If CBS TV's news department had diverted Katie Couric's astronomical salary to carving its own version of Mount Rushmore, the monument would most likely include the faces of Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and Mike Wallace.

The men are leading figures in three new biographies, "Mike Wallace: A Life," "Rather Outspoken" and "Cronkite," all of which manage to chip away at their granite images.

Peter Rader, the author of "Wallace," admits upfront that he's a screenwriter, not a reporter -- and it shows. Rader uses imagined dialogue based on plausible situations, an approach that might engage readers, but would get him kicked out of any respectable journalism school.

The author's cinematic background also explains why he's less interested in Wallace's unparalleled interrogative style and more interested in his conflicted personality, his showmanship background (he was once the narrator of radio's "Green Hornet") and battle with depression. The result: a sympathetic, borderline tragedy devoid of insight into how he pulled off some of the 20th century's most riveting TV interviews.

There's no question that Rather's image has taken a nosedive since being forced out of CBS after a sloppily reported piece on whether George W. Bush used his family's clout to get out of serving in the Vietnam War. The anchor only hurts his case in this defensive autobiography.

Much of the book rehashes dated, chest-beating adventures he previously covered better in "The Camera Never Blinks" and "The Camera Never Blinks Twice." Rather seems to think his best character witness is himself, painting a patriot who was betrayed by executives who don't understand the perils of being on the front line. Rather may be right, but he's been carrying this grudge for so long that it's painful to watch him pick at the wound until blood spills onto the pages.

Rather doesn't want to offend the wrong people, which is why he saves his ire for bosses and backs off from his colleagues. If you believe Douglas Brinkley's "Cronkite," Rather's not showing all his cards.

While "Rather Outspoken" suggests that the two CBS anchors with the longest tenures in the main desk were good pals, Brinkley presents strong evidence that they grew to despise each other.

One of the book's more hilarious, yet sad, chapters, details Rather's first day on the job and his bitter refusal to use Cronkite's chair, leading to a few minutes of awkward confusion that had the crew gasping.

But Cronkite doesn't come off scot-free. While it's clear that Brinkley (no relation to former NBC anchor David, by the way) respects the legend, he doesn't back away from exposing facts that will make you question whether he deserved the title of "most trusted man in America."

Among the revelations: Cronkite used to "fake" play-by-play coverage on the radio, doctored up an interview with Lyndon B. Johnson the way William Hurt did in "Broadcast News" and personally urged Bobby Kennedy to run for president.

There are also plenty of anecdotes that reflect the invaluable contributions he made to TV news, from his dogged determination to get it right to his championing minorities like Bernard Shaw and Connie Chung.

Brinkley's well balanced approach may take some shine off the ol' armor, but he does what any great biographer does: Tells it just the way it was. This is a book that will be read and treasured long after "Rather" and "Wallace" are collecting dustballs.

njustin@startribune.com • 612-673-7431 • Twitter: @nealjustin