November 23, 2004
Dan Rather: Park Avenue Ordinary
"Rather's sins were the sins of a celebrity journalist, a star, also known as a bigfoot, to whom no one in CBS could tell the truth until it was too late, and the network had been put on the wrong side of the story by Bigfoot's recklessness (plus his ignorance of the Web.)"
Bringing devastating memos into a campaign’s final sprint is like bringing pistols on stage. You better know what you are doing at that point in the script. —PressThink, Sep. 18th, 2004
Dan Rather will be stepping down from the anchor’s job in March 2005 to concentrate full time on being a correspondent again. This is action anticipating a critical report from Richard Thornburgh and Lou Boccardi, the two-person truth commission investigating how apparently phony documents were relied on by Rather and his 60 Minutes team in a story about Bush’s National Guard service. (See the New York Times account. Here’s the CBS announcement. )
I have been interviewed today about it, so I might as well explain what I think. The following points seem key to me:
- For Rather, recovering his reputation as a reporter is now the most important thing to him— more important than remaining the anchor of CBS Evening News after 24 years in that job. That’s a measure of how much damage the Texas Air National Guard story did to him.
- This news was not unexpected. Howard Kurtz reported back on Sep. 16: “Some friends of Rather, whose contract runs until the end of 2006, are discussing whether he might be forced to make an early exit from CBS.”
- If Rather had chosen to remain as anchor, I would have been surprised. If CBS permitted that, I would have been very surprised. It’s hard to say exactly why hanging onto the anchor’s chair was not viable, but it was not viable. In that sense he didn’t have a political future as the anchor of CBS Evening News.
- What is an anchor? It keeps the ship from drifting. From what I have been told by people who work there, everything is adrift at CBS News until the report comes in, which should be soon. It’s very difficult to move forward when you don’t know who will be leading the news division. Today’s announcement provides some resolution, but it is not the resolution of the Faked Memos disaster. That begins when the report comes in.
- I found it sad that the official announcement, as well as the news story at CBS.com, included no mention, at all, of the precipitating event, a 60 Minutes broadcast Sep. 8th that relied on documents shown to be suspect by outside critics, while Rather and CBS stonewalled, refusing to see that their reporting had been called into question. No mention of the elephant in the room, even though no competent news story would avoid it. Thus, the AP lead: “Dan Rather, whose nearly 24-year tenure as anchor of the ‘CBS Evening News’ was clouded by a recent questionable report on President Bush’s National Guard service, said Tuesday he will step down in March.”
- Avoiding candid mention of a devastating event may be the way a PR pro does it, but a first class news organization has to consider other, more truthful options. Especially in a situation like this, where a reflexive, defensive, and PR-soaked mentality had earlier hurt Rather and CBS. But at least there’s a consistency. During the crisis over the suspect memos the announcements from CBS News were routinely maladroit and uninformative.
- The view from the Right is apty summarized by the lead over at NewsMax: “Dan Rather, whose latest scandal has depressed the ratings of his network’s entire ‘news’ division, said today he would leave as anchorman of CBS Evening News in March.” Conservatives, I think, are bound to view the announcement in historic terms, the successful culimination of a critique that goes back to the 1960s, before anyone knew of Dan Rather. Jonah Goldberg: “Shed no tears, make no apologies. He deserved to lose his job for Memogate — and no matter what they say, he did. This is just wonderful, wonderful news.”
- Back in September I wrote that Rather’s self-image is not as an anchor or “public face” of the news division; it’s “the hustling correspondent who outworks everyone else,” which is essentially a romantic view of himself. “The reporter in him authenticates the anchorman,” I wrote. From today’s announcement: I have always been and remain a ‘hard news’ investigative reporter at heart. I now look forward to pouring my heart into that kind of reporting full-time.
- Notice, then, that Rather’s sins were the sins of a celebrity journalist, a star, also known as a bigfoot, to whom no one in CBS could tell the truth until it was too late, and the network had been put on the wrong side of the story by Bigfoot’s recklessness (plus his ignorance of the Web.) We must remember that Dan Rather—the hustling hard news reporter at heart—is a man who himself has a spokesperson, Kim Akhtar. She speaks on his behalf to the press. That’s how ordinary he is as a figure in the ranks. He’s Park Avenue Ordinary. But as a figure to himself, he is still that humble guy making the extra phone call. Most people who know of this contradiction seem to admire it. I don’t.
- This, I believe, is one reason he navigated the crisis over The Memos so poorly. In Rather’s mind, celebrity had never changed him, political notoriety could not touch the “hard news” core. But this was disproven during September’s events. Experienced reporters knew that Rather’s story was in trouble within 24 hours. (Michael Dobbs of the Washington Post said: “I had serious suspicions about the authenticity of the documents on the morning after they were aired.”) They got it; he didn’t. The hard news guy in Rather had been Bigfooted by face-of-the-network Dan, cultural figure Dan, political lightening rod Dan. Now to pay for this sin he is going back to (humbled) reporter. He wants to recover his reputation that way. But a better way, I think, would be to more fully understand what happened in September, free of his own romanticism. Maybe the truth commission will help him.
- Whose job was it to save the network from Bigfoot, who had endangered all the accumulated trust in CBS News, and confirmed the accumulated mis-trust? Not Bigfoot’s. It could only have been the President of CBS News, Andrew Heyward. That’s why I see no chance of him surviving.
- All eyes turn to Richard Thornburgh and Louis D. Boccardi as they wind up their investigation.
After Matter: Notes, Reactions and Links..
Broadcasting & Cable Magazine: Dan Rather: A Storied Life.
After 24 years as anchor, he reflects on his critics, his career and the future. (Nov. 29)
I added this over at Tom Watson’s site, where there is a friendly argument going on between Jeff Jarvis and Tom over Rather’s significance and the role of bloggers in his downfall:
First, let me say that I am not a “Joe Citizen” type. I live in Manhattan. I have lunch with Jeff Jarvis from time to time. I get calls from the bookers at CNN and the Newshour (though when I tell them what I think, I can hear their enthusiasm drain away.)
I am basically with Jeff about Rather; but I admit to some ambivalence about it. Where I think Tom has hold of something important is that Rather never fit the TV mold. He was “hot” where the prevailing style was cool. He took chances where the prevailing ethic was risk adverse. He was willing to be weird; is Brian Williams willing to be weird?
Part of the reason he generated such intense dislike is this refusal to become the “smooth” TV type we so expect these days. Not only is there value in that; there’s something courageous about it. The pressure to be predictable is huge in network television; in the anchor’s chair even more so. Rather remained an edgy figure, a creature of emotion, an individual.
Some of his other achievements I question. I don’t see it as some journalistic advance that he was the first to take his broadcast to big events and anchor the newscast on location. It was an enlargement of the anchorman’s celebrity, a stunt that had nothing to do with reportage and everything to do with ego, Bigfoot-ism and the ideology of hype. He wanted to do both: anchor the broadcast and be the star reporter on location. If the show remained in New York he would have to choose.
In talking with the New York Observer Rather made much of his interview with Saddam Hussein before the 2003 war. “The Saddam interviews—I know not everybody thought they were good or worth doing or what have you,” he said, “but by any objective standards, any journalist worthy of the name would’ve killed to have those interviews.”
I think this quote gets to the heart of my problem with Rather. He had no idea why he was interviewing Saddam, or what he hoped to accomplish. His reference point for it was not Saddam within history, but Dan Rather within journalism. (For my earlier analysis of Rather’s 2003 Saddam interview, see this essay and scroll down to “Interview at the Axis of Evil.”)
New PressThink! Reaching for Moral Values in the Post Election Debris, by guest writer Weldon Berger. Check into it.
Joe Gandelman at the Moderate Voice has a good round up of early press coverage and blog reactions. “CBS let nature take its course,” he writes.
Andrew Sullivan: “How can you rehire a man for Sixty Minutes when you haven’t even published your own investigation into the journalistic meltdown that he presided over? Shouldn’t you wait until you know what actually happened before you declare that someone will stay on full-time?”
Jeff Jarvis has two must read posts: on the death of the anchorman (“the end of one-way news “) and what ought to replace it (“How to explode TV news in four easy steps.”)
New York Times account: “Until recently, Mr. Rather had told colleagues that he hoped to remain behind the CBS anchor desk until March 2006 and the 25th anniversary of the day he succeeded Walter Cronkite. But for Mr. Rather, that calculus was apparently complicated by the strain and scrutiny of the investigation.”
Official press release:
“I have decided to leave the CBS EVENING NEWS on March 9, 2005,” said Rather. “I have been lucky and blessed over these years to have what is, to me, the best job in the world and to have it at CBS News. Along the way, I’ve had the honor of working with some of the most talented, dedicated professionals in the world, and I’m appreciative of the opportunity to continue doing so in the years ahead.
“I have always said that I’d know when the time was right to step away from the anchor chair. This past summer, CBS and I began to discuss this matter in earnest — and we decided that the close of the election cycle would be an appropriate time. I have always been and remain a ‘hard news’ investigative reporter at heart. I now look forward to pouring my heart into that kind of reporting full-time.”
Advisory to Users: A number of people told me they print out PressThink and read it on paper. I added a special “print” feature. Just click on LINK or on this title in the RECENT ENTRIES column. The “print” button will appear in the upper right, near the headline. Check for it.
PressThink’s earlier coverage of Dan Rather:
Weekend Notes with Forgery Swrling in the Air. (Sep. 11)
Stark Message for the Legacy Media. (Sep. 14)
Rather’s Satisfaction: Mystifying Troubles at CBS. (Sep. 18)
Did the President of CBS News Have Anyone in Charge of Reading the Internet and Sending Alerts? (Sep. 20)
Does CBS News Have a Political Future in This State? (Sep. 24)
Posted by Jay Rosen at November 23, 2004 4:13 PM
Actually, I came up with that "talking point" myself. The person doing the "debunking" is clueless - he says the risk in training is "very low."
Having lost my best friend to that very low risk activity (flying a New Mexico ANG jet when Bush was flying), and having lost 13 of my squadron mates to a training accident (I could have been on that plane), and having looked up the annual fatality rate of those flying "the widowmaker," the numbers are a lot higher than a naive person might think. A guard pilot flying the F-102 had a 1%/year excess chance of being killed (higher during training) - Vietnam Service had a 2% excess rick. The primary TANG danger was the lack of 0/0 ejection capability in the F-102. Hence a takeoff or landing flameout was fatal. Guess when a flameout is most likely!
Combat missions (which Bush flew to intercept Russian bomber probes) were more dangerous. In those days they didn't have Heads Up Displays. To look at the targeting radar, the pilot had to look down into a radar scope, losing eye contact with the horizon (which may not be there on a night mission) and also losing contact with instruments. The missions were often flown over the Gulf of Mexico, adding to the danger if one had to bail out.
The whole thing looks dangerous to me, as a pilot. It is very easy under those conditions to lose control of the aircraft or to develop vertigo (Ask the late Mr. Kennedy, who was flying a much more tame aircraft.) The consequence is likely to be fatal.
The "Champaign Unit" regularly lost pilot lives to accidents.
Kerry's duty was much more dangerous, but he was only in combat status for 3 1/2 months, with many days not on missions. Put it together and it balances out.
Personally, I wouldn't want to do either one, although at least the jet would be fun (according my late friend).
As far as the MSM goes, during the media hysteria over Bush's service in the TANG, I never saw or heard a mention of the fact that Bush chose the most dangerous job in the National Guard, and also the one that required the longest service. One was left with the impression that this guy ended up with some sort of sweet deal where he sat around sipping whisky on weekends, or something.
I find your remarks ironic. There is some PCism on the right - always has been. However, I don't think you are in a position to detect it accurately. Rather, I think you are just annoyed by Conservative logic.
One of the strongest characteristics of PCism is uniformity of thought and speech, with people with the slightest deviation being attacked. Sorry, but I won't cop to that. Victimhood is another, sure enough. Does that mean that anyone who is unfairly attacked, or those who stand up for them, is PC? Not likely.
The Swifties were poorly treated by the press. They were also the attackers. I have never, ever denied that they were attackers. I happen to agree that their attacks, if true, were important. I have mentioned that some of the attacks on them were akin to the attacks Kerry made on Vietnam vets in 1971. I also want to point out that this was an issue for Vietnam vets, especially Swifties, and for us the post-war activities of Kerry's were beyond reprehensible. We were attacking because we felt that his actions disqualified him, and his actions towards us were among them. In other words, part of this was personal. I don't expect you to understand.
Contorted reasoning? Did you find it that hard to follow?
Since the day the Swiftvets popped up, Jay, you have attacked them in very strong terms. You have never considered the evidence as far as I can tell. You appear to have been immediately disgusted and closed your mind. And you call me PC? But hey, I'm just a mind rotted PC conservative.
I have heard the most absurd charges against the Swifties, the silliest of which was guilt by association because of John O'Neil's pep talk by Richard Nixon in 1971.
But they aren't your victims. They won, you lost.
And I don't play political correctness. I have been straightforward in explaining my position and my arguments. Show me the evidence is wrong, I'll check and adjust accordingly.
So here are some facts that I think should tar the MSM.
The Swifties were effectively ignored at their first press conference. The members of the MSM present indicated their concern that this was a powerful story (a friend was sitting with them). The MSM did its readers a disservice, because the later surfacing of the SBVT was a surprise.
When the Swifties story became inescapable, the New York Times took 8 days to write a story about them. Stories tended to be negative and superficial in most cases.
The press grossly overplayed the National Guard stories.
The press grossly underinvestigated John Kerry's past.
Rathergate was just Dan Rather getting careless in his otherwise long record of unfair and one-sided hit jobs on CBS 60 minutes.
The Abu Ghraib story was grossly overplayed. It involved a command failure in a small unit that was already under investigation. It generated close to 100 top of the fold and a total of around 160 stories in the New York Times. There is no question but that the press participated in an effort to smear our soldiers with the intent of smearing Bush. It was a despicable act by the press and damaged our nation's international reputation.
We are getting into a lot of old stuff.
As far as I am concerned (and have stated before), the big MSM issue to many of us is that old, boring bias narrative. The examples above fit into that framework.
If you need Conservative PC information, just give a holler. I'll consult the grand master of Conservative PC'ism to find out what to think and what to tell you. If I can figure out who that is.
I am sick of the Swiftie Argument also. I have no concern for how it is portrayed by historians. I know the people and they are honorable. That's all I care about.
Much better to discuss why it was that the MSM tried so hard to torpedo Bush, and failed.
But back to those whose name is forever banned...
It's odd the way the left is so quick to use the victimhood narrative, in this case where the "victims" don't feel victimized but unfairly challemged. Victims go begging. Those who cannot be mentioned changed tactics instead. If everyone who complains about unfairness is somehow PC, it certainly restricts the dialog. It is very PC to mislabel people as part of silencing them.
One thing I founnd striking is that the only thing I have seen that evoked instant revulsion from you this year, Jay, was those who cannot be named.
I will leave you with an email that came in today on a Vietnam Veteran's mailing list. I don't contribute to this list and don't know how I got on it.
The Last Battle of Vietnam
It never occurred to me, ever before,
That our Navy would win the Vietnam War.
When they took to their boats in this year of elections,
With the mission of making some major corrections.
I shared their belief, John should not be elected.
And their view overdue, truth should be resurrected.
Yet I questioned the course they'd set themselves for,
Knowing how John was loved by the media whore.
Ignored and dismissed by the media queens
Being shrewd, savvy sailors they still found the means
To reach out to the people, to open their eyes
To a phony John Kerry and his war story lies.
With their very first ad, they torpedoed his boat,
A Cambodian Christmas would no longer float.
His heroics unraveled, his stories fell flat,
Especially that one 'bout his magical hat.
John called on his lawyers and media whores,
And threatened the Swiftees with vile legal wars.
But these warriors kept charging back into the fire,
And made the folks wonder, "Is Kerry a Liar?"
Till the question of whether he's telling the truth
Was still in their minds in the election day booth.
So the brave Swiftees gave us what we'd not had before,
They gave us our victory in the Vietnam War.
Those brave, stalwart sailors, falsely labeled as liars,
Stood firm and stood tall, kept directing their fires,
Steadfast, unrelenting, they served once again,
And defeated John Kerry, these honorable men.
All Vets can take pride, yes all, not just some,
That we won the last battle of Vietnam.
It took far too long to bring an end to our war
But we did, November Second, Two Thousand Four.
To our Brothers, forever, on that long black Wall,
You've been vindicated now, one and all.
2d Bn, 327th Parachute Infantry Regiment
101st Airborne Division
Jay: I realize that you want to ban some issues, but I want to respond to John Moore and the poet above (who again lost the Vietnam War, if we look on it that way).
To John: What you don't seem to realize is that the emphasis on baby bush's ANG service had nothing to do with the danger of it. Rather, as someone who was subject to the draft myself, although earlier than Vietnam, it was the perception of that time which was the issue. In the 50s and 60s, it was the perception that it was much safer to take part in the National Guard than to let oneself be drafted. That was the perception and it counted for more than the truth at that time. Flying jets was dangerous (a man who graduated two years ahead of me in high school, flew his Navy jet fighter into a hillside at the age of 28). But baby bush supposedly was advanced past other candidates for the elite squadron in an effort to escape the draft. Did he actually serve on active duty at all? From what I have read that is not clear to me.
As a devil-may-care with an obvious Oedipus complex (which explains the Iraq war), he wanted to impress Daddy and maybe overcome some of the censure for his life style by following Daddy into flight school, but without being sure of going to Vietnam. I know an ANG pilot who did wind up in Vietnam and survived.
Which brings me to Dan Rather. First, I'd like to say that those who watch and read the mainstream media are far better informed about what's going on than those who read wingnut literature or hear wingnut voices from both sides. Yes, the MSM makes errors. And Dan Rather made an error; he reported on documents without have sufficient background on them to be able to verify their truth when challenged. And from what I have read on fair sites and news report, they have not been verified as forgeries. That seems to depend on your knowledge of typewriters and since I used an old IBM ball selectric from 1976-78, what people say about that doesn't phase me. I also know enough about typestyles of the time, typewriter and others, to know that you had difficult differentiating them and that because of the way they got printed from hot lead, paper type, and typewriters, they would not necessarily be the same from one typist to the next.
The main-stream press and the left in this country have become the target of a well-orchestrated campaign to destroy them, involving distortion and outright lies. The liberals and progressive in the U.S. were the ones who made the middle of the 20th Century the years of the well off middle class, growing out of the populist movements of William Jennings Bryan through Teddy Roosevelt, up until the destruction wrought by Richard Nixon and culminating in the out and out failures of the late, sainted Teflon President Ronald Reagan. Now we are engaged in a sophisticated, orchestrated campaign to turn our republic into an empire, with the Pax Americana to be a direct descendant of the Pax Romana.
Baby bush continues the misdirection with a Save the Forests initiative that will result in logging the west, a clean air law that will allow power companies to increase their air pollution, and an Iraqi Freedom movement that is destroying our foreign credibility. What happened to Dan Rather is part of the right wing movement (it's not organized enough to call it a conspiracy) to discredit those in this country who worry about more than themselves and the bottom line.