NEW YORK (AP) _ ``Let's be honest,'' Dan Rather said. ``This job is a killer.''

Rather was talking about the job of executive producer of ``The CBS Evening News,'' the off-camera partner in the broadcast he anchors every weeknight.

He listed the job's many pressures and responsibilities. And sacrifices.

``The anchor will actually leech the youth out of his executive producer,'' Rather confided. ``It's because of this vampire process that the executive producer grows gray and haggard _ while I miraculously maintain my youthful energy and appearance.''

Rather turned to the 42-year-old incumbent, Jeffrey Fager.

``So when I say that it's Jeff's job to make me look good ... I'm not kidding!''

Well, Rather was kidding about the vampire part, as he concluded his toast at a festive dinner he threw last month to mark Fager's first year running the newscast.

But all kidding aside, Rather, 65, is not only looking good but maybe better than ever. So is ``The CBS Evening News,'' which, after a drift in content as well as confidence, seems to have recovered a sense of itself and what it stands for.

Hard news!

Even as it chafes in third place in the ratings (a consequence, as much as anything, of CBS' weak distribution in certain key cities), ``The CBS Evening News'' stands defiant as the hard-news alternative.

And why not? One competitor, ``NBC Nightly News,'' has expressly trimmed global and Washington coverage. The other major player, ABC's ``World News Tonight,'' has aped the more featurey style with which ``Nightly'' in recent weeks has snatched the first-place crown ABC wore for years.

``Some of the other guys have gone from light to wispy, from soft to limp,'' says Rather during a recent interview that laces a missionary's zeal for the ``Evening News'' with sly depictions of its rivals.

``In radio terms,'' Rather cracks behind a poker face, ``they're singing Kenny G. We're singing Johnny Cash _ the real thing.'' So to speak.

But then a no-nonsense Rather speaks out against news-as-entertainment, of tailoring news judgments to what might catch viewers' fancy.

``Sometimes what's interesting is important, but that's not always the case,'' he says. ``And sometimes the most important thing, at least at first glance, is not very interesting.

``That means one of our jobs is to make the important as interesting as possible, and to report to people why they should care about it, even if at first glance they don't.

``Increasingly over the past year or so,'' he sums up, ``I think the difference between us and our principal competitors has begun to be more apparent. And this is where Jeff comes in.''

Fager, with whom Rather says he's ``joined at the ankle, hip and shoulder,'' has ``terrific experience, great enthusiasm, stays focused, never wears down, never wears out.''

And for the record, he looks neither gray nor haggard (although sources report that hastened thinning of his hair corresponds with his promotion).

For a year before he took over ``The Evening News,'' Fager had been its senior producer understudying Andrew Heyward, who in January 1996 moved up to the CBS News presidency.

Before that, Fager, a CBS News veteran since 1982, won his hard-news credentials as a producer for ``60 Minutes,'' part of the original team that developed ``48 Hours,'' and an ``Evening News'' producer based in London.

``Lebanon, Somalia, Bosnia _ name any hell-hole in the last 15 years,'' says Rather, ``and he's been there.''

Now Fager spends 12-hour days crafting each ``Evening News'' broadcast from CBS News' West 57th Street headquarters.

When asked his biggest surprise after landing the job, Fager drops his already soft voice another notch with wonder.

``There are so many things you're involved in, so many different responsibilities. The first few months, you're drowning. But then I woke up one day last summer, and I was having a good time.''

One reason, he declares, is his collaboration with Rather.

``I find him a pleasure to work with,'' Fager says. ``He has a very strong sense of journalism, but he doesn't force his way. He participates in the give-and-take.''

But what about those occasions, however infrequent, when the 500-pound gorilla (who, don't forget, is not only anchor and managing editor, but also star of this show) simply puts his foot down?

``Keep this in mind,'' says Fager, pointing to the desk from where, five times a week, Rather brings ``part of our world tonight'' to millions _ ``it's HIS puss. HE'S out there. He's the one who's exposed.''

So give the last word to Rather. While allowing that ``the anchorperson is always the narcissistic center,'' he reminds his audience of one central truth: ``No anchorperson is any better than his executive producer.''