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The joys of seeing an anchor sink

He knows it sounds like false modesty. Or a clumsy attempt to seem gracious.

But though he's spent four years maintaining a Web site dedicated to proving CBS anchor Dan Rather is biased; and though contributed to the outcry that forced the anchor to admit serious flaws in his Sept. 8 60 Minutes story about President Bush's National Guard service, Matthew W. Sheffield insists one thing is true.

He doesn't hate Dan Rather.

"We just wanted to fully expose and prove beyond a reasonable doubt that any claims to nonpartisanship and objectivity on his part were patently false," said Sheffield, a 26-year-old Web site designer who, with his brother Greg, started the Web log (or "blog") in response to the anchor's coverage of Bill Clinton's impeachment proceedings.

"We have no animus against him. But this "Memogate' fiasco is just another example of Dan Rather's long record of lowering his journalistic standards when it comes to Republicans."

But after an hour or so talking to Sheffield, it seems obvious: Rather has burrowed under his skin like a Texas tick on a hot summer day.

Talk to other conservatives with a Rather-sized chip on their shoulder, and you'll hear the same song of complaint. His oddball, corn-fed sayings. His history of confronting Republican politicians such as Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush. His folksy way of shrugging off any criticisms of his reporting or on-air comments.

Other network TV anchors have absorbed their fair share of criticism and allegations of bias (opinionated cable guys such as Fox News' Bill O'Reilly are another matter). But Rather has built a 30-plus-year history of frustrating conservatives. "Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings . . . they're not so arrogant and self-righteous," said Sheffield. "Dan Rather . . . he takes fairness criticisms personally. He thinks if you accuse him of being a liberal, you're accusing him of being a far-left nutjob."

So Rather's apology last week, in which he admitted CBS News could not guarantee the authenticity of memos purportedly showing that Bush received favorable treatment in the Guard and failed to meet performance standards, felt like a gift from above _ the smoking gun critics needed to validate decades of often-fruitless sniping.

"I think this is the greatest story since Noah went on the ark . . . it's like a pinata; you can bash it from any side and sorts of great things fall out," said Jonah Goldberg, a conservative columnist for the New Republic Online. "There is no way you can explain this without media bias being part of the equation.

"This 60 Minutes story never would have happened if the memos had come from Swift Boat Veterans for Truth against John Kerry. Now (Rather) is a joke, and everyone can see it."

Goldberg also cites Rather's arrogance as the primary source of conservatives' hatred, comparing the anchor to a college roomate who drinks your last can of beer and then won't admit it.

"He thinks that you're a partisan fool if you don't see that he is the paragon of objectivity, and that drives me nuts," said Goldberg, who has appeared on a variety of TV and radio shows to debate _ and celebrate _ Rather's embarrassment.

"I would stop talking about media bias if the establishment press would just admit it. Just admit you took the last beer."

Deluged with media attention last week, a CBS News spokeswoman Friday e-mailed a two-sentence statement on the issue: "Journalists are often the target of partisan factions, and Dan is no exception. However, there is no truth to those allegations."

Marvin Kalb, former director of Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, said Rather's critics often seem to confuse his admittedly puzzling public statements and bulldog reporting style with bias.

Kalb, a former host of NBC's Meet the Press who also worked at CBS News, said conservatives' ire at Rather dates back to his time covering Watergate as the network's White House correspondent _ when the anchor's hard-charging style led to public, angry confrontations with then-President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew.

"There's nothing like this long, festering unhappiness with Rather that many conservatives have . . . but I think Dan _ he's not oblivious to politics, but he loves covering the story," said Kalb, recalling a failed effort by then-North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms in 1985 to rally conservatives to buy enough CBS stock to fire Rather. "Yes, every now and then he comes out with the quirkiest comments you can imagine. (But) I don't think Dan Rather put (ideologically) suspect stories on the air."

Top anchor at the network since legendary newsman Walter Cronkite's retirement in 1981, Rather is just the fourth anchor to lead the evening news at CBS, the network which invented the television newsmagazine with 60 Minutes, featured Edward R. Murrow's landmark documentary series See It Now, and dominated the early TV news scene with Cronkite's near-20-year reign as the "most trusted man in America."

Rather's own career history involves starring roles in the country's biggest news stories, from his status as the first journalist to report John F. Kennedy's death to his tough reportage in Vietnam, his work on Watergate, his dispatches from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and his work on the Iran-Contra scandal.

And as a journalist whose job involves serving as a charismatic, emotionally connected embodiment of a network's news division, Rather wears that history and responsibility more uneasily than any other big name in the game.

"These guys have been in people's living rooms for 20-30 years . . . and Rather has a edge to him," said Jeff Alan, author of Anchoring America: The Changing Face of Network News. "Where I think Brokaw and Jennings are more straightforward, standard TV anchors, Rather has always been different."

Just how different has emerged over the years, from his puzzling use of the word "courage" to sign off his newscasts for a week in the mid-'80s, to a bizarre assault in 1986 by a man shouting "Kenneth, what is the frequency?" to his decision in 1987 to storm off the set when a tennis match came close to interrupting his newscast.

But until "Memogate," there really wasn't an incident that pulled together Rather's tightly wound, quirky personal style with a major journalism gaffe.

Now, he faces a two-person independent panel investigating just how 60 Minutes used memos they couldn't authenticate, given them by a longtime Bush critic.

Some of the more extreme predictions about the scandal's fallout sound more like a conservative's wishful thinking. With no-name backups such as John Roberts and Scott Pelley in the wings, few analysts expect CBS to dump Rather outright. And instead of destroying network news, the blogs' influence in Memogate seems to be speeding up the news cycle _ inspiring big news outlets to jump on stories quicker and vetting blockbuster stories for accuracy.

But Rather's critics insist the anchor's excesses might finally be tearing down The House That Murrow Built.

"He's going to become the Michael Moore of TV news . . . preaching only to the choir," said Sheffield, who doesn't believe Rather will be fired by CBS over the incident. "In many ways, he's sort of harmed the credibility and infrastructure at CBS News. And the congregation has left the building."