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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?

Cuban is also behind Sharesleuth, a website that digs up dirt on companies, and which he funds by shorting the stock of said companies—a model that flies in the face of traditional journalistic ethics. The business press is dying, Cuban explains, and this is one way it might pay for itself. He also launched Bailoutsleuth and Junketsleuth, hiring Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters to track federal bailout funds and government travel expenses—though neither site has been especially active. Through their film companies, 2929 Entertainment and Magnolia Pictures, he and Wagner have financed muckraking documentaries such as Food, Inc. and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

Cuban pilots his black Lexus through Dallas to show me a mural of his life. The mural ends before he became a billionaire.

I ride shotgun as Cuban pilots his black Lexus SC430 through Dallas' Deep Ellum neighborhood, a warehouse district known for its nightclub scene. He points out buildings where he and his friends held huge parties back in the early 1990s, fueled by his newfound millions. We roll past the old offices of Broadcast.com and into a parking lot alongside a narrow building he bought as a party house and crash pad back in the day. On its outer wall is an elaborate mural of his life. It depicts his old bar, family members, and Cuban drinking with his friends in Puerto Vallarta. There's also a portrait of "the hottest girl I ever dated" and of him in Red Square from his monthlong stint mentoring Russian entrepreneurs. The mural ends before he became a billionaire, got married, and had kids. But it's clear that even with mere millions at his disposal, Cuban did entirely as he pleased. "I bought this building. I bought a lifetime pass on American Airlines, and I was just going to party my brains out," he says, smiling. He might as well be describing his TV network.
 

MARK CUBAN is the perpetual outsider—the dot-com billionaire with little use for Silicon Valley, the TV exec who doesn't like New York. He's a disruptive force who follows his own impulses and insights. And that makes him an odd partner for Rather, a lifelong company man who traces his interest in CBS back to the age of 13, when he was bedridden for weeks with rheumatic fever. Every day, he would listen to Edward R. Murrow's live CBS Radio broadcasts from war-ravaged Europe, which began with the familiar cue: "Calling Ed Murrow. Come in, Ed Murrow." Rather idolized Murrow and, by extension, CBS News. He grew up during the Depression in a tiny house in a working-class Houston suburb, where his father managed to hang on to his job laying pipe for oil companies, but Rather saw poverty all around. As a student at what is now Sam Houston State University, he edited the school newspaper and supported himself with a gig at a local radio station, doing everything from announcing football games to fixing the transmission tower. After college, he served six months in the Marine Corps, which discharged him (honorably) after his rheumatic fever episode came to light. He worked part-time for the Houston Chronicle and then full-time for its radio station before landing a reporting job at CBS's local television affiliate.

Impressed by his coverage of Hurricane Carla in 1961—Rather was the first person to broadcast radar images of a hurricane on live TV—his superiors called him up to the network, where he gained a reputation for hustle. He covered the civil rights movement and combat in Vietnam, and he snuck into Afghanistan to report on the 1979 Soviet invasion, a stunt that earned him the nickname Gunga Dan. "He was always pushing to get the story, really driving it; boots on ground, hand on the phone, calling," Peyronnin remembers. Rather, for his part, idealized CBS as "this magical, mystical kingdom" where "everybody was a knight and the round table was our deep and abiding honor," he told me. "I knew all the personalities, all the legends, all the myths. I was a true believer." And so it was for decades—until one very big story went terribly wrong.

In 2004, 60 Minutes II aired a piece suggesting that President Bush hadn't lived up to his commitment in the Texas Air National Guard. Six months later, Rather was toppled from the anchor chair.

On September 8, 2004, 60 Minutes II aired a blockbuster piece using interviews, along with photocopied documents from a military source, to suggest that President Bush hadn't lived up to his commitment in the Texas Air National Guard. Right-wing bloggers pounced, claiming that the documents were falsified—a notion that couldn't be disproven without the originals. Things got worse when the source, who denied faking anything, admitted that he'd lied to CBS about how he had obtained the documents. Rather believed that his story was accurate, and he still does. But after 12 days of relentless attacks—and growing pressure [PDF] from his bosses, he says—he admitted to viewers that it had been a mistake to use the photocopies. His producer, Mary Mapes (who along with Rather broke the Abu Ghraib scandal), was fired, and three others resigned.

Six months later, Rather was toppled from the anchor chair. "He was incredibly hurt and angry," says Jim Murphy, then his executive producer. Rather nonetheless agreed to stay on with the 60 Minutes crew. That, he says, is when he realized he was in trouble. He proposed dozens of stories but few were approved, and the handful that he completed aired in the worst slots. He believes that Viacom, which acquired CBS in 2000, was trying to push him off the show to curry favor with the Bush administration.

"The fact that he keeps making these claims is outrageous," says Jeff Fager, the show's executive producer, who keeps pictures of Rather on his office wall even though the two have barely spoken in years. (Rather sued CBS (PDF), in part to unearth evidence of Viacom's political meddling, but his case was dismissed in January 2010.) "I think he was distracted, and it was hard for him to focus on just doing stories," Fager adds. "There might be something to his crusade, that the conglomerates in media don't want to take the chance of investing in reporting because it is risky. But not this company."

"These are people that I worked with, I trusted, who came under extreme pressure," Rather responds when I bring up Fager's comment. "I'd like to think they did things they preferred not to do, such as say that I wasn't working hard or that the quality of my work was low. Jeff knows better than that." He pauses for a long time. "He'll have to live with his conscience."

Despite the troubles, it came as a shock for Rather when, in June 2006, the network declined to renew his contract. Even today, it takes considerable prompting to get him to open up about it. While invariably warm and polite, rushing to open doors for a reporter half his age, Rather harbors an old-school journalist's reluctance to color stories with personal sentiment, even when the story happens to be about him. "I felt like hell, of course I did," he finally admits. "I particularly feel bad for other people who lost their jobs." He adds that he was never bitter; he had a supportive family, freedom from financial worries, and a career that had long since surpassed his wildest hopes. But Mapes, his old producer, says Rather felt betrayed. "When you work for a company for that long," she told me, "when you cover everything from the Kennedy assassination to the Vietnam War, and then to find out that the company was not loyal back—that was really painful to him."

Rather retreated to his fly-fishing cabin in the Catskills, where he spent the next few weeks with his family, mulling the future. "I understand retirement," he says. "It's just not for me. It took me about a nanosecond to say that I want to continue reporting."

Rather has always worked at an incredible pace. When Iraqi troops invaded Kuwait in August 1990, he headed to Baghdad and landed an interview with Saddam Hussein. He crisscrossed the region for six weeks, working day and night and barely stopping for sleep. When he finally had a day off, he slept for 26 hours straight. "I kept checking on him. I was worried he had a heart attack," says producer Tom Bettag, his coworker for 10 years. Rather didn't really know how to do much else besides work. He spent little time at media parties and events, Peyronnin told me, because he was always too busy working or squeezing in time with his family.

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