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Rather signs off to the sound of score-settling

CBS News executives are bracing themselves for an awkward changing of the guard tomorrow night, when the veteran news anchor Dan Rather, arguably the most experienced newsman in America, makes his last appearance after 24 years in the chair of the network's flagship evening news programme.

The transition will not be smooth - no permanent successor has yet been appointed - nor are recent circumstances allowing him to bow out with much grace. Rather, a veteran of stories dating back to the assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963, is departing as much a villain as a hero.

Critics of Rather, 73, who have long accused him of liberal bias, will cheer to see him go. But for his admirers, there is sadness. His 40-year career at CBS has been clouded by one mistake: a presidential campaign segment aired last September on 60 Minutes Wednesday, a news magazine.

The story, presented by Rather, trumpeted evidence that President Bush received preferential treatment to shirk National Guard duty during the Vietnam era. Documents on which it was based were quickly revealed to be forged. For days, CBS and Rather took a defensive stance but eventually an internal report condemned the segment. Three senior staffers were fired or resigned and Rather's reputation was badly tarnished.

Laced through the atmosphere of regret is the widely accepted truth that CBS News is not what it used to be, especially in the days of Rather's predecessor, Walter Cronkite. For several years now, the CBS Evening News has lagged in third place behind NBC and ABC in the ratings. Its network of foreign bureaux is a shadow of its former self.

The low point for Rather may have come with a profile in The New Yorker magazine last week by the respected media observer Ken Auletta, which included uncharitable remarks from other CBS veterans. Cronkite, 88, said he didn't like to watch Rather and usually chose the competition and Mike Wallace, another old hand on 60 Minutes, tartly described Rather as "uptight" and "occasionally contrived".

The network is doing its best to give Rather a grand send-off. His last appearance will be followed by an hour-long primetime special recalling all the stories that he has reported. Doubtless, it will emphasise what Rather himself is most proud of: that instead of simply presenting world events from the studio he often took the programme on the road, playing reporter as much as presenter.

"Morale is not very good right now," conceded Bob Schieffer, another CBS veteran who will take over from Rather on Thursday, until the bosses have decided what to do with the news show in the longer run. Acknowledging that milk was spilt with the Bush story, Schieffer said: "Our credibility was hurt. But we've got to move on."

For Rather, who remains on the payroll at 60 Minutes, there is no pretending that the Guard fiasco didn't happen. "He's 73 years old," Auletta noted after writing his piece. "He's spent a life in which he's tried to be noble.

"He tried to treat journalism as a public calling and, as he said, speak truth to power. Is that all going to get washed away by the events of 8 September [when the Guard story aired]? Anyone would worry about that and he is."