Sunday, June 18, 2006

When Is It Time to Retire? Dan Rather and CBS

In a poignant Page 1 story Saturday, New York Times writer Jacques Steinberg interviewed the former CBS News anchor Dan Rather and told how he is being forced out of CBS after 44 years with the network.

Rather is 74 years old. He clearly doesn't want to retire, and he is working out a deal with a high-definition television channel called HDNet to continue broadcasting, although before a much smaller audience.

It is sad when a long and distinguished career with a single employer comes to an end, particularly so when the employer, as in this case, encourages the person to leave by simply not giving him any assignments. For the last six weeks with CBS' 60 Minutes program, Rather was given nothing to do. Before he went to 60 Minutes, Rather was eased out of being anchor of the CBS Evening News after the fracas over an apparently inaccurate report on President Bush's military service during the Vietnam war period. Rather had defended the report much longer and more vehemently than CBS executives liked.

The age of 74 may have been time for Rather to leave CBS anyway. Gen. De Gaulle once called old age "a shipwreck" and it is frequently disheartening to see an old newsman or any kind of employee hang on beyond a time when he or she is truly useful.

But it is much better for the executive in charge simply to say it is time for the employee to go, as publisher Arthur Sulzberger did with A.M. Rosenthal at the New York Times, rather than to humiliate him by giving him no assignments, or make disrespectful remarks, as CBS CEO Les Moonves also made about Rather.

At the L.A. Times, a number of employees were humiliated late in their careers. The former metro editor, Noel Greenwood, was particularly guilty of this tactic. The way he treated the late City Hall reporter Erwin Baker, and Chuck Hillinger, the traveling features reporter, was a disgrace, but ironically Greenwood himself fell victim to similar mistreatment when Shelby Coffey, then the editor, stopped giving him anything to do. I well remember Coffey's speech at Greenwood's farewell, and his almost certainly dishonest remark that Greenwood would be welcome to come back any time he felt like it.

Greenwood went on to an apparently satisfying career as a book editor. He has been much more relaxed and pleasant on the occasions I've seen him in recent years than he was at the end of his Times career.

In my own case, L.A. Times editor Dean Baquet simply told me the time had come for my retirement after I loudly chastised a secretary. I was not mistreated at the end, except for a seriously negligent editing of one of my final earthquake stories, and Baquet was not responsible for that. In fact, weeks after I retired, the Times management included me in an announced buyout, and I collected a year's salary I was not expecting. I was 66 when I retired, and it took me only a few days to accept the fact and begin enjoying myself. Then, my son-in-law suggested doing this blog, which I have been enjoying immensely. I used to express my opinion freely at the Times, but the blog gives me even more freedom to express my views at least semi-publicly.

Since I had a bad knee and other ailments, it had been increasingly uncomfortable for me to go into the office each day, and I was tending to doze off on the job. I was in bad temper much of the time. Here at home, writing the blog, my schedule is my own, and although I do the blog every day I find life is relaxing. It is very nice too to see my children and grandchildren.

I've noticed among my Dartmouth classmates, many of whom have been self-employed, that retirement is often a matter of choice, and that choice is made at different times. Many of the classmates have gone on to part time work, or less strenuous second careers. I have one classmate, Sid Goldman, who retired as an orthopedic surgeon in Detroit and moved to Key West, Fla., where he now drives a taxi part time, something he always had a hankering to do.

Of course, some people, like Shav Glick at the L.A. Times and Shirley Povich at the Washington Post, work on into the mid-80s as Glick did, or into the 90s, as Povich did. In fact, he wrote a column for the Post the week he died. Jim Murray and Jack Smith, the great LAT columnists, also worked up to the end in their 70s, even though Smith was diabetic and Murray had severe eye problems, and both were fine columnists even at the end. The editors of the Times did not feel they could get along without them, and they encouraged them to stay on.

Murray Fromson, the USC journalism professor and former CBS correspondent, drove Ed Guthman and me to the Harry Bernstein memorial service yesterday. Of course, Guthman remains vibrant and working, also at USC, in his mid-80s, and Fromson says he is planning to retire from teaching soon, but is planning on writing a book. He is enthusiastically looking forward to doing the research.

My own father, a retired Rear Admiral and Hughes Aircraft employee, thoroughly enjoyed his retirement, writing a novel on Japanese-Americans in World War II California, and taking a round-the-world voyage on the Holland-America line. He even authored a few travel articles for the Times, and he went out to dinner three nights in the week before he died of a heart attack at 77.

That is the way to go, active to the end, and we can certainly wish Rather a lot of good times ahead.

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