Dan Rather is Rather Outspoken
Reporters had best be careful when they set about the business of digging up news. Dan Rather’s unsettling ‘push under the bus’ is an instructive case in point.
By Leslie Griffith / Reader Supported News / May 21, 2012
[Rather Outspoken by Dan Rather (2012: Grand Central Publishing); Hardcover; 320 pp.; $27.99.]
In Rather Outspoken, one of broadcast journalism’s elder statesmen reflects on the state of the news business, and a career that spans from the glory days to what many of us see as the bitter end.
Soaking up his life’s worth of wisdom compels the reader to ask a familiar question posed to those in power during America’s infancy — a question just as pertinent today.
“What will be the old age of this government (including the fourth branch) if it’s so early decrepit?”
Sadly, Rather’s latest book reminds us that reporters had best be careful when they set about the business of digging up news. And they damn-well better make sure the media corporations for which they work are ready and willing to stand by them. Of course, Rather’s unsettling “push under the bus,” as he describes it, is an instructive case in point.
It’s hard to believe CBS was once the network of the “Murrow Boys” who exposed the fear-mongering of Joe McCarthy and Roy Cohn. The same network that sent a young Rather into the middle of firefights in Vietnam, and managed to make 60 Minutes the most successful news program in history.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen. And I don’t mean Dan Rather.
He has proven that he is and will always be a reporter… no matter the venue. Keep in mind, I am not saying he has always been right; however, in my humble opinion, he has always been earnest, tireless, and willing to put his life on the line if it meant delivering news and much-needed context to the American people.
While newsrooms have drastically (and dangerously) cut staff during this era of mega-media conglomerates, the mighty managers have fallen upwards. Upwards of $70 million is what CBS President Les Moonves made in 2011. That would be okay by me if most of that money were put back into the newsrooms, but it’s not. And Moonves is not likely sitting up at night worried about what the people of America are not being told.
Regarding property, privilege, and abuse of power, Thomas Jefferson wrote: “Let our countrymen know, that the people alone can protect us against these evils, and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose, is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles, who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.”
Without saying it flat out, or even having to, Rather Outspoken reminds us that there are precious few reporters still working to fight the powerful and privileged who profit from harming our democracy, our planet, our food supply, our water, our air, our institutions of learning. (This list could go on for quite some time.) And Moonves’ stunning salary reminds us exactly what is valued by the few powerful corporations currently controlling the news.
Those blessed few reporters left standing are not naive. They can’t afford to be. We all know that the louder the warning to the American people, the stronger the “push-back.” Today, corporate media minders harbor an unimaginable ambition for wealth and power while maintaining meager ambitions when it comes to informing American citizens.
Mostly, they want to protect and keep those corporate commercial dollars flowing. Journalism, as it functions today, certainly is not designed to keep America honest, or democracy working as Thomas Jefferson intended.
In Rather Outspoken, we get a not-so-shining example of how this era of corporatized news works to the detriment of democracy.
The key story takes us back to the 2004 election. That’s when Dan Rather was first betrayed by Viacom/CBS. Just two months before the presidential election, Sumner Redstone — Viacom’s ultimate corporate master — was quoted as saying: “From a Viacom standpoint, the election of a Republican administration has stood for many things we believe in, deregulation and so on… I vote for Viacom. Viacom is my life, and I do believe that a Republican administration is better for media companies than a Democratic one.”
That statement reads like a warning to any and all of CBS’ reporters who might be digging into anything critical of George W. Bush or his administration. And, at the time, that was exactly what Mr. Rather and his ace producer Mary Mapes were doing. They had a story that reflected badly on George W. One that, if accepted by the American people, most certainly would have scuttled George W Bush’s disastrous second term.
In retrospect, the mind boggles to think what might have been different had Viacom/CBS backed Rather and Mapes instead of backing away from them.
The chronicle of Rather’s take-down reeks of Cassius cunning… so Shakespearean is the plot.
Rather and Mapes went running into a house on fire, only to turn around and find those carrying the fire hoses had deserted them. From Rather’s account, it is clear his beloved CBS network had, by the time they’d left him twisting in the wind, devolved into nothing more than a money-grubbing entertainment machine seeking favored status with the powerful. A recent Texas Monthly story backs him up .
Rather Outspoken is a cautionary tale on many levels. And it’s a story that finally explains why Rather and Mapes fought so hard to run their story. And why, in the end, the story ultimately fell flat after a strangely convenient information snafu.
To fully grasp the implications of this sordid tale, you have to put yourself into the “Black Op” line of thinking: If Cassius cannot discredit the story, then he must discredit the storyteller.
Think Valerie Plame and Joe Wilson. Luckily for the “Black Operator,” documents are malleable and always open to question and to opinion. Fame-seeking and often mediocre but ambitious “experts” are readily available to discredit them, too. Think Obama and the interminable birth certificate debate. If the Black Op works — the story gets thrown under the bus along with the reporter brave enough to tell it.
Oh, how convenient it must have been to have a former CIA chief watching over his presidential son. The CIA building in Langley is not named after Poppy Bush for nothing.
Like any reporter worth his or her salt, Rather has stepped on a lot of toes over the years. The list of people who wanted to see him blackballed and blacklisted stretched all the way from Pennsylvania Avenue to Langley, Virginia. And there were plenty of well-heeled spin-doctors and PR people ready and willing to aid and abet the process.
As Rather points out, and as many reporters know, there are now huge public relations firms regularly hiring Rovian characters who make their coin leaking false stories. By the time the spin-doctors get finished, the real story is as twisted as a pretzel, completely unrecognizable and, more times than not, the wagging finger gets pointed right back at the reporters. The messenger becomes the story, not the message. Oh, how Cassius smiles.
When Rather and Mapes were ready to wrap up and air their story of George W. going AWOL from the Texas Air National Guard — George W. was two months away from the 2004 election.
It’s important to note here that Rather and the Bushes had butted heads for years. The Bush-AWOL story was the culmination of a long, acrimonious history between Rather and the Bush clan. You see, reporters who hail from Texas, like Dan Rather, cut their teeth on the duplicitous-outrageous-red-dirt-throwing, go-for-the-jugular-style of politics that made Texas famous.
Lee Atwater, who worked for G.H.W. Bush, was the first to say out loud that in Texas politics… the end justifies the means. (Cheney and Rove both come from Texas politics too.)
Love it or hate it, Texas politics is unique in both its homespun punditry and slaughterhouse savagery. The late Texas governor Ann Richards, who was eventually unseated by George W., stood at the Democratic National convention in 1988 and said, “Poor George. He can’t help it — he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” Jim Hightower, then-Texas agricultural commissioner, said of George W., “He was born on third base and thought he had hit a triple.”
These were the politics that helped define Rather’s bare-knuckle style. He knew the hidden secrets and where the skeletons were long buried. But he was not about to bury the story of George W. running away from a war while telling America’s young men and women to run toward one.
Rather quotes a “highly decorated retired Army colonel” who says soldiers who had risked their lives in Vietnam had long known about George W. Bush going AWOL. It was no secret. A solider who goes AWOL can be court-marshaled and tried for treason, particularly those unlucky enough to not have a former president and former CIA director as a father.
For a journalist, the truth always matters and that should be reason enough [to do a story]. The arrogant hypocrisy of it makes this story much more disturbing. A young man born of privilege whose family secured him a spot in the National Guard to avoid military service in Vietnam, and who then walked away for more than a year from even that safe level of obligation, eventually became the commander in chief who ordered tens of thousands of our young men and women, including those in the National Guard, into harm’s way in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This same young man who gamed the system to evade deployment to Vietnam became a president who did nothing to prevent, halt or disavow the distorted character assassination of his opponent, John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam Veteran.
Remember the Swift Boat controversy? It all follows the same CIA Black Op pattern. Instead of ignoring the lack of George W’s service in Vietnam, make the opponent appear to be what your candidate really is. Remember the Swift Boat controversy. It implied Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, was a coward.
Back at CBS News, Rather and Mapes’ story was cut up and shortened without Rather’s permission. He felt crucial back-up information was eliminated. Then the story was relegated to “60 Minutes Wednesday.” An explosive, history-altering story like this one got no real promotion, no real back up and was relegated to the second-string broadcast. It is telling.
Plus, no one cared enough to push it beyond a bevy of entertainment lawyers and frightened middle-management ladder-climbers who put up roadblocks every which way.
Finally, the story aired. It got some traction. And then, as if according to a playbook, the documents were attacked. The same technique was used on Mr. Obama (the birth certificate was forged!?). After reading Rather’s book, it’s clear the proof of Bush W.’s AWOL was well established. Rather and Mapes didn’t even need the documents.
But the document began the undoing. First, the message was lost, and then came a full-blown attack on the messengers. In the middle of the black storm at Black Rock, Rather was directed to issue an on-air apology. And he did, basically saying he and Mapes could have always done more. Viacom/CBS followed-up with an “independent” investigation. Heading the “independent investigation” was a well-known Republican and long- time friend of Bush’s daddy. “Beware, yon Cassius has a mean and hungry look.”
This is how our politicized and corporate media works today. It has become so common to shoot the messenger, other reporters just fall in line and keep quiet. If Dan Rather can get set up… who are we to think we won’t be targeted too? Better to play it safe and avoid investigative reporting. Trouble is, as Thomas Jefferson pointed out, “ignorant citizens” cannot support a democracy.
It should also be pointed out that while living in the bubble of big media, it’s hard to see and understand how all this plays out. Now, that Rather is “outside” the mainstream, it has certainly made him wiser and more contemplative about what goes on “inside.”
He is now an elder statesman with much to teach. He’s seen all sides of the corporate-political news game and lived through its development. He knows how we got here. We need to listen to him about how best to get out.
Final note: Since “failure to disclose” has become an epidemic by reporters in this country… here is my disclosure.
I sent Dan Rather a book I’d written two years ago. He read it and endorsed it. I’d never met him, but he called to ask what he could do to help the book get published. “Forget that,” I said, “Would you just call my dad in Texas and tell him I’ve not been sitting here doing nothing?”
Rather asked for the number. But, truthfully, even though I’d heard from friends who interned at 60 Minutes that Rather was kind and generous… and still wrote his own stories! I never really expected him to phone home for me.
Sure enough, about 20 minutes later, my father called me.
“You little shit,” he said. “Next time you have Dan Rather call me, at least give me a heads up first.”
While writing Rather Outspoken and endlessly traveling for HDNet, Rather has done some fine reporting. His reports from Gaza come to mind. Nothing like a reporter who has actually been to the places he is talking about.
Stretched so thin with a weekly hour broadcast, traveling and doing most of his own interviews, Rather later asked if I could help with two outside projects. I did. It was an honor.
Hopefully, after reading his book, the skeptics who refused to see the set-ups and betrayals, finally will.
[Leslie Griffith has been a television anchor, foreign correspondent, and an investigative reporter in newspaper, radio and television for over 25 years. Among her many achievements are two Edward R Murrow Awards, nine Emmys, 37 Emmy Nominations, a national Emmy nomination for writing, and more than a dozen other awards for journalism. She is currently working on a documentary, giving speeches on “Reforming the Media,” and writing for many online publications, as well as writing a book called Shut Up and Read. To contact Leslie, go to lesliegriffithproductions.com. This article was first published at and was distributed by Reader Supported News.]