Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News, by Dan Rather

Rather Outspoken

I’ve long been familiar with Dan Rather of course. But when you get right down to it, he’s not someone I’ve seen all that much of, not someone whose career I have followed closely at all. I really don’t watch that much news from the mainstream media.

My knowledge of, or general impression of, Rather is that he was a somewhat aggressive Sam Donaldson type as a network correspondent, that he took over for Walter Cronkite as the main anchor for the CBS Evening News, that at least one study during his tenure identified CBS as the most politically conservative of the three main network news programs, that in spite of that he seemed to be even more despised and reviled as a member of the “liberal media” by right wingers than most people in the mass media, and that he was ultimately fired for some sloppy reporting on a story about George W. Bush having basically deserted when he was in the National Guard.

Actually what I’ve seen of Rather in the last few years I’ve quite liked. I’ve seen him on Rachel Maddow’s show, Bill Maher’s show, and possibly one or two others, and found him to be more thoughtful and insightful than the vast majority of “pundits.” He especially impressed me on Maher’s show when he gave an articulate description and condemnation of the control of the news by major corporations.

So anyway, prior to reading this book, my impression of Rather over the years was probably about average leaning to favorable relative to other mainstream media types, with that assessment moving up modestly in recent times.

Now having read Rather Outspoken, I’d say my opinion of him is markedly more favorable.

Admittedly, some of that might be just a natural reaction to getting one person’s version of events. I think I have a tendency—all else being equal—to be sympathetic toward the protagonist in most works of fiction or nonfiction. As I get to know someone, and appreciate why they made the decisions they did and such, I usually see them as an OK bloke and tend to root for them.

I’m not saying that tendency is all that strong, and I’m not about to test it to see how strong it is by reading something by John Wayne Gacy or Ann Coulter, but I’m just saying there may be a little of that going on when I read an autobiography like this.

The parts about his early years—his family, growing up in Texas, lasting about a minute and a half in the Marines, breaking into broadcasting, etc.—are mildly interesting, and they’re necessary in telling the story of his life, but they didn’t draw me in all that much.

His account of his career at CBS, though, is consistently interesting. The most riveting—and infuriating—part of the book is his take on that story in 2004 that got him fired.

In summary: Rather had run a story on Abu Ghraib that had made the White House, and the corporate bigwigs at CBS, very unhappy. The story wasn’t killed completely, but the powers that be at the network downplayed it as much as possible—delaying it and then failing to promote it or follow up on it in the way that would be standard for a major story like that. Actually they might well have killed it entirely, but they heard that Seymour Hersh had the story and was about to break it. So it was going to get out anyway, and if they didn’t run it they’d have to explain why they’d sat on it.

A short time later comes another blockbuster story. For years there had been rumors and little bits and pieces of evidence that George W. Bush had disappeared for long periods of time when he was supposed to be in the National Guard. Rather and his team investigated and put together a much fuller account of the events in question, and ran the story about his apparently having deserted.

Rather in the book bends over backwards to admit that the story was imperfect, that they could have done a better job of it. But really from what he describes I’d say it was as meticulously researched and fact-checked as 98% of news stories.

The problem is, you better indeed be perfect if you’re going to run a story that raises the ire of the Right, especially when that includes your own employer.

The attack started online, on various right wing blogs and other websites. One of the first damaging blows was by a guy presenting himself like he was an expert in document legitimacy, giving a point-by-point analysis of one of the letters that had been cited in the story and claiming it was provably bogus.

He turned out to actually be a Republican operative posting anonymously, and virtually every one of his points (such claims as that the font used in the letter didn’t exist on typewriters from that era) was eventually refuted. But at the time it looked like he made a pretty good case.

The right wingers predictably ran with it, but disappointingly a pretty good portion of the mainstream media eventually did as well, even if some of them were just “reporting the controversy.” Soon it became “common knowledge” that for reasons of ideological bias, Rather and CBS had created a phony document to support the baseless claim that President Bush hadn’t fulfilled his National Guard obligation.

That was a pack of lies. One, the case that the letter was phony turned out to be shaky at best. Two, if hypothetically it were phony, that wouldn’t establish that Rather knew that or was responsible for faking it. Three, that letter was a small part of a big story with plenty of evidence, and even if you throw it out entirely there’s plenty left to make the case that Bush got into the National Guard when he shouldn’t have (to avoid going to Vietnam) because of his family’s name and money and that he then proceeded to screw up in the Guard and eventually pretty much illegally walk away with no repercussions. Four, insofar as the mass media has an ideological bias at all, it’s certainly not in a left wing direction; these entities are owned by major corporations, and their bias is to favor whatever candidates and policies are best for the already rich and powerful.

The one flaw concerning the letter that was not refuted was that the person who gave it to CBS had lied about where he got it from. There was no “chain of custody” (not that there typically is in journalism; that’s a law enforcement term) establishing that the letter could be traced back to the National Guard officer who allegedly wrote it. That’s not to say it was proven someone else wrote it as a forgery, just that the history of the document had been misrepresented by the guy who gave it to CBS.

CBS totally caved in to the pressure. (Though really the corporate folks calling the shots were on the same side as those applying the pressure.) They made Rather go back to the guy who had produced the document in question, and browbeat him on camera until he confessed he’d lied about where he got it. They made Rather issue an on-air apology for the story.

Rather claims he did all that very reluctantly, fighting his bosses every step of the way. He believed in the story, and still does.

He insisted the conclusions of the story were still very well supported, and he wanted to investigate further to get even more corroborating evidence. His corporate bosses forbade his doing so. They knew the story was almost certainly true; the last thing they wanted was to make that even more obvious. They had strongly preferred not to run this story—or the one about Abu Ghraib—in the first place, not because they were biased or false, but because they were true and embarrassing to their political allies.

Reading about Rather’s opposition to the hamhanded censorship of the network only makes me wish he’d defied them even more. In a lot of ways he said and did things contrary to their wishes, but there are many points along the way where I would have preferred he take more of a stand and refuse to go along, even though it would almost certainly cost him his job. After all, even though he humbled himself and issued an apology for something that didn’t warrant an apology, they canned him anyway.

But the very fact that I react that way is why I would never be in a position to have to make such decisions. You have to make so many compromises and be willing to go along with so much to rise to a position like his that moral purity is impossible. It’s impressive that he defied the network and fought to report the truth even to the limited extent he did.

Plus there are other factors at work. For one thing, much of what he recounts in the book he did not know back when this was happening. He didn’t know until later that almost every claim made about the letter from the National Guard officer by the critics of the story could be shown to be false. He didn’t know until later the degree to which the White House and the higher ups at CBS were in cahoots as far as the Abu Ghraib and National Guard stories. He didn’t know until later that even if he jumped through the required hoops he was going to be fired anyway.

It’s clear as well that despite all his misgivings about what was going on, if there were any possible way to do it in good conscience he wanted to remain as fiercely loyal to CBS as he had been for decades.

He had spent almost his entire working life at CBS News, and he fully bought into the mythos. He writes of people like Edward R. Murrow, William Paley, and Fred Friendly with reverence. There’s not as much about Cronkite, but what there is is also all favorable. He loved the tradition, the journalistic principles that CBS News represented to him.

So it took him longer than it otherwise would have to realize that that was now all gone, that he was working for a corporation that was all and only about the bottom line, like the typical corporation.

He almost certainly idealizes those earlier years, but compared to CBS’s egregious behavior in this whole fiasco, those truly were the good old days.

I think he makes a convincing case that he was driven out for reporting the truth, that what really happened was much different from what those who only followed it casually (such as me, before I read this book) were led to believe.

And that perception is still out there, and is still seemingly the majority one that most people take for granted. Within the last month I saw a post online by someone mentioning matter-of-factly that Rather was fired because he went even farther than the liberal media usually do in making up a story out of whole cloth to try to sway an election against a Republican. No one posted anything to the contrary. I think the Right has succeeded in using its smear tactics to get people to treat an almost certainly false interpretation of the story as uncontested fact.

Rather Outspoken is for the most part a very positive book in tone. It’s one of those books where the biographee seems to have spent his life meeting and being influenced by and working with salt of the earth types who live principled, inspiring lives. There are some exceptions, like when he gets to the National Guard story controversy, but even there he paints a lot of the people far more favorably than they probably deserve.

Also manifest throughout the book is how much he loves being a reporter. Not so much the reading the news part of being a news anchor, but actually being out in the field investigating some big story.

And a lot of that does sound quite exciting and admirable. I’m blown away by what a correspondent like Richard Engel for NBC does to get stories overseas, the kind of danger he routinely puts himself in. Rather did some of that in his day, in Vietnam and elsewhere, and he deserves a lot of credit for it.

I’m sure it comes across to some readers as hokey, but he has a real commitment to the principles of journalism, to the imperative to investigate the truth and present it to the public. He loves this line of work, and until recently he loved CBS News and all it stood for.

It’s not like Rather rode off into the sunset after being booted from CBS. At age 75 he started a weekly newsmagazine show for HDNet (or AXS TV or whatever they’re calling themselves these days), which was owned by mega-rich guy Mark Cuban.

My first reaction to that is it’s rather sad how far he fell—from a major network to somewhere in the ghetto of the cable world, a station that I think most systems don’t even carry. But at least from what he says in the book, it sounds like he’s having a great time. It’s like he returned to what he wanted to do his whole life, which is investigative journalism with as little pressure from above as possible. He claims Cuban was very good about giving him total creative control of the show and not engaging in CBS-like shenanigans.

I believe it was on one of his appearances I saw on Rachel Maddow’s show that they were discussing the downside of the corporate ownership of the media, and speculating about how maybe about the best you can hope for nowadays is that an eccentric billionaire will prefer to run a network in a way consistent with good journalism rather than in whatever way will maximize profit.

Maybe that’s the situation he was in with Cuban; at least it seems he believes that. But alas, I read that the network was sold after this book came out, so I really don’t know where things stand with him now or what the new ownership’s philosophy of journalism is.

From my perspective, for someone with my beliefs and values, Rather is far from an ideal figure. He’s way too mainstream for me, arguably more conservative than liberal, and pro-America in a way that verges on the jingoistic.

But given all that, he has done a certain amount of “speaking truth to power.” He’s given his all to journalism, working very hard for very many years to be the best he can be in a line of work he treats as a noble one, trying desperately to live up to the example of forerunners like Murrow. He’s shown physical courage, and at least some willingness to defy corporate weasels seeking to deflect him from journalistic principle, and he’s paid a price for doing so.

He’s pretty humble about it all, insisting that he never really did as well as a reporter as he wanted to, never really accomplished what he wished he had.

But I come away from Rather Outspoken wanting to say (and there would be plenty of caveats here if I really were to spell out what I think) that there’s more than a touch of the heroic about his career.

Good on ya, Dan. You devoted your life to a high calling, and you conducted yourself with honor. Your life has been a net positive in this world. Thank you.

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