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September 21, 2007

Rather Unbound Will Redo the Killian Memos Story

Dan Rather, the reporter who never gives up, lives again on the public stage. World may call it a lawsuit. In Rather's mind, he's got a crack team of reporters, they can get people to talk, and they're chasing the story that CBS in its cowardice dropped.

If I were to underline one thing about Dan Rather’s $70 million suit against CBS, it’s the theatricality of it, which is the key to understanding Rather himself.

Almost all anchormen come in the “cool” style. Theirs is an art of control, which suited the corporation because if you wanted control of television you had be controlled on television. Not Rather. On the air he is emotional, volatile, melodramatic. In delivering news he was never far from a meltdown or a misty-eyed moment.

This was always odd for network television, and it ended in disaster for CBS.

He also had strange conceits about himself. The most important of these was that Dan Rather, face of the brand, living on Park Avenue and making $6 million a year, was not in fact a man with a glamor position in the media hierarchy, but a hard news, find-out-yourself investigative reporter making that extra call to nail down a key fact after everyone else has gone home to watch the game.

Somehow—it was never explained how such a screwy thing happened—he had wound up doing this anchorman job, reading the news every night to the nation, guiding Americans through wars, elections and disasters, forming an intuitive bond with the audience, and representing the people of CBS News as their presenter and champion.

But it wasn’t the real him. He kind of regretted that his loyalty to CBS ran so deep that he had to be the public face of its news division and follow in the tradition of Murrow and Cronkite, even though it took him away from who he really was and what he really did for a living. The real him was simple: “Dan Rather reporting,” not a prince of news, or the anchoring intelligence for the big newscast, not a corporate figure or boss type at all, but a hustling correspondent out in the field who will drop everything for a story and always make the extra call.

All images of purity that have moral power in American journalism come down to the driven reporter who will not give up until the news comes out. Rather knows this. Last night on Larry King Live (I watched) he was saying, “I have 57 years as an American journalist and I invite anybody to check my record as to whether I’m a reporter or just a ‘talking head.’” Kurtz today: “He’s not giving up. He feels he has been wronged. He wants to prove it.”

This suit is about Dan Rather, the reporter who never gives up. (Here’s the court filing as a pdf) It puts him back into the business at the level of Sixty Minutes, Charlie Rose, and Larry King Live. The world may call it a lawsuit; to him, he’s got a “team of people” on the story, and no one can tell him when to pack it in because he’s funding the project. In his last campaign he is free to re-report the Killian Memos, starting with the mystery man he mentioned on CNN, a shadowy private investigator hired by CBS who may have come into an inconvenient truth: (UPDATE: The New York Observer has more about this investigator CBS hired.)

They had tens of millions of dollars and a lot of time and they said we didn’t even investigate whether the documents were true or not. Now, we now know that an investigator was hired by CBS — what I call a mystery man — who wasn’t even mentioned in the report, had looked into it.

He’s intending to do this over, not only Rathergate but the real story of Bush in the Air National Guard. It’s not about about one man’s legacy, or the money, he said last night. It’s about reporters who won’t cave in to big government and big corporations. Despite all the obstacles they find—“Larry, sometimes within their own company”—they deliver the truth because our democracy depends on it.

The world needs a hero who embodies all that. As he said on TV, “Somebody sometime has got to take a stand and say democracy cannot survive, much less thrive, with the level of big corporate and big government interference and intimidation in news.”

Rather told King he “would like the legacy of this lawsuit to be not that I made tons of money out of it, but that we kept the little flame, the flickering flame of hard-nose investigative reporting alive.” He mentioned two places the money might go on the air, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Dan Rather is serving public notice that he intends to be the real Dan Rather again: the reporter who will not quit until the truth comes out. If you watched him carefully with King, he wasn’t thinking about how to win a lawsuit. He wants to break a big story: not only collusion between Viacom and the Bush Administration during Rathergate, but the reason for the collusion: his original story was true!

I’m with those who think he is crazy. When your document examiners won’t back you up, and your story is about the documents, you have no story. Mary Mapes in the Huffington Post, Rather’s collaborator back then, writes as if none of this had ever happened. Her post is delusional, scary.

But theatrically—and in no other way—the suit makes sense for Rather. I think he’s already written the key scene, where a major wrong is put spectacularly right.

KING: When you have a lawsuit like this, there are major — there’s depositions. A lot comes out.

RATHER: Right.

KING: They’ve got the chance to question you.

Is there anything…

RATHER: I welcome it.

KING: You’re not worried about anything?

RATHER: Well, you know, I’m not going to sit here and tell you I’m not worried about anything. But I’m the person who stepped forward and said, OK, I‘m ready to go under oath.

KING: Yes, you did.

RATHER: I’m ready to be deposed.

The question is, are they?

Because that’s the only way you’re going to get the truth of what happened at CBS News.

* * *

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

The New York Observer (Sep. 25) asks, “If Mr. Rather does have one more big story left in him, what might he be hoping to uncover?” Some of the answers are pretty interesting…

In February 2005, The Observerís Joe Hagan reported that CBS had hired a former FBI agent and Navy aviator by the name of Erik T. Rigler to dig into the source of the documents at issue. Mr. Hagan further uncovered evidence suggesting that Mr. Riglerís investigation led him to believe that (a) he was close to uncovering the original source of the documents; (b) CBS was only interested in finding the source if it could be done before the presidential election; and © in all likelihood the content of the documents was accurate, even if the documents themselves were not authentic.

The Observer story by Joe Hagan: CBS News’ Boss Hired Private Eye To Source Memos.

Eric Boehlert at Media Matters: Dan Rather is right. Makes the case that the story was accurate and did not depend on documents that count not be authenticated, blames the press for getting more interested in Rather’s crimes against journalism than Bush shirking his National Guard duties.

About the sad, delusional, propaganda-of-self post that Mary Mapes wrote at Huffington’s, Language Log’s Geoff Pullum speaks for me:

Grow up, people. You humiliated yourselves on national TV by accepting documents that could be spotted as forgeries as soon as they were released in facsimile. You were had. You were patsies, you were careless, and you caused enormous damage to the reputation of CBS. You ruined the case for GWB’s military irresponsibility and mendacity… You messed up. Deal with it.

Terry Heaton, former television news director, now a consultant and thinker, comments : “Ratherís suit is all about his reputation within a closed, institutional community that really no longer exists. Rather wants to be remembered as a soldier fighting the good fight, but with whom does he wish the record be set straight, if not the family in which he once held patriarch status?”

He thinks CBS will settle. BeldarBlog, written by an attorney who in the past has done some work for CBS News, agrees. Because “courtroom truth” is not “boardroom truth.” In the end CBS will protect the boardroom’s narrative, and settle to prevent fatal blows against it. Quite interesting.

This is Roger Simon at Pajamas Media

Giving celebrities so much power leads to this. This is especially dangerous in the case of news celebrities who have so much opportunity to distort reality.

CBS had an opportunity to underscore this after the fall of Rather, but chose to go the other way, elevating yet another celebrity Ė Katie Couric Ė to the outmoded anchor chair, which, thankfully, appears to be failing.

The anchorman or woman is a dinosaur that should have been extinct decades ago. This is one lawsuit in which I am rooting for both sides to lose.

Simon is on it: the hiring of Couric is a continuation play within the CBS News regime. All continue to invest in the glamorization of news through the anchor position. Jeff Jarvis thinks the anchor model is “not only broken, itís dangerous. It produces Dan Rathers.”

The origins of “pajamas media” are in a remark by Jonathan Klein during the Rathergate controversy. Klein is now the head of CNN in the US. “These bloggers have no checks and balances,” he said. “You couldn’t have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances [at 60 Minutes] and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing what he thinks.”

James Moore, Texas journalist and author of a book on Bush and Karl Rove, wrote about his attempts to verify the same story that undid Rather (also at Huffington Post):

Every document relevant to the Bush time in the Guard should be included on a microfiche filed at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. Any historian, journalist, or amateur researcher could have access to the truth if the president simply signed a release allowing those pages to be printed and distributed. It’s what John McCain did in 2000 when Karl Rove started circulating rumors that the senator suffered from mental problems after being held for years as a prisoner of war. Why won’t the president offer a similar release of his records? The answer, of course, is too obvious to bother stating.

Agreed with these lines: “For those of us interested in the truth, the Bush-Guard story has taken on the cultural manifestations of the Kennedy assassination. The facts, even if spoken now by those directly involved, will be disputed. Political disinformation entered the process along with too much zeal to break the big story.”

He thinks Rather and Mapes were unfairly treated. I can’t be with him on that. Rather—with lots of help from CBS people—abused his high priest position in the days after it aired, especially by anchoring as managing editor the CBS Evening News. The broadcast mounted an improvised and rolling defense of a doomed story from another show, 60 Minutes Two. This compounded the damage many times over.

Greg Sargent on an Abu Ghraib story in the court filing. CBS did not want to run it and almost didn’t. Kind of thing that may get aired in this case, which will acquire strange fans.

Eugene Robinson, columnist for the Washington Post, wonders: “When the next set of Pentagon Papers comes down the pike, how will our corporatized news media react? If such documents happened to be delivered into the hands of CBS News, would Redstone do what the Sulzbergers of the New York Times and the Grahams of The Post did back in the early 1970s? Would he put everything he owns at risk in the service of the public’s right to know?”

Dan Rather and the Bloggers: The Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial on Rather’s suit is really interesting.

Rather was the man; he always made that clear. He lasted 24 years as CBS anchor, longest ever. He worked hard to establish the very responsibility, under his name, that his suit now seems to abjure.

Rathergate often is used as ammunition to argue that “bloggers do better than mainstream media.” But it really illustrates the very opposite point. Highly placed, responsible officers at CBS made a huge error and were fired. That’s called accountability. MSM have it and the Internet doesn’t - and doesn’t even seem to care.

The courts will determine the worthiness of Rather’s suit. But the heart and soul of journalism is credibility with its public. That is reinforced professionally by institutional responsibility - by consequences (for workers and bosses) that get worse as their mistakes get worse. Not even Dan Rather can say one day he wants to have that responsibility, and the next he’d rather not.

Finally, this is Rather in an MSNBC interview:

At my age and stage I don’t have — at least I’m at a point where I can speak up about it. And if people say bad things about me or if it costs something, then I’m not in a position a lot of people are in, with some big corporation they got, the corporation doesn’t meet their contract obligations, or something else — they have car payments and car notes and house payments to make. And they can’t afford to do it.
I’m at the point where I can do it and perhaps the best I can say is, this is where I’ve chosen to stand.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 21, 2007 3:30 PM