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Larry King Live

Dan Rather Discusses the News and How to Report It

Aired April 19, 2000 - 9:00 p.m. ET


LARRY KING, HOST: Tonight, one of the biggest names in TV news, CBS anchorman Dan Rather for the full hour with your phone calls, next on LARRY KING LIVE.

Good evening. I'm in Los Angeles. Dan is in New York. It's always a great pleasure, an honor to have him with us. And he's appropriately dressed, I might add, looking well the part tonight, Mr. Rather.

Dan is the anchor and managing editor the "CBS Evening News," the anchor of "48 Hours," and a correspondent as well for "60 Minutes II."

We'll stay right with things current and then cover a lot bases and take your phone calls.

How did you find Juan Gonzalez, a man who has become famous for just being Juan Gonzalez, I guess? You know, he didn't do anything. How did you find him?

DAN RATHER, CBS NEWS: Well, I was with him for about four hours, Larry, between 3 1/2 and four hours, interviewed him on camera for roughly an hour and 45 minutes, maybe two 2 hours. I found him, contrary to what I've been led to believe -- I've been told that he was rather laconic, that sometimes he would be taciturn, tended to be quiet, not say a lot. What I found -- he came with his wife, his new wife and new infant. And he was straightforward, firm handshake, looks you in the eye.

He did want to talk. He wanted to talk about the situation with his son. He was very good with the infant child and with his wife. You can say, well, he was on his best behavior. But my impression was this is the way he is.

I would say this: Any objective and decent-minded person being around this man for the three or four hours, you know, you can't fake it for that long. He was very good with the child. He was very good with his wife. I thought he was straightforward with his answers. I know that maybe other people have a different viewpoint, but particularly when talking about Elian, I thought he really spoke what he believes and about his -- about his heart.

I know there's a whole theory that, well, he's not his own man and he can't say what he really believes. Frankly, I don't know about that. I can only tell you that my impression at the time, he looked me right straight in the eye, and I thought he was speaking for the most part from his heart.

KING: Dan, is this a political story, solely a human interest story? Is it a family story? How do you view this as both a broadcaster and an editor?

RATHER: It's all of those things wrapped into one, Larry. And I will confess, under the anchorman creed of candor when convenient...


... when this story first started, I had no idea that it was going to reach the kind of critical mass and take on the momentum it has taken on. I underestimated the story, quite frankly, and I didn't think it would last this long.

It's certainly a big international diplomatic and political story. It's also a family story, the story of how hard Juan Miguel Gonzalez and his late wife, Elizabeth, tried to have a child and then eventually had Elian, the story of the boat trip over that turned out so disastrously with Elian and only two of the other Cubans aboard being saved. This is what makes it a great story.

I recognize that there is a school of thought that we've overcovered it, and perhaps we have. But it has now reached the point that it is a great ongoing story, and I don't think we've seen anywhere near the last of it.

KING: Now the appeals court today has extended the order that keeps Elian in the United States until all of these court matters are resolved. But it doesn't say where he can stay, and Janet Reno says that the government can take him and give him to his father while the father would have to remain here with him.

How do you think this is going to play out?

RATHER: Well, first of all, whether you like it, don't like it, don't quite know what to think of it, it is unmistakably a victory, a very big victory for those in Miami who have custody of the child, at the moment, or they have the child at the moment. This was a very strong victory for them in this sense, Larry -- and I thought this was a stunner out of this court. What they basically did was upheld -- they upheld what the lower district court had said, and that was, well, he shouldn't leave this country until those in Miami who have some legal questions get some satisfaction from that. So there was no surprise that they upheld that.

However, the tone of this, the 17 pages or so, it's very critical of the immigration authority, critical of the government, and particularly for not speaking to the boy before they made a decision. And there's no way to read it and not say this is a big win for those in Miami who have Elian Gonzalez.

It's a defeat for the father and his attorneys, and a stinging reprimand to the United States government.

KING: And do you gather from that there they won't go in and take him, and they're just going to leave things status quo until eventually all courts decide?

RATHER: Well, frankly, I have no idea about that, Larry. But there's no question that this decision makes it tougher to go in and get him.

Jim Stewart, one of the best reporters on the planet, was on the "CBS Evening News" saying that there is a plan, that Janet Reno, first of all, has made it clear that this court decision does not prevent the government from getting the child and reuniting him with his father. But that quickly raises the question of how they're going to do that.

Now, Stewart's report is that they're ready to do that, they have a plan to do that, and the thrust of his report was, stand by, it may indeed happen. You have to weigh against that the fact -- and it is a fact -- that this is a terrible week in which to do that. It's the anniversary of the Waco siege, the Columbine shooting, the Oklahoma bombing, Good Friday, Easter. Boy, this would be a tough week to move in and get that child.

I wouldn't be surprised to see, Larry -- I'm not predicting this. But I wouldn't be surprised to see an effort to get the father to go down more or less on his own, not with marshals taking him in, that kind of thing, if he were prepared to do that. I don't know that he is. That might be a way where all sides could sort of simmer things down.

But as I say that, I'm reminding myself there is certainly a lot of people on all sides of this who don't want it simmered down, who want it to keep boiling up for their own political and ideological purposes.

KING: You're a father. You sat with the father. Doesn't a father miss a child enough to just want to go down and be with him?

RATHER: Well, I can only speak for myself.

KING: You'd go?

RATHER: I would have been down there in an instant. I would go. I would go. And I would walk through the crowd, and if they wanted to take a piece of me, I would say, you've got to get through me to keep me from my kid.

KING: Our guest is Dan Rather, and as we go to break, here's a little portion of Dan's interview, which ran last Sunday night with Mr. Gonzalez.

We'll be including your phone calls later. Watch.


RATHER: I want to ask you something man-to-man. After you saw that videotape the first time, did you weep?

JUAN MIGUEL GONZALEZ, FATHER OF ELIAN GONZALEZ (through translator): I'm going to tell you the truth. I don't have any tears left. I've cried too much.

During this whole period of time, I've cried a lot and suffered greatly, and I'm still in pain. To tell you the truth, I have no tears left. I have -- I don't know. I've run dry.

RATHER: Ah, but a father never dries up.



KING: Dan Rather is our guest. You have been to Cuba. Weren't you there when the pope was there?

RATHER: Yes, I was, Larry.

KING: And then you had to leave when the Lewinsky story broke.

RATHER: We did.

KING: What were your impressions...

RATHER: We were the last to leave, but we left.

KING: What were your impressions of that island nation?

RATHER: Well, it's no question that Fidel Castro controls the island in every way. There's no question that he is among the last, if not the last, of his genre of old-line, hard-line Marxist-Leninist leaders.

The island is poor. It is very poor. You can say, well, Cuba has always been poor, but economically it's in terrible shape. I think Fidel Castro would acknowledge that. I think if he were here on the program, he would quickly say that's because the United States has this terrible embargo with us.

When the pope was there, obviously, most things and most people, members of the party and members of the government, were on their very best behavior. The pope's coming to Cuba was an enormous triumph for Fidel Castro as seen from several different ways.

But no, Cuba's not in good shape. There's no -- you can't put it any other way.

Fidel Castro is a true believer in Marxism and Leninism as an economic system. He's never strayed from that, and he does run the island. And I know there are other views, but I think as long as he has his health he's going to run it. And when he chooses to run it with an iron hand, which is a lot of the time, he will do it that way.

KING: Diplomatically, Dan, do you see any dangerous precedents here? Say an uncle from Cuba comes to visit his brother whose in Miami and takes the brother's child back to Cuba, and says, now try to take him, and then others nations suddenly start -- you know, children are being -- I mean, can you see dangerous precedents? RATHER: Oh, I can see dangerous precedents all over the place, and I think that's one of the things that anybody who engages in international law would have to be both interested in and a little scared about this case. But not being a lawyer I'm not sure I'm right about that.

But you know, this thing is fraught with dangers all around, and I think the longer it goes the greater the danger will become, Larry, for precedents being set: not only in our own courts and our own things like the Immigration Service, but with international law.

You bet. I think there's a lot of danger.

KING: Psychologists us, being the television media, for being there with cameras in front of this 6-year-old boy's house, saying that clear out, go away, don't show him on tape, certainly don't interview him. Let it settle. We're part of the fault. Do you buy any of that?

RATHER: I do. I think some of that is just criticism, and like any other decent person in the business, I worry about it some: that on the one hand this is a big international story, as you said, coming on. It's reached critical mass. There are some very important precedents being set and a lot of importance attached to the case.

On the other hand, do I think the child on some occasions, on many occasions, has been exploited whether intending to or not by the media? Yes. Do I know what to do about it? No. Do I think it's going to get worse instead of better? Yes, probably, because we're now in this deadline-every-second, 24-hours-around-the-clock sort of news engagement now. I just don't know what to do about it.

But I will say that if you're going to blame the press -- and having acknowledged that we -- and I do not except myself from this criticism -- have a lot to answer for, so does almost everybody else involved in this case.

For example, those people who overran police barricades in Miami have a lot to answer for, it seems to me, that in New York, or my home town in Austin and Houston, if you overrun police barricades, somebody has you by the nape of the neck and the next thing you know you're telling it to a judge. That didn't happen in this case.

KING: Yes. But you're not going to be the one to pull CBS cameras out from in front of that house?

RATHER: No. I'd love to say we'd do that. No, we're not going to do it. And we don't -- competitive pressure, sure, we have it. We're not going to pull them out in front of the house.

I would vote very strongly -- I don't think it's going to happen -- for a pool arrangement in which we have one camera in front of the house instead of everybody having their cameras lined up. But you know, you're more likely to see Fidel Castro come riding through this studio on a zebra than you are to that happen.

KING: Was there any part about your interview with Juan Gonzalez in which you did not believe him?

RATHER: No. You know, reporters, including this one, get paid to be skeptical, and I had some questions about some of his answers. But did I believe him overall in the main? Yes, I did believe him.

If -- well, in what areas were you skeptical? His explanation of why he did not immediately come to Florida when he first heard his son had survived, he gave what I think was a fairly straightforward answer, which basically was, you know, he thought the child was in pretty good hands at that time, there's a lot of red tape on both sides, and he said he made his effort to begin making the trip, but then it got very complicated.

Things like that, naturally as a reporter, I'd have to say in all honesty that yes, I'm skeptical about some things. But I do want to say, Larry, because I think he deserves it, that he came into that room in a strange country. There were no other people in the room except CBS News personnel. Not even his lawyer was in the room. There were no Cuban government officials anywhere on the premises, not even in the building, much less in the room.

And to walk into that situation, sit down, and do an extended several hours interview, I thought he did a very good job. And I think by any objective analysis, he by and large spoke his heart, spoke what he honestly believes, and spoke his frustration, and yes, even his rage at what he says our people who have kidnapped his son -- that's a quote from him -- and are exploiting his son.

KING: We'll take a break. We're going to include phone calls for Dan Rather. We'll talk about other issues, some that he mentioned: Oklahoma City, Columbine and the like.

Al Gore and wife, Tipper, will be with us for the full hour tomorrow night. Mr. Gore may have some interesting things to say about young Elian as well. We have not heard from him since that last statement some weeks back. And of course, we'll talk about the one- year anniversary of Columbine as well.

This is LARRY KING LIVE with Dan Rather of CBS News. We'll be right back.


RATHER: I know you've seen this videotape, but with your permission I want to show it to you again, and just have you watch it and tell us your reaction to the videotape that was put out. Please.


ELIAN GONZALEZ (through translator): Papa, I don't want to go to Cuba. If you want, say here. I'm not going to Cuba.


J. GONZALEZ (through translator): This is child abuse and mistreatment, what they're doing to this boy, and it is something that has been induced because these aren't the boy's true feelings. That's not the way this boy feels, and I know I'm right in saying that we have to take him back immediately, because what they're doing is making this child suffer, and the way they're abusing him, turning him against his father.



KING: We're back with Dan Rather. We'll include some calls now. So we'll move on to other subjects and get some calls on the Cuban matter. And we'll go to Petoskey. Michigan. Hello.

CALLER: Hi, Larry.


CALLER: And hello, Dan.

RATHER: Hello.

CALLER: I have a two-part question for you. If there were survivors on the raft, why haven't we heard from them, and what relationship do they have with Elian and his family, and are they in communication with each other? Why have we not heard from the other survivors?

RATHER: I don't know the answer to that question. It's a good question. I wish I had the answer. I try to have the answers to everything, but i honestly don't know the answer to that.

KING: Now I'm told by our producers there were two survivors. Have they surfaced?

RATHER: Well, there were two survivors. My understanding is there were 13 people on the boat. Elian and two others survived.

But Larry, I don't know where those people are, to be perfectly honest with you. I don't recall anybody having spoken with them.

KING: Napa, California for Dan Rather.

CALLER: Good evening. My question is with regard to the opinion of Juan Miguel Gonzalez rating as a good parent.

First of all, I'm curious about the Gonzalez marriage dissolution. Apparently, they divorced before Elian was born.

Do you know what the conditions of their divorce was? For instance, was he cited as a brutal husband? Are there any court records?

And then secondly, if he's such a devoted parent, why did the grandmothers visit the child before the father did?

RATHER: Well, first of all, so far as I know, there is no record that he's been abusive in any way. The -- some of the distant relatives, what he calls distant relatives in Miami and their supporters, produced what they said was an affidavit. It actually turned out to be just a sworn statement from someone who -- a former neighbor in Cuba who said that he had been abusive.

But as far as I know, there's no demonstrable record of that. And when I asked him about that, he flatly and repeatedly denied it.

And I think as of this moment that there's no substantial evidence that he was abusive. He said that, yes, he had spanked Elian a time or two.

You know, as for the grandmothers coming first, I'm trying to reconstruct that situation. I think that what it turned out to be was once it became clear that an effort was being made to keep Elian in this country and the crowds began to gather in Miami and that kind of thing, that the grandmothers came to in hopes of striking some peace with those who are holding Elian, and be able to take him back to Cuba.

Now, if the thrust of your question is why he didn't come at that time, why the father didn't come at that time, I don't know, and I don't know that he's ever given a solid answer to that.

But I want to come back to something you said. You know, it's -- it's very easy to say, well, why didn't he do this and why didn't he do that. You don't have to take his case -- and I'm not making an effort to take his case -- to say that when he says, look, in the beginning, in effect he says, I couldn't imagine anybody was going to keep my son with his mother gone, and I really believed that, you know, he'd be coming back to me, you know, fairly soon. That to me is believable.

KING: We'll take a break and be back with more with Dan Rather. He's with us for the full hour. Don't go away.


RATHER: What has your son told you about the boat trip?

J. GONZALEZ (through translator): On the 26th, when he left the hospital, he told me, daddy, dad, I saw when mom was lost, I saw it when she died. I saw it when she disappeared in the sea. And I lost my books. I lost my backpack with my school books in it and my uniform.

And I said to him: "Little guy, the backpack with the school books and the uniform, I'm keeping those safely at home so that when you return, you can go back to school. Don't worry."



KING: This is the scene right now in front of the house where Elian Gonzalez is staying with his relatives in the Little Havana section of Miami, Florida on a day that was very good for those relatives, according to Dan Rather and others who are analyzing the court decision today.

Let's take another call for Dan on this subject. We're going to cover other bases.

Los Angeles, hello.

CALLER: Yes, hi. I just was calling to see...

KING: Go ahead.

CALLER: I'm sorry. Dan, I just wanted to call and ask what your personal opinion was to see if you want him to go back or you don't want him to go back or what the situation is.

RATHER: Well, you know, I try to report facts and keep my personal opinion out of it. And with all respect, I'm not going to answer that question.

Let me expand for just a second to say that like an awful lot of other people, I try to keep in mind that there are people on both sides of this situation who are people with compassion. There is compassion on both sides: maybe not all the way through on either side. But a lot of people really care about this 6-year-old. And beyond that, I prefer just not to give you my own personal opinion.

KING: Are these tougher stories to cover, Dan, than political elections?

RATHER: Wouldn't say tougher. You know, I love the news, Larry. For me, there is no tough story. I have a great passion for reporting news.

This is a particularly difficult story, because, No. 1, there's controversy almost everywhere you walk. It's hard to cover this story, it's hard to do an interview, such as the one we did on "60 Minutes" and "60 Minutes II," without getting a backlash of controversy, if not from all sides, at least from several.

But more difficult than covering politics? In a way, it is covering politics, isn't it?

I wouldn't say it's more difficult than covering the length and breadth of an American political campaign. Each of these stories is unique unto itself. Each has its own challenges.

KING: All right. How about stories like Columbine, Waco, Oklahoma City, severe storms, tragedy? Are they the worst?

RATHER: Yes, they're the worst, particularly when they happen here at home. Oklahoma City, I still haven't gotten over Oklahoma City. I'll tell you, you know, just -- that whole situation just rips one's heart out. And that Columbine situation, those for me are the toughest ones: by far much, much tougher than covering political campaigns or something like the Elian Gonzalez story. KING: You interviewed Terry Nichols, did you not?

RATHER: No, I never interviewed Terry Nichols. I interviewed his brother.

KING: When you -- when you bring to a situation horror and you have the lawyers on, is it tough to leave your own feelings out? Can you be just a dispassionate journalist?

RATHER: Yes, can be. Doesn't mean that one always is. You know, Larry, we've talked about this, you and I, over the years. But I do think that the hallmark of a good reporter is how well, how often he or she is able to drain their own personal opinions out of their reporting. No one can do it perfectly all the time every day and every way on every story, and I certainly haven't.

But over a period of time, how hard the reporter tries to do that and how often he or she succeeds I think is one way to judge a reporter.

I do believe in what used to be called "objective reporting." I think there is such a thing. This has gotten to be controversial in journalism, and in this case I'm an "Old Testament" believer that that's possible. And most reporters do a pretty good job of it, and you know, my hope and my prayer every time I go out on a story is that I can do that.

Now, it's like -- it's a little like the Ten Commandments. No one can live up to every letter of each of the Ten Commandments in every way all their life. I don't mean to be sacrilegious here, but in a small, minuscule way trying to keep your own personal opinions out of your reporting is the goal, and it's a goal that one has to continue to be trying to achieve. And on your best days, you may come pretty close.

KING: We'll take a break, come back with more of Dan Rather. We're going to talk about journalists as celebrities, what he thinks of Leonardo DiCaprio interviewing President Clinton, some issues coming up in the race, and more calls as well on any subject for Dan Rather. Al and Tipper Gore tomorrow night.

By the way, to all of our friends of the Jewish faith, a very, very happy Passover tonight and tomorrow. And we'll be right back with Dan Rather. Don't go away.


KING: Now we've been told two survivors have been interviewed on local stations in Miami, speaking only in Spanish. A question a listener asked -- a caller asked.

Our guest is Dan Rather.

Let's cover some other bases. CBS is planning a major party on education. I tell you that Al Pacino is very interested in education. He could get you an exclusive interview with him and president -- or Governor George W. Bush. Will you take it? Which leads, of course, to DiCaprio-Clinton -- your thoughts?

RATHER: Straight answer to your question -- no. I can't guarantee that my bosses at CBS News wouldn't take it, but I would say no, and quite honestly, frankly I don't think they would take it.

But, Larry, I want to be straight ahead with you here. I think David Westin has done such a good job with ABC News. If he's made a mistake in this case, I have every reason to believe it was one made with the best of intentions. You say, well, that's not the thrust of it.

Look, anything that blurs the line between entertainment values and news values is hurtful. I've made my share of mistakes with that. CBS News has made theirs. And insofar as this kind of interview would further blur that line, then we'd have to be concerned about it. But I do want to say that these people who run these news divisions, whether it's Rick Kaplan at CNN or Andrew Hayward at CBS, they have to make a lot of calls, and it's unrealistic to think they are going to make every one of them perfectly.

KING: Shouldn't content matter? Suppose he learned a lot of good thing? What's the difference who asked the questions?

RATHER: Well, content does matter. Content is everything. And if you put on the program, this is an entertainment program, it's done by an entertainer, it's designed to entertain, and by the way to pass along some content, I have no problem with it. As I say, if he does a great interview and asked some substantive questions and gets substantive answers, would I perhaps use him on the "CBS Evening News?" I doubt it, but I'd consider it.

KING: All right, are we in a danger here of -- do you see any downside to too much news, all the business news, the CNNs, the would- be CNNs, the new kinds of CNNs, the all of us, the younger audiences, the Internet, the whole ball of wax -- do you see downsides in this?

RATHER: Larry, I don't, particularly in a society and a country such as ours, you know, a constitutional republic based on the principles of Democracy in which an informed citizenry is absolutely essential. I don't think you can get too much news on the air. You can get too much of quasi-news or entertainment posing as news or other kinds of programming dressed up as news; that you can get too much of. But news, particularly integrity field and quality news, no, I don't think you can get enough.

KING: What do you make of this boom in business news? A business reporter is now a celebrity?

RATHER: Well, celebrity journalism is one of those things that we need to think seriously about, and the journalists as a celebrity. I don't profess to have the answer to how to handle it. And the record shows clearly I haven't handled it very well. But I worry a great deal about it. But you know, business news coming to the fore doesn't surprise me at all. I would like to see a lot of the -- quote -- business news lap over into economic news, which is a somewhat different thing, but I think it's a good trend, again, and as the amount of business news on the air increases, we're -- it's inevitable that you're going to have -- quote -- star business reporters...

KING: Yes.

RATHER: ... and that the star will develop into celebrity. It goes with the territory. The question is how we handle it, and handling it better -- the late Ed Murrow once said something to the effect that that's stuff is all right if you don't inhale. And what so often happens, those of us in news that are lucky enough and blessed enough to be well-paid and get the name in the paper, next thing you know, if you began think that you're something special, then that's what's dangerous.

KING: How about the tabloid concept? Is Bryant Gumbel's personal life our business?

RATHER: Well, it's not my business.

KING: Nor mine. But why is it anybody's?

RATHER: Well, I'm not sure it is anybody's. But in the current world of journalism, in the competitive world of journalism, it's going to happen, and I have no stomach for it. It's not the kind of news I want to do. However, it's -- there's always been a large appetite for gossip, and some of the tabloids specialize in that, make it something that they think can sell newspapers, and in the -- with the breadth and depth of American journalism, again, it goes to the territory. I'll lament it. In many ways, I hate it, but there it is, and again, it's not going away.

KING: You going to be at the conventions this year.

RATHER: You bet.

KING: And if so, how much of it will you actually cover? I mean, how much at night -- is CBS going to do an hour or two every night or not?

RATHER: I don't know, Larry. My guess is -- and I can only guess at this stage, because everybody is in the process of deciding -- that all three of the over-the-air networks will probably do less this time than they did the previous time. I want to cover everything. I want to be there wall to wall, gavel to gavel, the whole time. However, as long as the parties insist on not deciding very much at these conventions and trying to make them into the equivalent of political infomercials, then people like myself, who argue, listen, we should be covering them more, are sort of left out there hanging. I think there will be less coverage of the conventions of the over-the-air networks this year than there's ever been.

KING: Because there's no surprise and no suspense?

RATHER: No, there hasn't been anything really important decided at American political nominating convention of the two major parties since probably 1980, when Ted Kennedy made a run at Jimmy Carter at the Democratic convention in 1980, I think, it was the last time you could say something measured and significant was decided at the convention itself. Ever since then -- and I'd have to think it through a little bit.

KING: Yes, I think you're right.

RATHER: I think ever since then, in both parties, it's all been scripted.

KING: But as that newsman in you, you'd like to be on eight hours a night covering it, like even if it's just the delegate standing up and screaming at somebody.

RATHER: I can't lie to you, the answer is yes.

KING: Our guest is Dan Rather. More phone calls and more issues with one of the best ever in this business.

Don't go away.


KING: It's an age-old question, Dan. Maybe there's no answer to it. When does a story dip and ebb, and when does a story end? I mean, like, there are some cable networks that run with Elian Gonzalez 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They're all Elian all the time. When does it curve down? Is that one of the tough parts of news decision-making?

RATHER: It is, and one of the parts that's gotten tougher, Larry, particularly if you work at a place that's -- quote -- 24 hour news. You know, I'd to say -- asterisk, bottom of the page -- at some places, where they advertise themselves as 24 hours, you know, of news all day, all the time, it turns out not to be that.

But I have great empathy for trying to fill that much air time. The answer to your question is that each story is different. The ebb and flow has a lot to do with the perception, which is sometimes wrong, of people who are making the news decisions as to when a story reaches critical mass and when that mass begins to grow. That's what's happened with this Elian Gonzalez story. And then accurately measuring when the critical mass in the story, when the public interest and/or the importance of the story begins to drifts away, ideally, that's when your coverage will begin to diminish, but it doesn't always work out that way.

KING: And that's one of the things that makes journalism not an exact science, right?

RATHER: No, it's not an exact science. Even on our best days, it's kind of crude art, that this judgment of, you know, what's the most important thing of the day and/or the most interesting thing of the day. I love it on days when we say the most interesting thing that happened today is also the most important thing that happened today, but that's not the case very often. Usually, you have to make a judgment, well, this story might be a little more interesting, but not as important; this story might be a little more important than interesting, and that's what makes the game, and that's what makes for competition, what makes for the great diversity of American journalism.

KING: And at your network, the buck stops with you on that, correct?

RATHER: On the "CBS Evening News" it does. I try very hard not to have the buck stop anywhere.

KING: But I mean, what story you will do first tomorrow night will be your decision?

RATHER: Yes, it's a collaborative decision. But in the end, if somebody has to say, yea or nay, I am that person. We believe very strongly that the audience should have accountability. And with the "CBS Evening News," if you want to know in the end who's responsible for what's on the air, then we say you're looking at it. Now I'm accountable to the people above me, of course, but I make those decisions during the day with a lot of help from a lot of people.

KING: And in a five-day week, how many of those days where you can say, boy, we can make a good case for this one, or that one or this one to lead with tonight.

RATHER: I would say three and a half to four days out of the week you could say that. And we play the guessing game with the next day's newspaper. You know, we make our decisions, and the next day's newspapers come out and sometimes say, you know, wow, the consensus opinion is they led with the other story that we almost led with last night. But that's what keeps you coming back here today. That's the reason I'm all news, all the time, tall tower, full power, one that breaks in when news breaks out.

KING: Maybe you should have come to CNN.


RATHER: Well, maybe.

KING: I'll leave that there.

Are you a little annoyed with the fact that foreign policy -- "foreign" is not a word they like at CNN, so let's say policy dealing out of the United States, stories of Putin aren't big, that the public seems disinterested when there isn't world tension?

RATHER: I'm concerned about it. "Annoyed" is not the right word. I am concerned about it. Look, I'm a great believer in international coverage. And you're right, we used to call it foreign coverage, and Ted Turner, among others, had a move to call it international coverage, because by any reasonable analysis, much of the time, the most important news of the day concerns international affairs in one way or the other. A prime example is China's drive to become a combined world economic and military superpower is perhaps the greatest ongoing story of our time. It doesn't get a lot of coverage and my concern. Am I concerned about that? Yes. Do I know what do about it? I really don't. Because among other things, Larry, foreign coverage and international coverage is the most expensive; it costs more money.

KING: But you could make the case that the China story is infinitely bigger than the Gonzalez story.

RATHER: I'm here to make that case, you bet.

KING: But you're not going to lead with it tomorrow?

RATHER: No, I don't think so.

KING: Hence the dilemma.

RATHER: Hence the dilemma. I will say that we, on the "CBS Evening News" among over-the-air broadcasters, our commitment to over- the-air broadcasting is well known, and I think the record shows that day in, day out, year in, year out, we run more than anybody else, certainly as much as anybody else. But your point is very well taken, Larry, that in the competitive environment, there are no excuses. I'm not the vice president in charge of excuses, that in the competitive environment, you're constantly in a fight, wanting to do right, but knowing that you have to do well at the same time.

KING: We'll be back with more of Dan Rather. We'll include some more phone calls. This is LARRY KING LIVE. We thank him for joining us tonight for the full hour.

We'll ask him about -- Dan likes danger. Dan likes war. I mean, he doesn't like war, but he likes being in the action. He likes covering weather.

We'll be right back. Don't go away.


KING: Dan has not only hosted this program, and done terrifically well, he's also sometimes been a journalist for us, especially in hurricanes and floods. He's on the scene, he likes being blown around. You enjoy that. That's that local side of you that likes the hunt, right?

RATHER: Yes, I like the hunt. You bet. I think that it's unlikely that one can be a good, much less a great reporter, unless you enjoy the hunt. I have no illusions. You know, I'm still trying to be a good reporter, much less a great one. But I think you have to like the hunt some of the time, Larry, that's true. And it is true that a big hurricane has a special news allure to me. One of the things television does best is take you there. Television has great difficulty with depth and has short sides, but it can take you there, take people to a hurricane, something they hear about and hear describe it, actually take them there, is, I think, a public service, and yes, it is something I enjoy.

KING: Back to two things we mentioned quickly earlier -- Columbine, it's the anniversary tomorrow, and Al Gore will be on the shore tomorrow night with Tipper. Is it your role in that story to just tell us here's what happened, they got killed, or is your role also to tell us why you think it happened?

RATHER: No, I don't think it's my role to tell people very much when we're dealing with a newscast, as opposed to programs such as this, about what I think. Again, I'll quote Ed Murrow, and my friend Walter Cronkite agrees with it, that, you know, when it comes to sorting out the facts, a good reporter can be very helpful. When it comes to my opinion, my opinion is not worth any more than the guy at the end of the bar. I'm happy to pass it along, particularly on a story like columbine -- I remember going out there. I was on vacation and came back, particularly on that kind of story, Larry, the central focus has to be on accuracy and fairness. On that kind of story, a kind of "just the facts" ma'am and sir, particularly in the early stages of the story, is very, very important, I think.

KING: Yes. But you also have to be fully aware you have dead children, right?

RATHER: It's a hammer to the heart every time you do it, and that's one reason it's among the more difficult kinds of stories to cover.

KING: And also, is there a danger in Oklahoma City in jumping to conclusions? You know, this had to be terrorists outside the United States?

RATHER: A great lesson in that, and hope we all learned that lesson, Larry, but it's one you have to repeat to yourself time and time again. As a lifetime reporter, I can bear witness to the fact that it is a fact that the first things you hear are very often wrong. That's the reason you have to check and keep checking. Again, I'm old school about this. You know, you trust your mother, but you cut the cards, which is another way, no matter what somebody tells you, you've got to keep it and keep on checking, particularly in the early stages of a big, ongoing and emotionally laden story, such as Oklahoma City, or Columbine or the Kennedy assassination.

KING: And that can happen in 24-hour news, right? But it could also happen before 24 hour news. Remember, the coverage of the Reagan shooting.

RATHER: That's true. But I do think we're more susceptible now to it Larry, with 24-hour news and the deadline-every-second mentality. I can remember in the late and unlamented impeachment situation, that I can a remember situation when someone was on the phone, and they'd say, you know, Dan, so and so is reporting this and that, I'd say, well, I haven't heard that, but I'll check it out. And leave a pause, and in effect, it would be said, we'll check it out, but please hurry, because we're getting our heads handed to us on this story. This is not an excuse; it's my way of explaining why I think more mistakes are made now in this area than there used to be made, because the competitive environment has grown larger and fiercer.

KING: Why is it important to get it on one minute before someone else gets it on? The audience don't care. Newspapers don't care. The audience don't care. RATHER: Well, because speed -- the belief still runs strong, and again, I can't kid you, I'm a believer, you know, that you want to be first. I would rather be last than be wrong, but there's nothing better than being first and being right.

KING: Back with your remaining moments with one of the best ever, Dan Rather, of CBS News.

Don't go away.


KING: We have a few moments left.

Dan, we get rooted in our chairs, we get to like them, they get comfortable, they bring us lots of good things, very few bad things -- do you ever think about leaving that chair?

RATHER: Sure, you mean the "Evening News" chair, absolutely. Larry, I can't imagine, as long as God gives me my health, I can't imagine not wanting to do news, but I certainly can imagine not doing the "CBS Evening News." With your job, and with mine, these are such precious jobs, such treasures, we only get to hold them for a little while. My prayer most nights is, God, please give me one more day of doing this and give me once more chance to do it well, to do it excellently. But certainly, I think about leaving it, and the time will come when I will leave it.

KING: Will you leave it, leave it? Or will we always have Dan around? Like Walter is still really around, isn't he?

RATHER: Well, he is. And you know, Walter is such an inspiration to me. Honest answer is, Larry, I don't know. There's a lot to be said -- Darryl Royal, a former Texas football coach, said of him, "He put up and then he shut up." There are times when I think, boy, that's the way to do it, and there other times you say, you know, I'm not sure that's in me. I just don't know. Like a lot of things, I won't know until I get there.

KING: Are there ever days you don't want to be there?

RATHER: Never. Never.

KING: Never?

RATHER: I love the news. You know, news is addictive. I tell young journalists sometimes, be careful about news, because it's more addictive than crack-cocaine in its own special way. But no, I can't -- you know, it used to be said of the old cowboys in Texas that they were crying for daylight because they just loved to herd cows, crying for daylight. Well, when it comes to news, I'm always crying for daylight. There's never been a day that I wasn't just really eager to get at it.

KING: And has all this explosion, you mentioned, young people, has it produced better young people? Are we seeing better young people come into it?

RATHER: Absolutely, Larry. I'm so glad I'm not starting today. I'm not sure I could cut it. I think the quality of people coming into journalism today is by far the highest quality that we've ever had -- better educated, smarter, more mature. I can't say enough about them. My concern is our ability to keep them in journalism and have them dedicate themselves to a lifetime of journalism and not stray away into the great world of or IPOs or something. But the quality of people coming in to news today is so much higher than it has ever been, and I find it really encouraging and inspiring.

KING: And do you -- we only have 30 seconds. The Internet -- concerned about it at all?

RATHER: No. I think it's a great new addition. I don't think it's going to replace radio, television or newspapers, but it will increase the flow of information. I couldn't be more excited about it. I'm so excited about it I have a 3,000-calorie attack about every half hour thinking about its potential.


KING: Dan, as always, I thank you so much. I really appreciate you giving us this hour. You're a good guy.

RATHER: Oh, Larry, it's always great to be with you. Take care of yourself also.

KING: My man, Dan Rather, anchor and managing editor of "CBS Evening News." the anchor of "48 Hours" and special correspondent as well for "60 Minutes II."

Tomorrow now, Al Gore. He hasn't been on in quite awhile in areas, and he'll be on with his wife, Tipper. It's the one-year anniversary of the Columbine shootings, but there's lots to talk about with your phone calls. The vice president and his wife for the full hour tomorrow night.

Stay tuned for CNN "NEWSSTAND."

I'm Larry King. For Dan Rather and all of us, good night.



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