Monday, February 28, 2005

The Dan Speaks

Passing through the Dallas-Ft Worth Airport Sunday afternoon, I noticed the serene (some might say smug) visage of Dan Rather, staring at me from a magazine cover.

Less than two weeks before he vacate the anchor chair on the CBS Evening News, "The Dan" (as Bernard Goldberg calls him) is gracing the cover of Texas Monthly. Apparently, the magazine scored one of the seven print interviews Rather has granted to various print journalists.

Against my better judgement, I plunked down $4.95 for the magazine, and read the interview on a flight to LA. On the whole, the interview is a colossal waste of space and newsprint; in the course of 7,5000 senior editor Gary Cartwright reveals absolutely nothing new about "America's most political journalist," and the Memogate scandal that hastened his departure from the Evening News.

At times, the profile reads more like a CBS press release than a serious profile of a powerful journalist. Consider this sample from Cartwright's intro:

"For 24 years, he has anchored and served as managing editor of the
Evening News, while also reporting segements for 48 Hours (which he
pioneered) , and both the Sunday and Wednesday editions of 60
doing a radio commentary five days a week and writing a
syndicated newspaper column--not counting being the lead man for breaking
news...just writing that sentence makes me dizzy."
It's no suprise that Rather, still smarting from the Thornburgh Report, would grant interviews to sympathetic journalists--and Cartwright certainly fills the bill. But, to borrow a "Ratherism," even a blind hog finds a few acorns, and Cartwright manages to give us a few glimpes of the Real Dan, from time to time. Consider this comment, just moments into the interview, as The Dan announces that Memogate (and its aftermath) are off-limits.

"I'm not going to revisit it," he says. The panel report is what it
is. I've read it. I've absorbed it. I will carry it with me in
the future. It was a process that resulted in four good people losing
their jobs. My reaction is one of great sadness."
Rather never expresses sadness nor regret for the real victims of his fraudulent report, namely the late Lt. Col Jerry B. Killian, the Texas Air National Guard officer who supposedly authored those infamous memos, challenging key aspects of President Bush's guard service. Ditto for the family of Lt. Col Killian, forced to defend his honor and integrity more than 20 years after his death.

Instead, readers are treated to a lengthy recitation of Rather's long career, interspersed with glowing tributes from his CBS colleagues (more on that later). Near the end of the profile, Cartwright announces that Rather "is still hugely popular among the rank and file at CBS's a testament to his popularity that no one at CBS blamed Rather for the Memogate fallout. Hmm...I guess Mr. Cartwright was too busy to contact Bernie Goldberg, Ed Rabel, or other former CBS staffers, forced out because they crossed The Dan.

Still, there are a couple of fascinating insights in the piece. At one point, Rather opines that he became a target for conservatives because (get this) he works for CBS News. "There is a line running back to Murrow's coverage of Joe McCarthy," he observes. In other words, the (largely) conservative bloggers who exposed Memogate as a scam were little more than tools in a 50-year, right-wing conspiracy to "get" the House that Murrow Built. Never mind that most of the bloggers who exposed Rather's fraud weren't even around in the 1950s, nor that their critiques were based in factual evidence that CBS could never refute. Dan can see the connection between the McCarthyites and the bloggers, and that's all that really matters. Cartwright--predictably--never challenges such lunatic assertions.

Rather apologists also put in an appearence, attempting to spin an innocent explanation for Memogate. Bob Schieffer, who will succeed Rather in the CBS anchor chair, suggests that Dan was overworked--"they made him the logo of CBS." But Schieffer conveniently ignores the contributions of "superstar" producer Mary Mapes, who pursued the Bush story for more than four years. Cartwright also bothers to explore the role Rather played in rushing the story to the air. The Dan, who styles himself a serious and careful journalist--appeared to have few trepidations about getting the segment aired, only one month before the Presidential election.

Others offer a more curious defense, citing the "myopic zeal" of the CBS team to get the story out and beat the competition. With ratings lagging at CBS, Cartwright explains, there was strong pressure to develop blockbuster stories that might attract a larger audience. He also notes that Rather and Mapes were forced to play their hunches and got burned, a necessar risk in what he calls the "black art" of investigative journalism.

Time out. Earlier in his life, The Former Spook worked as both a print and broadcast journalist, so he knows something about the "black art." Zeal and passion for a story are fine, but Cartwright ignores the fundamental issues that prompted Memogate and its aftermath. Why did CBS News--and its star anchor--direct so much zeal towards the Bush story, while ignoring legitimate questions about the military service of Senator John Kerry, and largely dismissed those concerns, even after they were raised by Swiftboat Veterans for Truth? Mapes and Rather spared no effort to locate the alleged Bush memos, but they never bothered to ask Senator Kerry why he never signed a DD Form 180, making all of his military records available for public inspection.

As most Americans know, without balance or fairness, journalistic zeal is little more than a media vendetta, which is how Memogate will be rightfully remembered. I'll be charitable and say Dan Rather was once a tenacious and even courageous reporter, but somewhere between his salad days in Houston and the anchor chair at CBS, something changed. The Dan became a Machiavellian, even Nixonian character, supposedly persecuted by dark and sinister forces.

For a final benedictory on the departing CBS anchor, I'll turn to the words of Alexander Kendrick, whom Dan replaced at the network's London bureau in the mid-1960s. Kendrick was one of Murrow's Boys, a decidedly un-telegenic figure, but, in the words of CBS News historian Gary Paul Gates, a learned and cultured man who embodied Murrow's ideal of a "scholar-correspondent." Upon meeting the young Texan, Kendrick referred to Rather as a "child of television" (a characterization Rather protested), before adding: "What I will be interested to see is whether you have any g--d-m-ed sense."

Almost 40 years later, the answer to that one seems clear.

P.S.--The current issue of Texas Monthly provides another, ironic comment on Rather and his scandal, through a special advertising section, in the front of the magazine. The section touts the newly-named Schieffer School of Journalism at Texas Christian University, named for Rather's CBS colleague. On the last page of the section, the Schieffer School lists its credo: "Ethical. Professional. Responsible."--the very qualities missing in Rather's fraudulent 60 Minutes report.

Wonder if it's too late for The Dan to sign up for a refresher course?

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