Dan Rather & the Hypocrisy Beat

by Rick Rockwell

For a time, Dan Rather famously signed off his broadcasts at CBS News with one word: “Courage.”

As Rather now drags CBS to court, asking for $70 million in damages in a wrongful dismissal suit, that signature sign-off takes on different dimensions.

This all stems from the now notorious reporting of Rather and his crew at Sixty Minutes II during the 2004 elections. Rather tried to use documents to prove that President George W. Bush received preferential treatment during his Air National Guard duty in the Vietnam era. After Rather’s reporting though, Bush was no longer the center of the story. The focus shifted to the documents, which proved to be doctored.

At the time, Rather apologized. Bush ducked the story, which still had merit, but was now clouded by the sloppy reporting at CBS.

Within months, the bosses at CBS reacted in a scorched earth campaign. They canceled Sixty Minutes II (a vanity vehicle for Rather). They fired Rather’s producer and forced out others connected to the story. CBS brought in independent evaluators to investigate what went wrong. And then the network pushed Rather into retirement.

And Rather got what he deserved.

Rather’s predecessor in the CBS anchor chair, Walter Cronkite had said Rather should have been fired long ago.

That’s because Rather exemplified everything that went wrong with television news in the past thirty years.

Put aside, if you will, the accusations of Rather’s bias. Some see his shouting match with President George H.W. Bush and his verbal dueling with Richard Nixon as partisan. But many journalists recognize these are the acts of an aggressive reporter attempting to hold power to account. Rather was never delicate.

These examples also show what is at Rather’s core: the ego of the super-anchor. Such acts of ego are what corrupted television journalism and have brought it to the state where it rests today: lamely trying to evoke credibility to a disappearing audience between plastic advertising pitches and the hyperbole of its own marketing campaigns.

Ego is what caused Rather to stay off the air infamously pouting because his newscast was shortened by CBS Sports’ coverage of U.S. Open Tennis in the late 1980s. Ego is what caused Rather to utter those condescending lines that littered most Rather broadcasts (such as, “you can bet the double-wide”) in an attempt to sound folksy. Most saw through the act which is why CBS News saw its ratings decline with Rather in the anchor chair, the once proud Tiffany Network now seemingly stuck in third place forever when it comes to news.

Rather inherited the title of managing editor of CBS News from Cronkite too. But apparently, Rather never understood what that meant.

He now claims the Air National Guard story on W. is still right and that his bosses made him apologize for its faults. He claims he was too distracted by his various duties to properly oversee the story and merely voiced it. He also claims he was ordered to announce his retirement. Could such a powerful anchor and the managing editor really bow to such pressure? If he was such an iconic leader in journalism, why didn’t he take his case to the public?

Well, Rather’s history shows he never seized the leadership reins except to build shows around himself and to sabotage his potential heirs for the anchor chair. What did Rather do when Laurence Tisch took over CBS News in the 1980s? Tisch led the way in the movement to make news profitable rather than a public service: he slashed the CBS News budget with unprecedented layoffs. Rather’s response was a protesting op-ed in The New York Times, and the muttered “courage” at the end of his broadcast, an empty symbol for hundreds of his laid-off colleagues.

Did Rather lead a walk-out? Did he lead a strike? Did he throw a fit like he would later over being cut by a tennis match? Did he endanger his multi-million dollar salary in any way? Not really. Yet, his status as the network’s anchor and managing editor could have made a difference at stemming the corporate tide swamping the public service mission of television journalism in the 1980s.

Where was Rather’s courage then? Where was it in 2004? Sadly, the answer is nowhere.

(The photo of Dan Rather is from CBS News.)

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inowpronounceyou said...

BRAVO! Very very well written, and seeing Dan Rather treated like a patron st makes me ill.

Jeff Siegel said...

Jack Nicholson, Broadcast News. Guess Rather never saw the picture.

Rick Rockwell said...

Thanks for the high praise from both of you.

Actually that is one of those great Nicholson supporting roles that folks forget about but I'd say he nailed that character study perfectly.

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