Dan Rather has written an important, chilling and entertaining new memoir all at once.
Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News works on several levels. For one, it’s his passionate insider’s account of how CBS News forced him out as anchor and managing editor in 2004, potentially affecting the election that fall since the significance of his story was lost in the reccriminations against reporters. His contract was not renewed in 2006, thereby ending his CBS career after his 44 years of service. His words:
Why was I out as CBS News? Because I reported a true story. The story I reported in September 2004 of President George W. Bush’s dereliction of duty during Vietnam is true, and neither Bush himself no anyone close to him – no family member, no confidante, no political ally – has ever denied it.
The book succeeds also because he shows how a CBS News sellout of the public interest fits a much larger pattern, one that threatens democracy itself. In this, his fears match our coverage here at the Justice Integrity Project the past two weeks. We have reported extensively, as here, on those fighting this horrid trend. Dedicated journalists and courageous whistle-blowers stand at the forefront of this movement. In 1987, I wrote the book Spiked about these trends, and have closely studied the process since. Rather's analysis is dead on.
Finally, Rather provides his readers powerful first-person insights on momentous news events from more than half a century of reporting. He weaves them into his personal journey that began during his youth in Texas. As the traditional news business fades and fragments, we are not likely to see anyone else from such modest roots who personally covered so many history-shaping events.
Therefore, civic-minded news consumers -- especially those open to evidence, not just conventional wisdom -- will find great value in his book. But it contains important lessons also for anyone suddenly out of work, or who hopes that a lawsuit will rectify an injustice. Sadly, we hear at our Project from many forlorn litigants in both civil and criminal cases. Those who rely on the justice system can benefit from learning how the system treats someone of Rather's stature and resources when he goes up against those even more powerful.
Dan Rather's origins are worth summarizing here because his opponents through the years have created a false caricature. My impression, including several brief contacts with him, is that he's not an elitist in any meaningful sense except that he was highly paid, like his peers, as his network's anchor and managing editor for more than two decades.
He was born in 1931 and reared on the outskirts of Houston, a nice home, he says, but "on the wrong side of the tracks." His father enjoyed steady manual labor work despite the Depression as a speciality ditch-digger for pipelines. The future newsman was bed-ridden from rheumatic fever during his middle school years. With few options at home, he developed a passion for radio and for those courageously delivering wartime news, especially for those on Edward R. Murrow's team building the great tradition of CBS radio. By scraping together many part-time jobs, he was able to attend Sam Houston State Teachers College. This made him the first in his proud family to obtain formal education beyond high school. He was a student newspaper editor and ROTC participant, and joined the Marines upon graduation in hope of fighting in Korea.
His first real job in journalism was to handle all entertainment and news functions for a tiny radio station. He fell in love with the station’s secretary, Jean, his wife for 55 years since then. The book is dedicated to her. That's because even success in the front-lines of journalism can wreak great hardship on families. For example, he describes his Deep South civil rights coverage in the 1960s as marking a turning point in his understanding of the world. But death threats created stress on where to raise their family safely. In the same way, his willingness (along with his intrepid peers) to hitch helicopter rides to Vietnam combat zones marks a different era of war coverage than embedded, closely supervised correspondents today.
The central drama that frames the book is his CBS team’s report on Sept. 8, 2004 that President Bush had serious irregularities in his Vietnam-era military record. The problems included a year between May 1972 and April 1973 when Bush, right, was not observed in either Texas or Alabama duty, according to official reports.There's a lot more to the reporting, and it's a gross over-simplification to focus too much on one document, as his critics like to do.
Rather’s version of what happened next strikes me as credible even though CBS set up a sham “independent” inquiry commission to probe his team after a partisan, hoked-up nationwide campaign bombarded Rather and CBS immediately after the Sept. 8 news report. He has learned from litigation that CBS originally considered naming Ann Coulter, Matt Drudge and Ruch Limbaugh, among right-wing polemnists, to investigate the reporting team -- but not really the credibility of the story. Instead, CBS worked in more subtle fashion by picking as lead investigators former George H.W. Bush Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press CEO Louis Boccardi, who had worked with the elder Bush on a sensitive kidnap matter. "Two kangeroos had been issued black robes," Rather writes, "and installed in the Star Chamber."
All of this was somewhat murky at the time to outsiders, especially because CBS sent mixed public signals at first and forbade Rather and other reporters from commenting, except to require an apology from him. But right from the beginning, supposedly independent news media commentators harshly disparaged Rather and his team instead of pressing for more answers from everyone, including the Bush administration. The nastiness even at the time reminded me of my long-ago visit to a relative's turkey farm in Indiana. There I saw how birds suddenly decided en masse viciously to pick to death from time to time another bird that seemed abnormal.It reminded me also of the initial reaction to my book Spiked when leading media critics and ombudsmen declined to examine the evidence, and attacked the messenger. But Dan Rather, at the pinnacle of the business, kindly offered encouraging words, as did a number of others steeped in the hard news and investigative reporting tradition.
As a Washington resident in 2004, I saw immediately the worst coverage in 2004, which was by Washington Post and CNN media critic Howard Kurtz. Kurtz is now Washington Bureau chief for Daily Beast/Newsweek and also continues as host for CNN's Reliable Sources news program. Promptly after the CBS News report on Sept. 8 in 2004, Kurtz used his Post position as the nation's most influential media commentator to begin a drumbeat of criticism that emphasized Republican talking points against CBS reporters. Kurtz never let up.
On May 6 this month, Kurtz framed the issue this way to his Reliable Sources panel on CNN: “Why is Dan Rather still pushing and defending this story, this discredited story?" Media historian Dr. Mark Feldstein, a university professor, author and himself a distinguished journalist, responded, "Give the guy credit for having the courage of his convictions."
But a different view came from panelist Fred Francis, a homeland security/defense consultan. He retired in 2004 from NBC-TV, a subsidiary of the defense contractor General Electric, as its defense/homeland security industry correspondent following a long, high-profile career in broadcasting. Francis said of Rather, "I don't give him credit because he didn't have the courage to admit he was wrong."
A visit to the Francis consultancy website, 15Seconds.com, reveals its prominent display of the NBC logo, along with the logos of the U.S. Department of Defense and NASA. His partner in the firm is a former communications director for the CIA. Their service focuses on managing media messaging. That's where the bucks are, not aggressive reporting. Somewhat similarly, the Kurtz Wikipedia bio shows that the ethics guru's second wife, married in 2003, is a public relations consultant for high-profile Republican candidates and causes. Polite society in the nation's capital ignores conflicts posed by overlapping careers because they're o common. And if no one mentions them, they can't be very important, correct?l
The University of Maryland summarizes Feldstein's diverse accomplishments on its faculty website. An expert on investigative reporting and political dirty tricks, Feldstein, right, appeared last year on my radio show, Washington Update, to discuss his book, Poisoning The Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture. One of his book's findings was that officials in the Nixon White House are on tape as seriously considered killing Anderson as reprisal for his reporting. That doubtless made an impression on Feldstein in underscoring the risks required for in-depth reporting. But he has lots of other context> He has won more than 50 journalism awards, including the nation's two most prestigious, during his 20 years specializing in investigative reporting at CNN, ABC News, NBC News, and local television stations in Phoenix, Tampa, and Washington, D.C.
In sum, this particular CNN panel on the Dan Rather book appears to illustrate the adage, "Where you stand depends on where you sit."
Several other recent commentaries from mainstream news organizations are included below as context for the current discussion. For what it's worth, I consider them as cheap shots against Rather because the working assumption is that he must be addled not to retire in disgrace. One such column is from Daily Beast gossip columnist Lloyd Grove, who undoubtedly has an expertise of dishing on who's in and who's out of what passes for society.
On this kind of matter, others have more substantive track records. That's why I sought out Justice Integrity Project Director John Kelly, below left, a gutsy reporter with many exclusives in history-making situations. In the 1960s, he was an NBC-TV reporter and news editor based in New York City and then a CIA officer based in Indochina. “I worked with Dan Rather at CBS from 1970 to 1974,” Kelly told me this week. “I always thought he was fair and honest. He was interested, professional, curious about whatever was going on.”
The more Kelly spoke, the more animated he became. "Back in the Nixon days, somebody broke into Rather's home. The people in these White Houses get scared" of Rather. Kelly continued, "That's because they can't control him. But after all these years, isn't it interesting that his own news organization took him out? It's this kind of thing that makes people stop watching the news. Why should they?"
To be sure, it’s impossible to obtain a positive consensus on pro-active reporters. Someone is always likely to be aggrieved or find political benefit in back-stabbing. Kelly describes the big-time newsrooms he knew at CBS or NBC as like a "barracuda tank" for such reasons.
For whatever reasons, Rather has garnered many critics through the years. His book recently averaged 4 ½ stars out of five on its Amazon.com listing. But that total is brought down by negative one-star reviews. One of the most prominent of those highly negative reviews is by a reader who wrote that he hasn't read the book because he dislikes Rather so much. Thus, even in the world of consumer approval, judgments are derived from reputation, not facts.Dan Rather has a long history of daring reporting and blunt commentary about civic life. Most damaging for his own career, he stood up for his team while the CBS corporate brass ran for cover away from the Bush story and a then-unprecedented Internet campaign to defend Bush and to attack CBS. The details are in Rather's book.
CBS News was a small part of its parent company, Viacom, until they split in 2006. Rather says it was "about as important as a nit on a gnat's nut." He blames as "most responsible" for Viacom's sellout of CBS integrity Viacom's then CEO Sumner Redstone "because of his personal political bias and his need for Washington help to feed his insatiable lust for profit." Under Redstone, Viacom's executives clearly acted as though they needed to deliver Rather's scalp to appease the Bush administration.
Redstone boasts in his 2001 autobiography, A Passion To Win, that he was a lifelong Democrat. But promptly after adverse reaction to the Rather report in September 2004 Redstone threw the public weight of his company and his own reputation behind President Bush's reelection that fall. Redstone's top Washington executives in both 2004 and now, Carol Melton and DeDe Lea, respectively, have not responded to my requests for comment on Rather's book. Nonetheless, it's safe to conclude that shareholders benefit vastly more from favorable regulatory action than from accurate news stories, especially if views don't know what they're missing. Kurtz and Francis have not responded yet either to comment requests.
Before publishing his book, Rather made the expensive decision to use a breach of contract suit to tackle in court Viacom, CBS and his other adversaries. He says the suit's primarily purpose was not money damages, but the kind of truth-seeking that only court-ordered discovery of relevant documents can compel. His attorney warnded him that his adversaries had limitless funds, and that he risked spending his family's savings in a litigation system whereby the more powerful can relentlessly pound down the opposition. He reflected:
The two inescapable questions rose up before me. If not me, who? If not now, when?
With this court action, I was seeking to confront the grave issues raised by bald-faced corporate and governmental intimidation of journalists and by the chilling intrusion of these special interests into newsrooms across the country.
Here are key documents: Dan Rather's lawsuit against CBS, and the CBS motion to dismiss. Rather obtained valuable information as part of pre-trial discovery. But New York has an unusual rule whereby litigants can appeal rulings pre-trial. Thus, an appellate court threw out his suit because CBS paid Rather under his contract, even though the network did not use him as he claims it promised before it ousted him.
In 1999, the year Viacom acquired CBS, I saw Rather give a speech at the National Press Club in Washington. In it, he told the audience that “fear – fear of losing your job” by antagonizing the powerful was the biggest factor in modern newsrooms, especially in his broadcast industry. In error, he told the audience he personally had served so many years that he was largely immune to removal because of office politics. But even Rather advised younger reporters in the room to choose carefully whether a story was so important that it was worth risking a career and only then dare to proceed.
Thanks to his courageous leadership, the public can see more clearly where this is heading. Near the end of his memoir, he quotes former New York Times reporter Chris Hedges as writing:
The steady decline of the news business means we are plunging lager and large parts of our society into dark holes and opening up greater opportunities for unchecked corruption, disinformation and the abuse of power…
A democracy survives when its citizens have access to trustworthy and impartial source of information, when it can discern lies from truth, and when civic discourse, is grounded in verifiable fact.
Rather describes how he felt blessed at age 75 to be pulled from his ouster-induced depression in 2006. It was by George Clooney, producer of Good Night and Good Luck, the award-winning film in 2005 about the CBS work of his childhood hero Murrow. Clooney invited Rather to stand with him at a Hollywood award-ceremony, and then introduced Rather to well-connected investors in new media. They included HDTV founder and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, an independent spirit who treasures aggressive reporting. He hired Rather to produce “Dan Rather Reports,” an investigative series on HDTV.
I recommend his story, Rather Outspoken, as a way to read, reflect and perhaps in some way to fight more effectively for the values of our disappearing democracy.
"The corporatization, politicization and trivialization of the press is a serious national problem that grows worse each week," he writes. "More than any thing else, this problems needs public scrutiny, awareness and spirited dialogue."
Dan Rather and CBS
Book TV / C-SPAN, Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News, May 3, 2012. (Video Interview) Journalist and former news anchor Dan Rather recounts his broadcasting career and his dismissal from CBS News after 44 years. Rather presents his thoughts on the news stories that marked his career and opines on the future of broadcast news. Rather speaks with Tom Bettag, former executive producer of the CBS Evening News at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in Washington, D.C.
Texas Monthly, Truth or Consequences, Joe Hagan, May 2012. (Subscription Required). Eight years ago, Dan Rather broadcast an explosive report on the Air National Guard service of President George W. Bush. It was supposed to be the legendary newsman’s finest hour. Instead, it blew up in his face, tarnishing his career forever and casting a dark cloud of doubt and suspicion over his reporting—and that of every other journalist on the case. This month, as Rather returns with a new memoir, Joe Hagan finally gets to the bottom of the greatest untold story in modern Texas politics, with exclusive, never-before-seen details that shed fresh light on who was right, who was wrong, and what really happened.
Washington Post, CNN, Dan Rather's Last Crusade, Erik Wemple, May 7, 2012. Mark Feldstein, Fred Francis, Howard Kurtz Dan Rather has been making the rounds to promote his book, “Rather Outspoken.” He’s been on “Good Morning America” and “The Diane Rehm Show,” among other stops on the circuit. On his CNN show “Reliable Sources” yesterday, host Howard Kurtz said Rather had been invited to appear on the show. Rather didn’t politely decline; instead, says Kurtz via e-mail, “Rather simply didn’t respond to my email.” Perhaps that’s because Kurtz, as he made plain in the segment, doesn’t think too highly of the former CBS star’s stubborn loyalty to his reporting on the George W. Bush-National Guard story. “Why is Dan Rather still pushing and defending this story, this discredited story?” Kurtz asked his panel. Another question: “Is he, by still continuing to push this, ensuring that this will play a more prominent role when people write the legacy of his career, when his eventual obituary is written?”
Cutline, Dan Rather on George W. Bush report: ‘We reported a true story—that’s why I’m no longer with CBS News,’ Dylan Stableford, May 2, 2012. In an interview with Piers Morgan on Tuesday, Rather recalled the last conversation he had with George W. Bush after his controversial 2004 CBS News report on the former president's Air National Guard service record. "I was at the White House for a briefing for reporters, and I asked him a couple of questions and he answered the questions," Rather said. "And then afterward he said to me, 'I hope you'll be happy retired in Austin.' That's my home. I had no intention of retiring in Austin. I have a passion for my work and I plunged myself back into doing work. But that's the only conversation I've had with him since." Rather also defended the report that led to the end of his network news career. "We reported a true story," he said. "That's why I'm no longer with CBS News."
Daily Beast / Newsweek, Dan Rather Outspoken: Still Battling CBS News, Lloyd Grove, April 30, 2012. He’s 80. He’s got a new book out. And a weekly show on cable. But the man once called ‘the face of CBS News’ is still battling his old network. Dan Rather just won’t let it go. Nearly eight years after his fabled career at CBS News imploded like a death star over the notorious George W. Bush/Texas Air National Guard segment on 60 Minutes Wednesday, he can’t stop combing the debris for shards of vindication. “I have a story to tell from my point of view,” he says about his new book, Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News, which roasts network management for its “spineless” behavior during the Bush episode; takes potshots at his successor in the CBS Evening News anchor chair, Katie Couric, as a purveyor of “News Lite”; and settles scores with former colleagues who, as he writes, “after pretending to be friends for all those years, stealthily snuck around giving anonymous newspaper quotes and otherwise scheming to put the dirk in deep when I was down and hurting.”
Washington Post, Dan Rather still defends his report on George W. Bush, Lori Stahl, April 17, 2012. Former CBS newsman Dan Rather is still fighting history’s judgment on his botched investigation of former President George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. A scathing independent report chronicled a long list of journalistic and ethical missteps. But now Rather is pressing his case in a lengthy interview in the May issue of Texas Monthly magazine.
Relevant Justice Integrity Project Recent Columns
DC News Workshop Preserves Lost Era of Press That Protected Public, April 26, 2012. American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop this week premiered an impressive documentary illustrating observations about journalism by 26 of the most distinguished American reporters and editors of the past half century. The Workshop’s executive editor, Charles Lewis, presented excerpts of the film, Investigating Power, at the National Press Club in the nation’s capital on April 26. He then led a panel discussion for three of featured journalists, who responded to tough questions from him and the audience. Panelists Bill Kovach, Barry Sussman and Dana Priest brought vast experience, concern and wisdom to their comments.
National Ridenhour Awards Honor Truth-Tellers, Patriots, April 26, 2012. Four patriots told their inspiring stories of civic service at an unusually compelling awards ceremony April 25 at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. The ninth annual Ridenhour Prizes went to four who are “fostering the spirit of courage and truth,” plus film-makers for, “Semper Fi: Always Faithful.” Each speaker focused on a topic so important that it would be arbitrary to emphasize one over another. Better to list them in order of presentation and to recommend that readers see them on video. A free version of the 90-minute ceremony is posted on the Ridenhour site. The awards are named for the late Ron Ridenhour, the Vietnam veteran who in 1969 revealed the My Lai Massacre by United States forces. Each of this week's stories was a passionate, courageous call for justice.
BP, CIA, Edwards Cases Raise Selective Prosecution Questions, April 25, 2012. News stories about the Justice Department's criminal prosecutions regarding the BP oil disaster, the CIA, the John Edwards campaign prosecution each overlooked an obvious dimension: Why authorities select for prosecution certain individuals -- typically weak, wounded and without allies -- and avoid other obvious targets.Feldstein Probes Nixon-Anderson Battles, March 1, 2011. Washington Update this week probes the decades-long battle between Richard Nixon and Jack Anderson that helped shape the nation’s history during the Nixon Presidency. At noon (EST) today, Update hosts Andrew Kreig and Scott Draughon will examine new revelations about those battles with Dr. Mark Feldstein, a professor and renowned investigative reporter who authored Poisoning The Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson and the Rise of Washington’s Scandal Culture.
Recent Media Criticism
NBC / Huffington Post, Tom Brokaw: 'It Is Time To Rethink' White House Correspondents Dinner (VIDEO), May 6, 2012. Tom Brokaw lamented the media's coverage of politics on Sunday's "Meet the Press," calling out the White House Correspondents Dinner in particular. Brokaw proceeded to criticize political coverage for focusing on too much on the extreme ends of the political spectrum. (His remarks start at the 14:40 mark in the clip above.) "As I've gone around the country, a lot of people say to me, 'What's happened with the press? What's happened with political coverage in America. We don't feel connected to it,'" Brokaw reflected. He had expressed similar sentiments earlier in the show, saying that the public is "tuning out of Washington." He said that the White House Correspondents Dinner exemplified the disconnect. "If there's ever an event that separates the press from the people that they're supposed to serve, symbolically, it is that one," he said. "It is time to rethink it."
WhoWhatWhy.com, Osama, Obama, And Us: A Shocking Display Of Propaganda From NBC, Russ Baker on May 4, 2012. When I got an email announcing an exclusive from NBC about the raid that, we’re told, resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden, I dared raise my hopes. The last time a major media organization, the New Yorker, had promised us the inside story about what really happened on that day in early May, 2011, we got a major bit of disinformation. Can you believe an entire hour (or about half an hour plus endless ads) and not one interesting revelation? Can you believe that almost the entire thing dealt with how people in the White House felt that day, what kind of chairs they sat in, etc, and almost nothing on the details of the raid or the disposition of the body? ... But why even offer this purported exclusive insight into the raid? Because it was nothing of the sort. Because it was propaganda to make these people look good, to quell reasonable doubts about what really happened that day, and to get the president and his team re-elected.
Salon, NBC News’ top hagiographer, Glenn Greenwald, May 3, 2012. The role of Brian Williams is to glorify political and military leaders, but he really outdid himself last night. Whatever one’s position is on the killing of Osama bin Laden — and I’ve always argued that there is a range of reasonable views — there are many journalistically important questions and significant disparities that still need serious examination (with all due respect (i.e., none) to John Kerry’s dictate that we all “shut up and move on”). None of those questions was even acknowledged, let alone meaningfully addressed, by last night’s one-hour melodramatic extravaganza hosted by NBC News anchor Brian Williams. This bin Laden show — “Inside the Situation Room” — was hagiography in its purest, most propagandistic, and most subservient form. This is typically the role Williams plays — he cleanses and glorifies American government actions, especially military actions, with his reverent, soothing, self-important baritone — but he really outdid himself here. In essence, the entire show was devoted to uncritical veneration of our national political and military leaders. It was as vapid as it was propagandistic; as Josh Gerstein wrote: “Much of the program was devoted to the thoughts and feelings of the senior officials involved and to such details as Biden clutching his Rosary ring as the raid unfolded and the sourcing of the food consumed by officials on that fateful day.” We got to hear about how the President’s daughters reacted upon hearing of bin Laden’s death, and how very difficult it was for him to attend the White House Correspondents’ dinner that evening. The coolness of American military gadgetry was constantly on display (the SitRoom has multiple digital clocks for different time zones, one of which always shows the time where the President is located, as well as some really big and flat TV screens!).
Guardian, Conrad Black released from Miami prison, May 4, 2012. Conrad Black travelled to his estate in Toronto shortly after his release. Former media mogul Conrad Black has been released from prison in Miami after serving just over three years for defrauding investors. His wife greeted him at their home in Toronto, Canada, and he was seen on the estate grounds by 14:00 (16:00 GMT). Black, 67, who controlled an empire including the Daily Telegraph in the UK, and US papers including the Chicago Sun-Times, left prison early on Friday. Earlier, Canada said he would be allowed to live there upon his release. Black was born in Canada but renounced his citizenship in 2001 to accept a peerage in Britain's House of Lords. He is a British citizen.
OpEd News, Rupert Watch -- the Kiss of Death, Michael Collins, May 2, 2012. When things don't work out, doing business with Murdoch can be the kiss of death. No matter how hard you try, how loyal you are, if something goes wrong, you can be sure it will be your fault. Reporting has failed to lay the proper foundation for understanding Rupert Murdoch's remarkable testimony before the Leveson Inquiry in London and his behavior of late. Rupert Murdoch is a nihilist. Murdoch's television outlets in the United States stoked the fires for the 2003 invasion of Iraq based on outrageous misrepresentations like the idea that Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 attacks....