After CBS let him go, he talked to news division presidents at NBC and CNN, and then execs at Fox, HBO, and Discovery. As he worked his way through the channel guide, it became apparent that the suits did not want to be associated with the National Guard fiasco. "The word came back: 'Dan, you're too hot to handle,'" Rather says. So he began looking for an independent outfit. He reached out to George Clooney, whom he'd profiled for 60 Minutes and who had directed and costarred in Good Night, and Good Luck, the biopic of Rather's childhood hero, Murrow. Rather soon found himself in Dallas lunching with Cuban, who helped finance the film. "I liked the fact that he was a lightning rod," Cuban recalls.
Cuban also smelled an opportunity. Rather was a huge name for such a tiny outlet, then available in only 4 million homes. And he could be had at a discount—roughly a quarter of his $6 million CBS salary. "I thought news on TV sucked," Cuban explains. "It had become so corporate and ratings-driven, there was no journalism any more." If Rather didn't exactly fit with HDNet's other programming, well, whatever. "Dan Rather is a personal, guilty pleasure," Cuban says. "If it was purely a business decision, he would not be on, so it's just my decision. That is the beauty of being an independent network. I program what I damn well please.
Back at CBS, news execs were always checking in on controversial stories, but Cuban doesn't meddle. "I want Dan Rather being Dan Rather," he says.
"I thought this was such a great opportunity," he goes on, "not because I wanted to do a Fox or MSNBC type of thing. It was the exact opposite: I want Dan Rather being Dan Rather." Back at CBS, news execs were always checking in on controversial stories, suggesting changes or pushing for more sources, but Cuban doesn't meddle. And when an exposé about problems with Boeing's 787 Dreamliner jet got the company upset, he had Rather's back. The two men get together once or twice a year, and they exchange the occasional email, but that's about it. "At the beginning, I had a strong sense of being alone," Rather told me.
Cuban has also freed him from the two most pervasive pressures broadcast journalists face: ratings and demographics. When he began in television, Rather recalls, he would check ratings maybe twice a quarter, but broadcast news steadily devolved into a nightly numbers game. Cuban isn't too concerned with how many people watch any particular show, as long as his distributors are happy and he can grow the subscriber base. Nor does he share with Rather the numbers he gets from Rentrak, a proprietary ratings service. "It's odd, to say the least," Rather says. "Weird."
BACK IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, Rather is interviewing Don McLean, a real estate developer who was molested by two priests when he was 10 years old. Faced with lawsuits from dozens of abuse victims, the Catholic diocese in San Diego filed for bankruptcy protection. But a judge caught the church hiding assets, and Rather's reporting had uncovered (PDF) a similar pattern in other dioceses. With McLean's wife and children looking on, Rather asks him about the church's response to his accusations, the property that the church had neglected to reveal, and how the abuse changed his life. But he avoids asking about the exact nature of the abuse. "He did come close to tearing up," Rather muses to his crew when we're all back in the car. "I hoped that he wouldn't. We've all seen, all provoked the archetypal tearful breakdown. We were not after that today."
After a 14-hour day, Rather caps off dinner at 10:30 p.m. with two scoops of ice cream and a yarn about crash-landing in a small plane in Alaska.
Rather tends to avoid the cheap sensationalism driving today's news cycle. His story was fundamentally about accounting—and the church acting more like a big corporation than an institution of faith. That tension, not the titillating detail, is what interests him. Each year, he puts together more than 40 episodes with a staff of 22 young producers and editors, comparable to the number that 60 Minutes produces with some 100 employees. (More than one producer laughed aloud when I brought up the size of Rather's staff.) Nevertheless, he has reported from Iraq and Afghanistan at least six times since the show's launch. He has journeyed to Moldova, Rwanda, Madagascar, Iceland, and all over the States; it's a rare week he's not boarding a plane. The day I watched Rather interview McLean, I heard his alarm sound at 6 a.m. through the thin hotel wall. He was on camera by 8 and then drove from interview to interview all day, never slowing down until 10:30 p.m., when he capped off dinner in Newport Beach with two scoops of ice cream and a yarn about crash-landing in a small plane in Alaska. It was an easy day, he quipped. "He's 79 years old and he's working at the same pace he did when he was 18," Peyronnin marvels.
But does great reporting matter if nobody sees it? HDNet remains among the smallest outlets on television, and the show's marketing consists more or less of what Rather and Cuban do in their spare time. Rather will pen the occasional article for the Huffington Post and the Daily Beast, or he'll appear on Chris Matthews' Hardball, but "there are only so many hours in the day," he laments. Cuban tweets about upcoming episodes and promotes them on his blog. ("I am not a Twitter person myself," Rather admits, though his show does have more than 5,000 Facebook fans.) Beyond that, Cuban has made little effort to extend Rather's reach. Brian Stelter, a media reporter for the New York Times, told me he hasn't written about Rather's show since it first launched. "I can't tell you when HDNet has flagged one of his big stories for me effectively," he says, and that's a shame, since "what he is talking about, more people should be talking about."
Cuban's strategy may seem counterintuitive, given that Broadcast.com made him a pioneer in putting video on the internet. "I grew up with the internet mindset—get it out there and get as many people as possible to watch it, then sell ads around it. It's cheaper to distribute, and you have access to everyone," he says. But he's concluded that there's no money in that approach—if there were, he says, NBC would have moved Law & Order online instead of canceling it. Thus, unless you're an HDNet subscriber, you have to buy episodes of Rather's show on iTunes for $1.99 a pop.
The big cable companies don't like it when the channels they distribute give away too much for free—and understandably so. But that hasn't prevented outlets like, say, Comedy Central from heavily promoting Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and posting their best clips online. HDNet only recently began uploading promos (and the occasional segment when Rather requests it) to YouTube, where they garner maybe a few hundred views.
Rather seems unfazed that, in this era of boundless online distribution, he is essentially marooned on Mark Cuban's tiny island. "The work is well worth doing if only one or two people watch it," he says when I press the issue. But that doesn't change the fact that Cuban's model leaves him both incredibly free and greatly diminished.
And that's an odd spot for Rather. For most of his career, he was important. He pushed back against presidents, sat down with dictators, and guided viewers through elections and national tragedies. He could have retired. CBS offered him an office and an assistant and the kind of emeritus role Walter Cronkite had. But in the end, the money, the viewers, the power he held at CBS meant less to him than the simple act of sitting down across from someone, notebook in hand, and asking questions. "I love doing news. I'd go door to door telling people the news," Rather says. "I don't know how long I have, but I honestly believe I can keep doing this for quite a while."