by Robert Stewart, Director; Professor
If you’ve followed the Dan Rather saga over the years, you may have wondered what Rather would have to say about the considerable twists, turns, ups, and downs in his career.
How did he account for the so-called “phony” Killian memos about Bush #2 and the Texas Air National Guard? What motivated Rather to file suit against long-time employer, CBS News? And how the heck did he hook up with Mark Cuban to create Dan Rather Reports on HDNet?
If learning his version of the back story on these and other Dan Rather stories interests you, look no further than Rather Outspoken, My Life in the News. As the title promises, these 250+ pages provide Rather the opportunity to reflect on his career in the news business, while also delving into the many publicized instances when Rather became the news.
Perhaps most intriguing are the Texas-size zingers aimed at former bosses and colleagues – some named, some not – at CBS News, the network itself, and especially Viacom, the mega company that owns CBS.
A strength of the book, indeed the main reason to read it, is to get Rather’s “take” on the several major stories that he not only covered but helped shape. Rather’s reporting on George W. Bush’s extended absence from Texas during the period of his Texas Air National Guard service ultimately landed the CBS News anchor in hot water with CBS brass.
Which became a bigger story than the fact that the sitting president may have gone AWOL during the Vietnam War. Only Rather could generate that kind of firestorm.
How could that happen? Simple, according to Rather: His previous (and highly visible) tête-à-têtes with Republican presidents – Bush #1 (remember Iran-Contra vs. the six minutes of “black” following a tennis match kerfuffle on the Evening News?) and Richard Nixon (remember Nixon asking Rather in a press conference if he was running for something, to which Rather shot back, “No Mr. President, are you?”). America’s right wing wanted to make Dan Rather pay for his “attacks” on high profile Republicans.
Rather devotes an entire chapter to a lament about the changing realities of media ownership in the U.S., whereby one company can own many, many more media outlets than would have been allowed before President Ronald Reagan deregulated broadcasting during his two terms. Today’s media environment is all about money, according to Rather.
Once upon a time, the leadership at CBS would have stood behind the journalists at CBS News, Rather argues, because they cared about more than just the bottom line. No more. Not since Viacom took over and cozied up to Congressional Republicans wielding power over the FCC, which in turn shaped policy that directly affected Viacom’s bottom line. In a world now dominated by Big Media, he had become a Big Problem for what once was William Paley’s “Tiffany Network,” by Rather’s reckoning.
I found it quite startling when Rather Outspoken lapsed into speculating in a way that Rather wouldn’t have dared when reporting as a daily journalist (e.g., Rather speculates that his reporting about prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib a “political embarrassment” for Viacom).
Even more perplexing was his widespread use of direct quotes sprinkled all through the book, quotes purportedly from conversations that had occurred as far back as his childhood days in Houston. To most journalists, a quotation is reserved for exact phrases, perhaps cleaned up to eliminate extraneous ums and other awkward pauses. Unless you have the notes or a recording, just paraphrase the source and leave off the quotes.
When I sat down to read Rather Outspoken, I have to confess that I wasn’t a big Dan Fan. I found some of the book – like the man – off-putting, corny, overly preachy, and yes, defensive. And in fact, Dan Rather made a lot of money as an anchor for CBS Evening News over the years. He benefited from a system that paid big salaries to a hand full of media stars. Now he’s complaining about a system where there’s too much emphasis on money? Right.
Having said that, I came away from Rather Outspoken being more “fan” than “critic.” Oddly enough, I found that Rather Outspoken not only yielded many gems, even insights, but it also entertained me with its heavy doses of over-the-top, Texas-style folksy talk, a not always appreciated Dan Rather trademark.
My favorite (of many, many) was his description of his head-over-heels reaction to meeting his bride-to-be, Jean: “The spark was there right from the beginning – bingo bombshell holy smoke.” Uh, come again?
In sum, Rather Outspoken was more fun than an Archie comic book. And yes, worth the read. Don’t let the sermonizing distract you from the sermon, and don’t let the defensiveness divert your attention from the valuable backstory about the last forty years of network TV news that Dan Rather writes about in Rather Outspoken.
NOTE: Back in April I was approached by Dan Rather’s publicist about his forthcoming book. She wanted to see if I would be interested in writing a review of Rather Outspoken in this space. With all of the end-of-school-year craziness and a trip out of the country at the beginning of summer, the review had to wait. I finally was able to read Rather Outspoken on the flight to and from Germany. Sorry it took so long, Dan.