Saturday, September 1, 2012

Paper Backtime: Rather's Journey in Journalism

I saw Tom Brokaw in an elevator once. I was carrying a copy of Jeff Shaara's Gods and Generals. He mumbled, "good book." I instantly felt more intelligent.

I informally met Peter Jennings several times while I was at ABC Sports. I would edit college football teases in the basement and he would occasionally go down there to sneak a smoke.

I had always thought of Dan Rather as the stodgiest of the Big 3 of my generation. He was the dry anchor at the old, white guy network. I never thought of him as a progressive crusader, the way the right wing painted him in 2004 when Bush 43 was running for reelection.

The report on George W. Bush's missing time from his National Guard service in 1972 and 1973 created a political firestorm that ultimately led to his ouster from CBS. Rather admits that he learned after the fact that a source was tainted, and the chain of evidence of the notorious Killian documents couldn't be completely accounted for.

But he stands by the story that ran as factually correct. And no evidence has been presented to dispute it. And he goes to great lengths detailing his lawsuit vs CBS (which was thrown out by The Court of Appeals before the first suit was ever tried), and about the political pressure that super-corporation Viacom was under not to allow CBS News to cast the President in a negative light in an election year.

But "George Bush and the Texas Air National Guard" is only Chapter 2; Chapter 1 is titled "Abu Grahib," after CBS News first broke the pictures and report from the infamous Iraq prison. The pushback Rather received from his superiors was his first indicator that the network's brand (he often refers to the CBS eye figuratively tattooed on his ass) was compromised.

It had been the network of Murrow and Cronkite. Now it was a "nit on the nut of a gnat" in Viacom world. CBS News was expected not to upset the corporate business with the FCC or any other branch of government.

After the first two chapters, Rather then tells the story of his life from his humble beginnings in the depression-era and the "poorest white neighborhood in Houston" and the remarkable journey to a network anchor chair.

His time at CBS is really a map of the history of network news as we know (knew?) it. He draws a line from Civil Rights to the Kennedy Assassination to Vietnam to Watergate, and he's right in the middle of it all.

Rather credits the pictures provided by television news to the advancement of Civil Rights. He was on the ground in Oxford, Mississippi and Albany, Georgia and Birmingham, Alabama. And people knew who he was, so he frequently had to switch hotels and hotel rooms from night to night, while Civil Rights leaders kept updating their plan as well.

They needed to get their story out - visually. And perhaps most of all, they needed to find a police chief that was so filled with racial hatred, and was such a dumbass that he didn't care what the pictures looked like.

That was Birmingham's Bull Connor, who ordered that the high-pressure fire hoses be turned on children. The pictures live to this day.

On the Kennedy Assassination, Rather was the Dallas bureau chief. He was covering the President's visit, and wound up being on the air around the clock for days.

He rotated out of his position as London correspondent to spend the better part of a year on the ground in Vietnam, with a crew getting the real action.

And Rather (down the list from other CBS newsmen) made Nixon's Enemies List amid the Watergate hearings. While newspapermen broke the story, America was introduced to the cast of CREEPy characters through TV coverage of live hearings.

Ultimately Rather is in a good place now with HDNet's Dan Rather Reports, and is still going strong at age 80. The book's epilogue is titled "Corporatization, Politicization, and Trivialization of the News."

In 1823 Thomas Jefferson put it succinctly: "The only security of all is in a free press." Alas, when you have a press that has become compliant to politicians, owned by corporations and staffed by people who only want to entertain and obey their corporate masters, the plan fails. The "free press" is no longer a check on power. It has instead become part of the power apparatus itself.

It's (sort of) the mission of HBO's The Newsroom, a show Rather has endorsed, if you take away the cringe-inducing romance and endless monologuing.

My one critique of the book is as he describes 60 Minutes producer Jeff Fager, now CBS News honcho who Rather greatly respects, despite how it ended:

He's not a great writer - often the mark of a really good producer

What the hell does that mean? A "hard news" man like yourself probably wouldn't title his book something so pithy as Rather Outspoken. 

Would You, Rather?

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