01 May 2012

‘Rather Outspoken,’ Part I

I once asked Dan Rather whether it was necessary for him to write down whatever happened to him in order for him to experience it fully. He thought about this, his lips pursed and his brow furrowed in a way that any television viewer of the past half century would recognize on the spot, before he answered, “Yes, I believe that’s true.” For a time, he adopted the observation almost as a warning, to people who talked to him about his books and most especially to those people who wondered why a man best known for broadcasting would even bother picking up a pen.

But Dan cut his teeth in print journalism, and books were both his first friends and also his ticket out of the anonymous oil patch that seemed, in his youth, to be his destiny. Moreover, his mother’s maiden name was Page: books are in his DNA. For all of these reasons, I believe, he is never, ever without a pen and notepad. Sometimes he writes in cool reflection, in the dark of the plane on the long ride home from the exotic dateline, but often, even as his life rushes forward, crowded now as ever with passion and incident, he is already writing it down.

His fourth memoir, Rather Outspoken (co-written with Digby Diehl), has been published today; I obtained a copy slightly in advance and began reading immediately. Many of the tales he spins are ones that figure in previous memoirs: his childhood and family background are the subject of I Remember; the Kennedy Assassination and Vietnam are covered in The Camera Never Blinks. While I’m interested to see how his perspectives have evolved, and I expect to address them in a subsequent essay, I began reading as most people — and assuredly most journalists — will begin, by leapfrogging to the chapters that treat Dan’s report on George W. Bush’s service (and lack thereof) in the Air Force National Guard and CBS’s reaction to the firestorm that ensued, resulting in Dan’s untimely departure from the network, his fruitless lawsuit against CBS, and his redemption at the helm of his own news-and-documentary series on HDNet.

Dan has always aspired to what he calls “play-no-favorites, pull-no-punches, independent journalism,” and by way of confirmation of what you will be reading in the papers for the rest of this week — and probably for several weeks to come — Dan pulls no punches here.

Dan writes that the trouble started with the Abu Ghraib report;
I think it started right here.

Almost before the original report on Bush’s National Guard record aired (on Sixty Minutes II), the controversy has been not over what was reported but how it was reported: most notably, of course, the “authenticity” of corroborating documents was attacked, while hoary presumptions about Dan’s politics were dusted off and trotted out again, this time coupled with allegations of bias on the part of the producer, Mary Mapes. Within hours, virtually everyone forgot that the documents in question were only a small part of a bigger story, and that outside reporting by the BBC and the Boston Globe (among others) supported the underlying truth of the story and the need to ask the questions that Dan and Mary raised.

Even at the time, the public focus on style over substance didn’t surprise me in the least, since I’d worked in Dan’s office at the time of his famous “ambush” interview with George H.W. Bush in 1988. In that instance, as here, Dan’s reporting was used to scare away other journalists from asking any further questions about potentially embarrassing incidents in the Bushes’ past. The idea that Bush père didn’t know Dan was going to ask about his involvement in the Iran-Contra scandal is ludicrous on its face: the subject matter had been advertised during a promo spot on the network’s highest-rated program (to cite one example), and both Bush and his campaign adviser, Roger Ailes, were fully prepared for the questions.

There’s still a tremendous amount we don’t know about Iran-Contra, but instead of focusing on the sitting Vice-President’s complicity in what some might term treasonous activity, we as a nation debated whether Dan had behaved respectfully, appropriately, professionally. We ignored the fact that Bush had exploded exactly the same way with two other reporters in the week leading up to his interview with Dan; we hardly paid attention to the fact that, after that interview, only one reporter dared ask Bush again (Bryant Gumbel, on the Today show the next morning); and we hardly realize that, to this day, Bush has never yet answered the questions.

Dan is hunting bigger game in this book, seeking to establish a pernicious collusion among government, corporate interests, and press outlets, but nothing in Rather Outspoken, or in the Texas Monthly article this month that reexamines the National Guard story, dispels my suspicion that, in 2004 as in 1988, Dan was set up. As Dan notes in Rather Outspoken, it would have been deeply damaging to Bush fils to be exposed as a deserter, just weeks before an election in which he faced off against a decorated war hero, John Kerry. Republican operatives had done their best to cast aspersions on Kerry’s military record — “swift-boating” him — but renewed attention to the lapses in Dubya’s record would have been devastating and probably insurmountable.

We now know that many (or most, or possibly all) of those who first attacked Dan’s report were in fact Republican operatives; some evidently had been tipped off by the White House and thus were ready to unleash their accusations on the Internet within hours of the Sixty Minutes II broadcast. A real document expert wouldn’t have had time to examine the memos in question, but some of these supposedly neutral bloggers seem to have received copies of them directly from those given to Bush adviser Dan Bartlett (with Mary Mapes’ fax number attached), so that allegations about typeface and spacing were ready to take off faster than an Olympic sprinter at the starting gun. Nobody had much experience responding to “new media,” Dan recalls, so everyone was caught off-guard.* News organizations that should have known better — particularly the Washington Post, Dan says — took the allegations at face value, repeated them, didn’t attempt to identify the sources, and thereby legitimized the criticism. In effect, they piled on. And in their haste, they left behind all questions about Dubya’s service record.

As I say, this is exactly the playbook that Republicans used when trying to deflect attention from Iran-Contra in 1988. Like father’s campaign, like son’s. And so in 2004 the United States elected a man who was — at best — a draft-dodger to lead the country in the two wars he had started.

That’s disheartening enough, but worse is yet to come. Dan paints a lurid canvas in which the report itself; the careers of Dan, Mary Mapes, and several other CBS News colleagues; and the integrity of the News Division are sacrificed to political and corporate interests. He links this chain of events directly to his report (also produced by Mary Mapes) on the now-infamous abuses at Abu Ghraib: to hear Dan tell it, the National Guard story and its aftermath served as a kind of retribution for the prison story.

But I see this as part of an even bigger picture, namely the longstanding Republican practice of targeting Dan. This dates back at least to Richard Nixon (“Are you running for something?”) and has persisted through the careers of everybody from Jesse Helms to the Bushes, such that it grew increasingly easy to portray Dan as a liberal with an ideological bias against the Republican Party in general and against conservatives in particular.

In time, Dan’s supposed liberalism became what we now call a “meme,” an idea disseminated widely, in this case spread by conservative activists and pundits, and ostensibly corroborated by people who had worked with Dan at CBS, including Bernard Goldberg and Peggy Noonan. Both of these folks had a personal stake in the propaganda and depended on it in some measure to advance their own careers.

The case of Noonan interests me, because, like her, I was Dan’s principal radio writer. Unlike her, I held the job longer and worked more closely with him than she did: his office was my office. I traveled where he did, slept where he slept, and ate what he ate throughout the 1990s. I was welcomed as family by his family. Why Dan would open up and confess his political leanings to Peggy and not to me is anybody’s guess, but by now it’s virtually part of her résumé that he did so, and this presumption fueled the attack she made on him after the National Guard story aired.**

Meanwhile, in the 12 years he and I worked together, Dan revealed only this much about his politics: that he voted for Eisenhower twice. And in the newsroom where I worked, it was considered the gravest possible professional lapse to talk about our own politics — gravest yet to do so within Dan’s presence.

What made the targeting of Dan so ideal, then, was that there was absolutely nothing he could say to defend himself properly whenever the hard-right wing started to impugn his integrity — because to defend himself would almost certainly have required him to state what his politics were. And so the tarnish became self-perpetuating over time. Whenever things weren’t going well for a Republican, or for all the Republicans, it was never because of any defect in the person or in the policy, it was because of Dan’s political bias.

Dubya’s team nevertheless took a gamble in 2004, because by knocking Dan out of the game altogether, they’d never again be able to play the Dan-Is-Biased card. I sometimes wonder whether, in the aftermath of Katrina or the economic crisis, Karl Rove wished he still had Dan Rather to kick around.

Dan attempted in his lawsuit to bring out the murky truth of what happened: whether the Bush Administration actively or explicitly sought his ouster; whether the parent company of CBS, Viacom, and its chief, Sumner Redstone (who publicly endorsed Bush in 2004), merely anticipated a need to remove Dan, or whether they did so in exchange for support in business matters then before Congress and the courts; whether News Division executives were pressured, and by whom; and so on.

Quite a lot of this stuff is exceedingly questionable, not least including the News Division’s pretty much unprecedented decision to turn to “an outside, independent panel” to investigate the National Guard story. That panel turned out to be headed by Richard Thornburgh, who had been attorney general under Bush père — and that’s only the first and most obvious of the ways in which the “investigation” proved compromised at best.

Gradually, by his own account, Dan was pushed out of the anchor chair at Evening News in 2004 and exiled across the street to Sixty Minutes II and then, when that program was cancelled, to Sixty Minutes proper. That program owed much of its success to Dan’s first stint there, in the 1970s, but in the 2000s, he could barely get on the air.

Other writers have warned of the dangers of corporate influence on journalism — especially as mergers and takeovers have consolidated all press and media in the hands of a very, very few corporations — and of collusion with government. Frank Rich, for one, turned such warnings into something like a cottage industry for a time. (It’s a curious twist of fate that Rich’s old college buddy, former News Division President Andrew Heyward, plays so prominent — and unflattering — a role in Dan’s story.)

But very few such writers have the stature of Dan Rather, or can write with the ardor he has generated in his recent experiences. His lawsuit yielded quite a lot of new information, virtually none of which was reported at the time, and in Rather Outspoken he assembles his evidence and arguments in a compelling case. Without the witness-stand confessions of several principal players, we may never hear a final verdict — but there’s more than enough reason here to make us all pay attention, and to make us question more closely the nature of and the relationships among this country’s most powerful legal and corporate institutions.

Mistreated and abandoned at CBS, Dan at last saw an exit sign, then bolted, though he most certainly did not go gentle. But even though his lawsuit didn’t resolve all his questions, it’s worth noting that, happily ensconced now at Mark Cuban’s HDNet with a hardworking, loyal team and the freedom to report any story he pleases, as he sees fit, Dan is at peace (or as near as he’ll ever come to it in this life) for the first time since I met him, 25 years ago.

From the start, I used to draw little caricatures of him, for his scrapbooks: as Clark Kent turning into Superman, for example, or as the prophet Jeremiah himself. Nowadays I’m beginning to think that his next portrait may be one you’d least expect: Occupying Wall Street. If he were really to take up a picket and demonstrate, I wouldn’t be surprised, because the only truly unsurprising thing about Dan Rather and his legendary career is just how full of surprises they are.

*NOTE: In 1988, it took about three minutes to figure out that most of the phone calls protesting the “ambush” were coming from Republican-sponsored phone banks.

**For argument’s sake, it’s possible, I suppose, that Dan learned better discretion after having worked with Peggy. But I doubt it.


Anonymous said...

YOur attack on Noonan smells like nothing other than professional jealousy and it is misinformed and bitter sounding.

Roberts said...

How appropriate that in a post that discusses (among other things) the "anonymous complaints" that flowed in to CBS from Republican-sponsored phone banks, and how one small thing was used to derail a bigger story, that an Anonymous Coward (as they're known on Slashdot) should post that comment. Dare I say, it's like rain on your wedding day. Bravo, sir or madam.

Another great post, Bill. Interesting to have the insight of someone who was there.