05 May 2012

‘Rather Outspoken,’ Part II

Dan Rather Reports … from Afghanistan, 2009.

At first glance, the beating heart of Dan Rather’s new memoir, Rather Outspoken, is its account of his Götterdämmerung at CBS News: the uproar over his report on George W. Bush’s service in the Air Force National Guard during the Vietnam War, the network’s subsequent mishandling of the controversy and Dan’s departure from the News Division, and the lawsuit Dan brought to try to shed light on what happened and why.

But these chapters are not the whole story: the rest of Rather Outspoken is given over to a résumé of Dan’s earlier career, an update on his current career as anchor of the weekly news-documentary program Dan Rather Reports on HDNet, and a blazing assessment of the state of journalism today. This includes a manifesto, no less, setting forth Dan’s principles.

As I say, some of the recollections here of Dan’s early years have been dealt with at greater length in Dan’s previous books. Indeed, veteran Ratherologists like me will miss a few punch lines in some of the anecdotes he’s recounted before, and it took me a little while to understand what, precisely, Dan was up to when he included such seemingly familiar material in his new book.

Yes, it’s true that the earlier books are out of print now, and that — in the accelerated pace of public consciousness and unconsciousness in contemporary American society — there are in fact people who don’t remember the most brilliant highlights of Dan’s career. Every now and then I even run across people who have never heard of him, which is quite a shock when one considers how long he was one of the best-known men in America, behind only Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, and the President of the United States. But Dan’s purpose here is not merely to remind readers of his accomplishments — far from it.

Welcome to the Hot Seat:
I thought I understood the pressures on Dan at CBS and how much they cost him, but I didn’t calculate their full measure until he broke free of them.

Because, again and again as Dan tells the story of his departure from CBS News, he insists that, not so long ago, the network stood behind its reporters, and valued good reporting; when it came to the National Guard story, he says, the network threw him to the wolves, in a way that William S. Paley, Fred Friendly, Richard Salant, and other CBS titans never would have done. And in the “historical” chapters, Dan sets forth evidence to support this view.

For example, Dan’s coverage of the civil rights movement in the 1960s elicited all manner of outrage (and death threats), but CBS stood by him. During the Watergate crisis, members of the Nixon Administration lobbied behind the scenes to get Dan removed from the White House beat, partisans deluged the network with phone calls and letters of protest, and Nixon himself went after Dan, both surreptitiously (enemies’ list, otherwise inexplicable IRS audits, a suspiciously timed break-in) and overtly. But CBS stood by Dan. And so on.

Reading Rather Outspoken you may not get quite the sense that I had already in 1987, when I began to work in Dan’s office, namely that the network’s loyal protection of its journalists was neither automatic nor taken for granted. The famous “Miami blackout,” an orgy of miscommunication, disorganization, and conflicting priorities within the same professional institution, might easily have resulted in Dan’s dismissal, as he acknowledged in The Camera Never Blinks Twice*; the so-called “ambush” interview with George H.W. Bush in 1988 likewise might have led to Dan’s firing. Read The Camera Never Blinks Twice and you’ll see just how grateful Dan was that management backed him up in these and other crises.

By 2004, that kind of support never materialized. It was as if it never existed at all, and Dan’s purpose here, I think, is not so much to set the record straight and least of all to bolster his own reputation. It is to document that things were done differently once, and to assert — ardently — that the old system permitted the fair reporting of important stories to a wide audience. The words “public service” occur frequently as Dan writes about journalism and the way CBS used to conduct its business; I can tell you from direct experience that these words hold special and lasting meaning for Dan, and there are few ideals to which he aspires more sincerely or more relentlessly.

To the extent that the narrative of Rather Outspoken contains a happy ending, it is this: he tells us that at HDNet he has found others who share his idealism, and that it is applied as he believes it should be: to report freely those stories which are most significant.

Here again, Dan sets forth the evidence to support his claim, primarily in summaries of representative reports that, for all that he’s proud of them, are not mere advertisements for his new show. Virtually none of these stories would be considered “commercial,” in any newsroom and least of all in any boardroom.** Yet all of these stories have demonstrated the power to affect public health, safety, economy, and policy. The message here is, “This is how the system is supposed to work” — the system of independent journalism, that is.

It occurs to me that Dan’s stormy last days at CBS News may have this one lasting, bright benefit: the long ordeal helped him to focus on what really matters to him as a journalist — and as a man. It turns out that, much though I saw Dan enjoy the perks of global celebrity, he has discovered that he can do perfectly well without them. And all the anxieties that came with the CBS anchor chair, from ratings to corporate politics to competing ambitions among colleagues, were never important to him at all.

What counts in the long run is not the size of the audience but the quality of the reporting and his ability to stick to his own integrity and core values. Dan always wanted to believe these things, but he knows them now, more purely than ever. And with a team (and a boss, Mark Cuban) that’s less interested in jockeying for supremacy than in helping him to do good work, Dan can practice what he’s preached for so long — his way.

*NOTE: The “Miami blackout” occurred just hours after I received the call to tell me I’d been hired to work with Dan. Because New York took the later feed of the Evening News in those days, I didn’t see the blackout or hear anything about it until it hit the front page of the New York Post the next Monday, whereupon my immediate reaction was, “Oh, great. I just got the coolest job in the world, only to lose it before I even start.” Several years later, when I helped Dan to prepare The Camera Never Blinks Twice, I learned just how right that perception was, and how close it came to reality.

**It’s easy to imagine that Dan would’ve had to fight tooth and nail to get these stories on the air at CBS, and he’d have had to fight harder still to devote a full hour to any of them.


Jorge Martin said...

I wish you had recapped for us what exactly the Miami blackout was. I'm afraid I didn't know the reference offhand. A quick google search however set me straight. Thanks for this excellent report and for putting out word about this book. I always thought Rather's end at CBS had a bad odor about it. I'd love to hear more about the reception and coverage (or lack thereof) of the book.

William V. Madison said...

For the benefit of other readers, here's the background on the "blackout": Dan was in Miami to cover a visit by the Pope. A tennis match ran overtime, preempting the news. Dan left his desk, which was not equipped with a telephone, and went to call New York to register a complaint. Meanwhile, the match ended, and the Sports Division threw back to News without warning. The screen -- on all stations carrying the CBS Evening News 6:30 feed -- remained blank for about six minutes.

George H.W. Bush threw this in Dan's face during the famous "ambush" interview (which was not an ambush), attempting to equate Dan's questions about Iran-Contra with Dan's absence in Miami. Effectively, Bush's question was, "How would you like for your whole career to be judged on the basis of this one incident?"

How Iran-Contra and the "blackout" are equivalent is a matter perhaps best explained by Bush himself.