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Warhorse redux: Rather hits the century mark -- in episodes -- on HDNet

Dan Rather and Mark Cuban at July 2006 session with TV critics.

Milestones come and go, but the odds against this one occurring were perhaps 100 to 1.

Here's Dan Rather, though, on the occasion of his 100th episode of HDNet's Dan Rather Reports.

In partnership with the network's owner, Mark Cuban, Rather has endured as television's oldest living practitioner of weekly boots-on-the-ground journalism. His odometer reads 77, but with a bullet not a sedative.

"I'm incredibly proud of what Dan has done with DRR," Cuban says via email. "It is by far the best news hour on TV. Dan hasn't lost a step. His passion for reporting comes through every week."

Rather, in a telephone interview with unclebarky.com, counts himself fortunate to be bankrolled by a billionaire who doesn't necessarily expect to turn a profit with this particular investment.

"About the only time I hear from him is when we've done some investigative report for which we've caught some flak," Rather says. "And what he does is come forward and stand tall and back us up. I'm at an age and stage where I don't have to kiss up to anyone anymore, thank heaven. I was looking for the new Bill Paley (founder of CBS) or Ted Turner (founder of CNN) -- or as close as I could come. And I found him in Mark. . . This has been a total, complete joy for me. I can't remember having this much sustained satisfaction and just sheer happiness since maybe the very early years when I first came to CBS News."

Cuban hired Rather in July 2006, and initially wanted him on the air by September. Even Rather balked at that hurry-up schedule, buying time until the program's Nov. 14, 2006 debut. It's been a weekly grind ever since.

"When we started this, there was a good deal of snickering," Rather says. "But if you listen to that stuff, then you never get anything accomplished. I heard from any number of people, some who were friends, some who were not and some I wasn't sure which. They said, 'You're going to be like Wile E. Coyote. You're going to go of a cliff. Nobody can keep that pace up.' But we just kept on keeping on."

Rather's 100th hour of DRR (Tuesday, March 24th at 7 p.m. central) will find him in Afghanistan for a one-hour piece subtitled "A Border Runs Through It." He returned from this latest self-imposed assignment on Christmas Eve. By his count, it's "at least the fourth full hour we've done on Afghanistan or Pakistan."

"In the past two and a half years I believe we've spent more time on the ground over there than anybody in American electronic journalism," Rather says. "We've done that because I believe it's such an important story. And for Mark to finance that, and to leave us on our own, well, that shouldn't go unnoticed."

His highest-profile trip to Afghanistan, in 1980 for CBS' 60 Minutes, became both famous and infamous for Rather's undercover reporting in Afghan peasant garb. A headline in The Washington Post dubbed him "Gunga Dan" in an unflattering piece written by TV critic Tom Shales. During his 24 years as anchor of the CBS Evening New, he kept the outfit hanging in his office. Old habits die hard.

"It's still hanging in my office," Rather says, laughing, referring to his downscaled HDNet digs on 42nd St. in Manhattan, where he heads a full-time staff of 20.

Rather knows full well that much of his HDNet reporting remains unseen. The high-definition network has increased its reach from 3.75 million to 11 million homes since DRR premiered with a piece on life back in the States for veterans of the Iraq war. The program also is available on itunes, but overall distribution "is still a problem for us," Rather says. "We're at the mercy of the cable and satellite giants, and we have to fight to be carried just about everywhere. You do what you can."

Ted Koppel, for one, had a more visible platform on cable's Discovery Channel. But that relationship ended six months earlier than planned last year after new management balked at the cost of continuing it.

Rather's three-year contract with Cuban, best known as the oft-outspoken owner of the Dallas Mavericks, will expire in July of this year.

"But I had a conversation with Mark near the end of last year in which he said, 'Listen, I want to keep doing it. I hope you want to keep doing it.' That was music to my ears, and more important music to the ears of these good people we work with. I work with a very large percentage of young people. And they just fan out like a bunch of banshees and throw everything they've got into it.

"We run lean because one of the things I promised Mark is I would be as prudent with his money as I am with my own. We ask a lot of our people, and they don't have deep resources of the sort that people have at most other networks. They all just work like a farmer's wife in a clearing. And each and every one of them is told from the beginning that Mark is prepared to spend whatever we need to get the story, but not one dollar more . . . We've learned to take some quiet pride in learning how to do more for less."

Rather in waning days as CBS Evening News anchor and with HDNet.

Rather otherwise is prepared to spend whatever it takes -- from his personal funds -- -- to bring his highly publicized lawsuit against CBS and parent company Viacom to judgment day. He filed it in September 2007, charging that CBS had bowed to right-wing pressure and made him a "scapegoat" after he served as point man for an unsubstantiated "Memo-gate" report questioning George W. Bush's Texas Air National Guard service during the Vietnam War era.

Rather left CBS News after 44 years, including 24 as anchor of the network's flagship Evening News. He contended that the network violated his contract by intentionally minimizing his time on the air after re-assigning him to 60 Minutes. CBS says the suit is "without merit," but Rather is nothing if not persistent.

"I knew when I went into it that it would be a long, hard and expensive effort," he says. "I'm in this alone, in it by myself. Every dollar I spend comes out of my pocket. Every dollar Viacom and CBS spends comes out of the stockholders' pockets. And they have deep pockets.

"It goes in bursts," he adds, "but I've been pleasantly surprised that it's taken less of my time and less of a psychological toll than I thought it might. I spend overwhelmingly most of my time working on this (HDNet) program . . . I remain absolutely determined to find out what really happened, and to bring into the sunshine what the public needs to know about how these ever larger corporations are connected to Washington power for the benefit of making money at the expense of truly independent and free journalism.

"So I'm going to take it as far as I can take it. And however it turns out, I'm going to be OK."

He's also writing another book, but only sporadically because of the demands of Dan Rather Reports. It won't be a continuation of his autobiography, Rather says. Instead he wants to dissect "what's happened to radio and television journalism in the last 15 to 20 years, and why people should care deeply about that."

Rather once said that he figuratively had CBS News tattooed on his anatomy. That still seems true despite all the latter day bad blood and new-found independence at HDNet.

"I still have a lot of friends at CBS News, and I'm pulling for each and every one of them," Rather insists. "I ache as I always have for CBS News and for the people there to do well. Like everyone else in American journalism, they have their concerns, worries and challenges. But many of them are struggling mightily to uphold the traditions of CBS News. Which I still care about -- and care about a lot."