By Danny Schechter
New York New York, June 20: It was a physical assassination that brought Dan Rather to national TV attention when, as a Texas based-reporter known for bravery in covering hurricanes, he reported the murder of John F. Kennedy. (He got it wrong initially reporting JFK was shot by a bullet that exited in the back.)
His long and colorful career as a TV anchor has now been killed by a media assassination staged by his own company. Call the team in from CSI to analyze the blood on the floor!
For months he had wandered in the wilderness of CBS News headquarters with nothing to do, telling friends he knew more about what was on the menu at the cafeteria than he did about what the news organization he had once commanded was doing. His fate had been sealed when his attempt to expose the President’s military record foundered when the documents he and producer Mary Mapes used to enhance his report could not be proven to the network’s satisfaction.
Most observers felt the story was true but the evidence used — mostly as a TV show-and-tell device — was unreliable. The right-wing ideologues who led the attack on the “mistake” were Rather-haters for years. They applauded his demise as a blow against “liberal media.”
A star-chamber in-house investigation by lawyers led by a former AP executive and Republican official found his producer Mapes negligent. Despite her voluminous defense detailed afterwards in a well written critique of the official “investigation” with its predetermined outcome, Mapes was fired and Rather left to twist in the wind. Other top producers and the President of the News Division would soon all be history.
I often felt that Rather had a multiple personality problem, uttering progressive comments one minute and pandering to patriotism the next. He loved to tell tall Texan tales and use folksy stream of consciousness while his critics loved to document his occasionally weird behavior.
Said one website, “In his career he’s been punched, mugged, threatened with a shotgun, tear gassed, even accused (by a communist newspaper in Afghanistan) of stoning people. Besides the many physical attacks, he has a long history of making weird statements (known as “Texanisms,” “Danisms,” or “Ratherisms” depending upon whom you read) at the news desk and in the streets or on assignment.
A whole Dan-denouncing right-leaning website, “Rather Biased,” called him “America’s most politicized newscaster.” (When I checked on its latest putdowns, it seems like it’s been hacked, maybe by a Rather lover.)
Another dedicated anti-fan site, Rathergate.com was still bashing him after he, like Elvis, left the arena. Now, the news bell has rung for Dan Rather too. His attempt to get a new contract at age 74 was rebuffed. He put a diplomatic face on the stabbing he had suffered, saying CBS had offered him “a future with only an office but no assignments.” Said Rather, “It just isn’t in me to sit around doing nothing. So I will do the work I love elsewhere, and I look forward to sharing details about that soon.”
Like many before him, he went from running the show to being shown the door. CBS has had along history of turning its heroes into zeroes. Edward R. Murrow was pushed out even after his McCarthy investigation which today is memorialized in a motion picture. What many don’t remember is that CBS cancelled his “See It Now” program.
Murrow would later say that TV was being used “to insulate the citizenry from the hard and demanding realities which must be faced if we are to survive.” He warned that TV was in danger of being reduced to “wires and lights in a box.” Next to go was Murrow’s partner/producer Fred Friendly who became News President only to resign when the network refused to pre-empt an “I Love Lucy” entertainment show and cover a crucial Senate Hearing on the Vietnam War.
CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite soon began to attract flak for his reporting from Vietnam and on Watergate. He was retired at age 65, replaced, with no love lost, by Rather who was brought in at a then astronomical $6 million dollar salary. The CBS retirement rule that was invoked as inviolate in Cronkite’s case was ignored when it came to Rather who was allowed to keep his job into his 70′s.
When the decision to axe Rather was made, it was delivered in a typical two-faced way with News and Sports President Sean McManus kicking him out while singing his virtues. “Of all the famous names associated with CBS News, the biggest and brightest on the marquee are Murrow, Cronkite and Rather,” he said. “With the utmost respect, we mark the extraordinary and singular role Dan has played in writing the script of not only CBS News, but of broadcast journalism. There will always be a part of Dan Rather at CBS News. He is truly a ‘reporter’s reporter,’ and he has helped to train several generations of broadcast journalists. His legacy cannot be replicated.” The President of the corporation, Les Moonves, praised Rather for “an unwavering desire to tell the story to the American public.” The company is giving some conscience money to his University named after Texas independence leader Sam Houston. Like Rather, Houston was mired in contradictions. (According to Wikipedia, “Although a slave owner and opponent of abolitionism, his unionist convictions meant he refused to swear loyalty to the Confederacy when Texas seceded from the Union, bringing his governorship to an end.”)
For his part, Rather, ever the gentleman and diplomat praised his colleagues and his years at CBS adding a call on the press for more discussion of larger issues such as freedom of the press and the corporatization of news.
Rather has not been the only victim of the corporatizaton of news. Veteran CBS reporter Thomas Fenton who served his broadcast for many years as a lead diplomatic correspondent recently indicted the lack of coverage of the world in his book Bad News.
Many others in CBS over the years left with bitter feelings about their treatment and went public with complaints about the decline of TV News. Now a trifecta of anchor exits is complete. Brokaw gone at NBC, Jennings dead at ABC and Rather pushed out while holding on for dignity’s sake, even after his anchor chair was knocked out from under him.
When I visited the CBS News command module, I was dissuaded from sitting in it — a warning sign even made sure no one but the Big Man himself was allowed to saddle up. While News personalities come and go, the news machine grinds on only in a new era of convergence between television and the internet, with the only certainty that it too will change, and, on the evidence so far, not for the better.
News Dissector Danny Schechter edits Mediachannel.org and was a producer at CNN and ABC News. His new book “The Death of Media” chronicles the deep changes underway in the media environment. See NewsDisssector.org/store.htm. Comments to [email protected]