Dan Rather stepping down in March from CBS News

Tuesday, November 23rd 2004, 11:15 am

By: News On 6

NEW YORK (AP) _ Dan Rather, embattled anchor of the ``CBS Evening News,'' announced Tuesday that he will step down in March, on the 24th anniversary of taking over the job from Walter Cronkite.

The veteran anchor has been under fire in recent months for his role in a ``60 Minutes Wednesday'' story that questioned President Bush's service in the National Guard, which turned out to based on allegedly forged documents.

Rather, 73, said he will continue to work for CBS, as a correspondent for both editions of ``60 Minutes.''

He made no mention of the National Guard story in announcing the change, saying he had agreed with CBS executives last summer that after the Nov. 2 election would be the right time to leave.

``I have always been and remain a `hard news' investigative reporter at heart,'' he said. ``I now look forward to pouring my heart into that kind of reporting full time.''

CBS did not mention a potential successor for Rather, who has been at CBS for more than four decades and made his name as a reporter covering the Nixon White House.

``He has been an eyewitness to the most important events for more than 40 years and played a crucial role in keeping the American public informed about those events and their larger significance,'' CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves said.

A report on what went wrong with the National Guard story, from a two-man independent investigative panel, is due imminently. Rather anchored the story and initially defended it when it was criticized.

Rather's announcement comes eight days before his NBC rival, Tom Brokaw, steps down as ``Nightly News'' anchor and is replaced by Brian Williams.

The triumvirate of Rather, Brokaw and ABC's Peter Jennings has ruled network news for more than two decades. Rather dominated ratings after taking over for Cronkite during the 1980s, but he was eclipsed first by Jennings and then by Brokaw. His evening news broadcast generally runs a distant third in the ratings each week.

His hard news style was mixed with a folksy Texan style that led him to rattle off homespun phrases on Election Night. But odd incidents dogged him: In 1987 he walked off the set, leaving CBS with dead air, to protest a decision to let a tennis match delay the news. And his claim that he was accosted on the street by a strange man saying, ``What's the frequency, Kenneth?'' led rock band R.E.M. to write a song with the same name.

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