.0.

Losing Buffalo that badly is an indication of the damage that CBS and Rather suffered after the Sept. 8 "60 Minutes Wednesday" report on the National Guard service of President Bush that centered around allegedly forged documents.

Rather is beyond retirement age at 73 and says he had been having talks about giving up his anchor seat well before the controversy. But there's just no way he can distance himself from the perception that the "60 Minutes" mistake and the resulting damage to CBS affiliates like Channel 4 ended his great, controversial career in the anchor seat a little prematurely.

"I'm not going to speculate there," said Chris Musial, the general manager of WIVB. He wouldn't say he was happy or sad to see Rather announce he would be leaving his anchor seat on his 24th anniversary in March and then report for "60 Minutes."

"I guess I'm benevolent," said Musial. "Before this whole episode, the CBS Evening News performed very well in this market. I think (the "60 Minutes" report) hurt CBS and, by extension, us at 6:30 p.m."

According to Channel 4 researcher Bob Gallivan, the share of the audience that Rather's newscast has slipped here since the Sept. 8 report. Still, Tuesday's announcement caught Musial by surprise.

"I thought he was in it for the long haul," he said. "My question now is who is in the wings? There's nobody as far as I know. We need to know what the plan is. On the surface, it doesn't seem there is one."

It didn't take long for speculation to begin on a successor. The candidates on CBS' staff who are considered most likely to succeed Rather are White House correspondent John Roberts and Scott Pelley of "60 Minutes."

Alex Jones, a Harvard University media expert, told CNN's Judy Woodruff Tuesday afternoon that she, ABC's Diane Sawyer and NBC's Russert would be credible candidates. His speculation didn't take into account their contracts. NBC has Russert signed through 2012.

The absence of a CBS successor is one of many curious circumstances surrounding the timing of the announcement. Rather and his boss, Les Moonves, told the New York Times they believed the announcement had to made before a report by an independent panel is released about how CBS mishandled the Bush story. The announcement also came only two days before Thanksgiving, which generally is a time that newsmakers try to bury news. And it came only eight days before Brokaw is passing his anchor baton to Brian Williams. Rather and Moonves told the Times they chose to make the announcement now to avoid coverage of Brokaw's goodbye.

Coincidentally, Brokaw was on a conference call with the nation's television critics only a few hours after CBS announced Rather's coming departure.

"I wish him well," said Brokaw. "I was thinking about sending him a note saying, 'Maybe we should reserve a park bench on which we could sit like two old fogies every morning in Central Park and talk about the world.' "

Brokaw said they bonded the day that Rather engaged in his infamous exchange with President Nixon. After the president asked Rather if he was running for something, Rather replied sharply "No sir Mr. President, are you?" Brokaw had the last question and further pursued Rather's attempt to get President to say why he was claiming executive privilege and wouldn't give up presidential documents and tape recording transcripts during the Watergate scandal.

"When I got up, I said, 'Following my colleague Dan Rather's question, Mr. President,' " recalled Brokaw. "To a greater degree than I appreciated at the time, that meant a lot to Dan and the people of CBS. They felt it was an expression of professional solidarity. On the way out, Dan said to me beneath his breath, 'That's a great question, coach.' "

The departures of Rather and Brokaw have sparked a great question about the future of network news. Brokaw notes that the nightly newscasts still have the largest audiences in the news universe by a substantial margin and that talk of the end is as old as TV news.

"As long as we provide a broadcast that is on top of the news, that is relevant to people's lives and tells them in a coherent, contextual way what it is they need to know, I think there will be a place for the evening news," said Brokaw. "I know that Brian has all the skills to do that and I assume that whoever is Dan's successor at CBS will as well."

e-mail: apergament@buffnews.com

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