‘Rather’ Director Talks Dan Rather’s Career and Controversial CBS Exit: ‘He Knew What He Had to Do’

By Ethan Alter 

Like so many of his specific generation, Frank Marshall remembers exactly where he was when the news broke that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated during a trip to Dallas, Texas in November 1963. “I was in my high school civics class—how about that?” recalls the 77-year-old Hollywood veteran, whose long list of credits includes directing ’90s favorites like Arachnophobia and Alive and producing such seminal franchises as the Indiana Jones and Jurassic Park/World series. “We all went home and watched news coverage for the next week.”

Not for nothing, but Marshall also has total recall of the journalist who provided so much of that coverage: a young CBS News go-getter named Dan Rather. “I remember [CBS News anchor] Walter Cronkite saying, ‘Here’s our man in Dallas,’ and tossing to Dan.”

Much like another legendary Newser, the late Robert MacNeil, the JFK assassination proved to be the story that kicked Rather’s career into another gear. The following year, CBS dispatched him to Washington, D.C. to serve as chief White House correspondent, and Rather remained a mainstay at the network for the next forty years, eventually ascending to CBS Evening News anchor.


“It usually takes a major historical event like that to launch a journalist like that,” Marshall notes. “The amazing thing about Dan Rather is that he’s been present for so many of them, both in my own history and the country’s history.”

Flash-forward some 60 years and history has brought Marshall and Rather together as the respective director and subject of a new career-spanning documentary, simply titled Rather. Streaming now on Netflix, the film allows the now 92-year-old Rather to reflect on a life spent reporting the news, with additional commentary provided from some of his many admirers and past collaborators.

“They often say, ‘Don’t meet your heroes, because you’ll be let down,'” Marshall says of his first face-to-face encounter with Rather. “But with Dan it was the opposite. He immediately asked me, ‘What book are you reading?’ Luckily I was reading a book and that started a really wonderful conversation. We’ve become really good friends, and even exchange music recommendations.”

In addition to his many career highs, Marshall also asked Rather about some of his lows—most notably his controversial 2004 report for 60 Minutes II exploring questions surrounding former President George W. Bush‘s military service. That story was eventually found to be based on documents that couldn’t be authenticated, and led CBS News to issue an official retraction. Having already become a target in right-wing circles, Rather delivered an on-air apology and stepped down from the CBS Evening News anchor chair in 2005 and departed the network the following year.

But you can’t keep a good newshound down for long. Mere months after leaving CBS, Rather returned to the airwaves on the Mark Cuban-created HDNet (now AXS TV) and cultivated a whole new generation of fans on social media. In that way, he’s still the same roving reporter that Marshall remembers seeing broadcasting from Dallas six decades ago. “He was always a little uncomfortable in the anchor’s chair,” the director says. “He wanted to be out of the studio where the stories are.”

Dan Rather hard at work in Rather. (Courtesy Wavelength Pictures)

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

As we see in the film, Rather is deservedly famous for being a skilled interviewer.  What would you say is the art to a Dan Rather question? 

He always provides a long lead-up to his questions that sort of explains where he’s going. Particularly with his presidential interviews, he would provide a lead-up and then say, “What is your comment on that?” It was never like doing a standard question—he would lead in with a lot of facts, and then go for the throat sometimes.

He’s equally famous for his oddball “Ratherisms.” Is there an art to those as well? 

No, he’s just got this really, really funny sense of humor. People think that he’s so serious, and then he’ll say something so off the wall! He’s also not afraid to make fun of himself, like when he sang with REM. He’s very well-rounded.

The documentary reminds us that Rather has been attacked for his journalism on both sides of the aisle. There’s footage of him being pushed around on the floor of the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, which seems particularly surprising now given that we’ve come to associate that kind of treatment of journalists with MAGA rallies.

People forget that Dan doesn’t take sides even though some think that he does. He goes for the story and for the truth of what the situation is. He’s very bold, too. At the Chicago convention, you see him stand up to whoever was pushing him around and say, “Take your hands off me unless you plan to arrest me.” One thing I asked him—and his answer’s in the movie—is “Why are you so comfortable being able to ad-lib in a situation like that?” He explained that it came from his early radio days when he was calling football games and it felt like painting pictures with words. He became really good at it, and it’s very natural to him.

Rather was at CBS for decades and really came to define the network. It’s increasingly rare to see anchors stay with one outlet for that long. Has the industry lost something by not maintaining that kind of institutional memory?  

To be honest, I think what’s missing is a straight-ahead telling of the news. Once the big conglomerates and companies started to look at ratings, it became about money and entertainment and not about reporting and the truth. David Muir on ABC News is the kind of person I trust, but I wish he had an hour for his show because the stories are so short! He has the same qualifications as [Rather] I think. People trust him when he comes into their living rooms, and that’s what you want. At least in terms of network evening news, he’s the guy.

Rather was a steady presence in the CBS newsroom for decades. (Courtesy Wavelength Pictures)

The documentary does touch on the way that network anchors like Rather, Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw became celebrities in the 1980s. He confesses to enjoying the fame, but also clearly harbors mixed feelings about how that changed the news industry.  

Oh, he definitely enjoyed the fame. But he’s also very self-aware and says that having that kind of anchor job is like inhaling jet fuel for the ego. I do think that he realizes that times change and that we’re all kind of adapting and trying to stay within our lane of doing what we do and feeling good about that. He hasn’t compromised his own reporting and since leaving CBS he’s found new channels like AXS TV and social media as well. He’s always found a way to reinvent himself, but reporting is the thing that he loves. He’s been a reporter from the start and he’s still a reporter.

You talk with him about the George W. Bush coverage that precipitated his exit from CBS. It sounds like he still feels that he and his team got the story right. Do you think he regrets having to issue an on-air apology

Dan’s a realist—he knew what he had to do. And he didn’t throw anybody under the bus as his daughter Robin says in the film. When you think about it, he was the commentator. He doesn’t do the fact-checking; he was handed the story and was told it was true, and he took the heat for that. But he also realized that the buck stopped with him and that he was ultimately responsible.

When you look back at it, you realize it was a great play by the Republicans and by [Fox News founder] Roger Ailes. He became a target that they used to deflect attention away from the story and instead make it all about Dan Rather’s bad documents. It was very clear and it worked. I’m sure he regrets that they didn’t get it right, but he still says the story’s true. There’s nothing to say it isn’t, according to him.

Rather contemplates his legacy in Marshall’s new documentary. (Courtesy Wavelength Pictures)

We’re currently in a time where it’s harder to know what sources to trust because of the country’s political divide or new technology like AI. How do you hope the documentary speaks to the current era? 

I just hope that people look back and see how news used to be. Dan covered these major milestones in American history and you’re seeing them through his eyes, but he was first and foremost a reporter telling the truth about what was going on. That’s why it was an honor and a privilege to be able to tell his story. If we can look for journalists who have that same passion, intelligence, commitment to the truth and sense of humor, that’s what we need today.

I do have to note that Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny took place in 1969 when Rather would have been a roving CBS reporter. Feels like a missed opportunity for a cameo, even just on a TV screen in the background.  

I couldn’t talk [Dial of Destiny director] James Mangold into it! He said, “We don’t have time for that—we gotta get to Indy.” [Laughs]

If he did join Indy in the field, would Rather be holding the idol or the whip?

Oh, he’d definitely be holding the whip—he’s a man of action! And he’s spent a lot of time overseas. He reported from China in the 1980s, and was pretty brave to go to Beijing during Tiananmen Square. He even sewed money into his clothes in case they got into trouble. In the movie, one of his producers says that he was more up for that trip than they were! He’s always been a man on the go—not the guy waiting in the car to be called to action.