NEW YORK -- When Dan Rather took a job to create a news program at Mark Cuban's little-seen HDNet, it felt like a television version of a rebound relationship.
His departure from CBS News was fresh and bitter, and who was this new suitor, after all? Yet Rather is now approaching several milestones: five years at HDNet; nearly 200 episodes of "Dan Rather Reports"; and on Halloween, an 80th birthday as a still-working reporter.
"I never thought we'd get to three years, much less five," Rather said recently, flashing pride about work most of his old CBS audience has probably never seen.
His show airs on Tuesday nights each week and promises "hard-edged field reports, bold investigations, in-depth interviews and stories from around the world as you have never seen them."
He delivers a solo "60 Minutes"-style report backed by a full-time staff of 22 people and another 10 free-lancers who work regularly. He presents serious stories that often unfold at a more leisurely pace than most broadcast reports. Recent topics include arranged marriages among Indian immigrants, the black market sale of human kidneys, sexual abuse by priests and floating garbage in the Pacific Ocean.
He does 42 new shows a year.
"We like to cover the stories that other people are not covering," he said. "We try to be good story hunters, storytellers and story breakers. We're trying to do quality journalism with integrity."
In five years, "Dan Rather Reports" has been nominated for 12 news Emmy Awards, and won two. Rather portrays the operation as an ideal proving ground for young journalists, "the best place in American electronic journalism to work."
Five years ago, Rather accepted Cuban's offer to put together a new show without knowing all that would be involved or even much about him. He recalled walking into a business that rents temporary real estate and the receptionist calling back to her boss, "There's someone here who says he's Dan Rather and he wants to rent office space."
Cuban was more optimistic at the time than Rather, who felt pressure to get on the air.
"When we did our first program," Rather said, "we didn't have a second program."
Cuban said the show had "vastly exceeded" his expectations. "Name another show that earns an Emmy nomination for every 10 shows it airs," he said.
What's not clear is how many people actually see the work. HDNet is available in about 23 million homes in the U.S., less than a quarter of those with TVs, although the count was less than 4 million when Rather started. Ratings for the show itself are not tallied.
HDNet makes the show's material available online and Rather tweets ("Saw `Crazy Stupid Love' and liked it a lot. Good time."), but he has no illusions about the reach.
"We have to struggle for recognition," he said. "We have to struggle for the impact. Time after time, we see the same story done on one of the big networks or in a newspaper a few months after we've done it. Somebody, somewhere is watching what we're doing."
Much of Rather's time and money (he won't say how much) was tied up over the past few years on his $70 million breach-of-contract lawsuit against CBS. Rather claimed he had been wrongfully removed as "CBS Evening News" anchor over the network's disputed 2004 report about President George W. Bush's military service. Questions were raised about the legitimacy of documents that bolstered the report.
Some of Rather's critics, even former colleagues, suggested he was on a quixotic mission fueled by bitterness. Although New York's top court ended the case in January 2010, Rather said he had no regrets. He was happy to depose as many people at CBS as he could in an attempt to talk about corporate interference in news decisions. He'll discuss the case in detail in a new book, "Summing Up," expected to be out next year.
"People are going to think what they're going to think," he said. "The important thing is what you think about yourself."
Scott Pelley, the new "CBS Evening News" anchorman, has described his fellow Texan Rather as a mentor. The first note of congratulations he received upon getting the job, he said, arrived by way of courier from Rather.
CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager, once Rather's producer on the evening news, was asked a few weeks ago whether the network would ever bury the hatchet with the man who worked there for 44 years.
"For me, it's tough because I really loved working with him," Fager said. "And he means so much to our organization. There's such a great history that he's involved in. We worked together for years, one of my favorite people, and I learned so much from him. It ended so badly that it's hard to see how it could be reconciled. But again, he's an important part of our history and we would never try to deny that."
Translation: As long as Leslie Moonves is boss at the CBS Corp., don't expect to see Rather walking through the door of the news division's West 57th Street headquarters.
"I have a lot of friends at CBS News," Rather said. "I try hard to pull for them. I do pull for them. I think a lot of Scott Pelley."
The 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks reminds Rather of one of his career's biggest moments. HDNet and Rather will mark the moment, but it will be nothing as when Rather was in the anchor chair leading a major news division as it came to terms with a big story unfolding in front of it.
"As time goes along, I miss it less and less," he said.
Rather is grayer than he was when he left CBS, and thicker in the face. He walks deliberately up the stairs at a Manhattan barbecue joint where he lunched recently. He might be almost 80 but he was in Afghanistan for a story this summer.
How long "Dan Rather Reports" continues "depends on Dan," Cuban said. "I hope for at least a few more years."
Rather said he wants to keep working "as long as I have my health, God's grace and Mark's money."
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