There they were, on C-Span 2, for 50 minutes Sunday Evening. Former CBS News Correspondent Tom Fenton interviewed about his book, Bad News. And the interviewer? A man whose truly bad news was inextricably tied to an event of the past week: the retirement of CBS Evening News Anchor, Dan Rather.
He is Roger Mudd. Twenty-four years ago, Mudd was a CBS News Correspondent considered the heir-apparent to then-reigning Walter Cronkite as the man in the anchor chair. It didn’t happen. There was this brash Texan, who had made a name for himself as President Nixon’sbete noir while the network’s White House Correspondent. It was known that Cronkite was soon to retire, on his own terms, and it was widely assumed, in and out of the organization, that the dignified Mudd would succeed him.
One day, six months before Cronkite was ready, top brass at CBS had an announcement: Cronkite’s replacement would be — Dan Rather — and almost immediately. Cronkite would be mollified with a seat on the CBS board of directors, a rumored million dollars a year, a cubby hole with staff at the headquarters building, Black Rock, and several handshakes. Mudd swiftly left CBS’s employ, went to NBC, and finally was narrating for the History Channel and doing interviews such as that of Fenton on C-Span Sunday evening.
What happened? Rather’s agents had lined him up with ABC News and told the CBS brass it was now or never; fork over the Cronkite job or we move Rather to ABC (cue sound of cheap suitcase collapsing). As the late ABC News chief Roone Arledge wrote in Roone: A Memoir, “What startled me most though, in scrambling to get Rather, CBS had pressured Cronkite into stepping aside six months in advance of his scheduled retirement.” That apparently startled Arledge more than the threat of an ABC job as a lever.
This Black Rock coup, then, may explain some of Cronkite’s current enthusiasm for Rather’s successor, Bob Schieffer, in the anchor chair, and a concomitant disdain by Mr. C for Rather’s third place ratings all these years. Mr. Cronkite has taken to wondering aloud why Rather was retained all these years.
But for fifty minutes Sunday evening, Roger Mudd queried the just-retired Tom Fenton about the burden of his book: that the major networks had abdicated their responsibility by abandoning foreign bureaus and leaving much of the world, especially the Muslim world, a desert of reportage. Fenton recounts his desire to interview a fellow named Osama bin Laden in 1996, to be turned down by CBS in New York because it would cost money to leave London.
The quiet, dignified Mudd was occasionally fonted “former CBS News Correspondent” during the interview as well as former NBC fellow. Through it all, no mention of the past so well known by both men. In fact, in all the print regarding Rather, his memo authenticating problems, and his departure after 24 years, there has been no exposition of the beginnings. How he got the Cronkite chair remains a largely unwritten chapter in the history of CBS News.