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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:

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