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Dan Rather: Inside Mark Cuban's Gilded Cage

At 79, the former CBS anchorman is still kicking ass and winning Emmys. But with his exposés sandwiched between pro wrestling and Girls Gone Wild, is anybody watching?

DAN RATHER IS EBULLIENT, more so than usual, as we hurtle north from San Diego in a rented Chevy SUV. The former CBS News anchorman is recounting a story he'd reported in 2007 about problems with electronic voting machines. "We found out that these wonderful, electronic, technological marvels were manufactured in what amounted to a sweatshop in the Philippines—the Philippines, exclamation point!" he says, in that ascending tone so familiar to generations of Americans. "The equipment wouldn't fit in its boxes, so the workers, two of them, had to put their feet on the thing and shove it into the box. They've got to get it in there, it's got to ship, and so they've got four feet in there pushing this thing." He lets out a laugh. "In some cases, the company's explanation of why these things are good fell into the category of 'If bullshit were music, these guys would be a full symphony orchestra.'"

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The recollection has gotten Rather, who is clad in his familiar anchorman's attire, visibly fired up. He phones his executive producer back in New York, saying he wants to revisit the story. He then cranes around to the backseat and asks his young assistant to track down the author of a recent book on voting machines. As we come to a stop on a hilltop overlooking the city, Rather flips open his notebook, glances over his questions, and swings himself out of the car, ready for his interview.

Rather is 79, with thinning gray hair and more wrinkles than in his CBS days. Two streamlined hearing aids hang over the backs of his ears. But he hasn't let age slow him down. He's come here to cover developments in the Catholic priest abuse scandal for Dan Rather Reports, which airs on a tiny independent cable channel called HDNet. His show is a throwback to the comprehensive reporting that was commonplace on television when he launched his career more than half a century ago. Rather and his crew tackle meaty, challenging stories (environmental degradation in Africa, banks that help Iran launder money), often devoting the full hour to a single topic—the show won an Emmy for cinematography in 2008 and another one last year for business reporting. Rather appears as enthusiastic about his work for this obscure outlet as any that he has done in his lengthy, storied career. "Dan Rather is living a dream today," says Joe Peyronnin, a former CBS News exec who worked with Rather for 14 years and served as president of Fox News during its launch. "He is doing what he wants, and he can cover any story."

Dan Rather near his office in New York City.: Christopher Anderson/MagnumDan Rather near his office in New York City. Christopher Anderson/MagnumThat may all be true, but Rather had expected to end his career at CBS. He's only at HDNet because CBS jettisoned him following the scandal over his exposé on former President George W. Bush's Air National Guard service. Mark Cuban, HDNet's owner, loved Rather's polarizing image and believed such a huge brand could bring attention to his tiny shop. He lured the anchor to this obscure end of the channel guide by offering him total creative control. Neither Cuban nor his executives vet story ideas or scripts. Cuban just writes the checks and watches Rather's show when it airs.

This independence comes at a price, however. During his 44 years with CBS News, Rather became perhaps the nation's best-known newsman, reaching 18 million viewers a night at his peak. HDNet is only available in about 20 million households—top 25 outlets like USA or the Discovery Channel boast more than 100 million. And since Cuban won't pay for Nielsen ratings, Rather has little idea how many people are watching. HDNet's mainstays are mixed martial arts, pro wrestling, a travel show hosted by women in bikinis, and Girls Gone Wild Presents: Search for the Hottest Girl in America.
 

MARK CUBAN'S OFFICE in the basement of the American Airlines Center—the Dallas arena that's home to his NBA team, the Mavericks—feels like a VIP room at a not-particularly glamorous nightclub. Four TVs surround a giant projection screen on one wall. Half a dozen club chairs are arranged around a coffee table the size of a double bed. There's a bar off to one side. The traditional office part is almost an afterthought, a desk relegated to a glassed-in corner and cluttered with boxes of Mavericks bobblehead dolls.

The billionaire sits in one of the club chairs, feet on the table, watching CNBC on the quartet of TVs at a punishing volume. Tanned and muscular, dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, he looks much younger than 52. Cuban, who is notorious for his courtside antics and the $1.8 million in fines he's racked up from the NBA, leans forward and grins anytime he senses a disagreement coming on. Argument, debate, contrarianism are his preferred states. The last time he worked for someone else, back in the early 1980s, he got fired. Cuban has never been employee material.

Mark Cuban courtside at a Mavericks game.: Erich Schlegel/Dallas Morning News/CorbisMark Cuban courtside at a Mavericks game. Erich Schlegel/Dallas Morning News/CorbisHe grew up in a middle-class Pittsburgh suburb, where he sold trash bags door to door at age 12, and later earned $25 an hour teaching disco moves at a sorority house. During college at Indiana University, he opened a bar, and upon graduating he followed his school buddies in pursuit of "fun, sun, money, and women" to Dallas, where he taught himself to write code. In 1990, Cuban sold his first real business play, a computer consulting firm, for $6 million. He also launched and sold a hedge fund and relocated to Los Angeles, where, with less success, he tried his hand at acting. (Some recent cameos on HBO's Entourage compelled the Wall Street Journal to jeer that Mark Cuban wasn't even believable as Mark Cuban.)

In 1995, Cuban and his friend Todd Wagner launched Broadcast.com, which put audio and video of sports online. Four years later, at the height of dot-com mania, they sold it to Yahoo for $5.7 billion in stock—Cuban pocketed more than $1 billion. "I am the luckiest motherfucker in the world," he says. "It's like I tell people, 'When I die, I want to come back as me.'"

"I am the luckiest motherfucker in the world," says Mark Cuban. "It's like I tell people, 'When I die, I want to come back as me.'"

In 2001, he and Wagner launched HDNet, the first high-definition channel. They were betting that high-def TV sets would take off, and they have; half of American households now own one. But therein lies the problem: While Cuban was once the sole purveyor of high-def programming, everybody's doing it now. Absent the format advantage, it's not clear what HDNet's organizing principle is. Cuban makes the programming decisions personally, based as much on his own interests as on any business concern. "Our content is born of an independent mind—Mark Cuban's mind," says Philip Garvin, a third cofounder who serves as chief operating officer.

Cuban isn't chasing after advertisers; HDNet makes most of its money from subscriber fees paid by cable and satellite content distributors. His model is to appeal to strong niches like fight fans or Girls Gone Wild watchers. But beyond its boobs-and-brawl content, the channel has always supported investigative reporting. "Mark believes in journalism and true First Amendment rights," says Wagner. "He is not afraid to tackle issues that some don't agree with." Not long after the channel launched, Cuban began airing the newsmagazine World Report, which won an Emmy last year for a story on human trafficking in South Africa. "We have great freedom to do the work that we feel needs to be done," says Dennis O'Brien, the show's executive producer. "It's a wonderful place to be a journalist."

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