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By Mike Walker
NELSON CURRENTCopyright © 2007 Mike Walker
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThis story is true! ... With respect, answer the questions."
It was vintage Dan Rather.
Sitting for an interview with the New York Observer, the mighty anchorman/aristocrat shrugged off the media hellfire raining on his CBS News empire, bared his teeth at the White House, and stubbornly defended the dumb-ass George W. Bush/National Guard "documents" story, which had been shot down so swiftly by mainstream media and Internet bloggers just hours after he broke it on national TV.
He'd endured a week of scorn from all quarters-including document experts and a snippy First Lady, Laura Bush, who used the word "forgeries." Now the famously thin-skinned news star had had enough. Hotter than a rooster on Viagra, as he might put it in that faux Texas speak he so adores, Dan looked-as he often does-ready to open fire on a crowded mall as he hurled his defiant challenge at the president of the United States:
"With respect, answer the questions."
It was one good ol' Texas boy telling another: Dubya, answer my questions, even though these National Guard documents might be phony-because my story needs some credibility. Y'all come clean now, dammit!
Quite a ballsy ploy. Like most journalists, I admire cheeky newsboy chutzpah as immortalized by brash reporter Hildy Johnson in The Front Page. Now here was Dan Rather, CBS TV icon and major player in the Media Elite, pulling a stunt so bizarre it made you wonder, just for a moment, if he was employing some sophisticated secret technique known only to newsdom's top tier. But, no! Dan was simply-brazenly-tossing a Hail Mary pass, blatantly obfuscating the issue by implying that even if the documents that cast major aspersions on the president's military record were fake, the story itself was true.
Dan's concept was breathtaking, vaguely McLuhanesque. Was he seriously positing that the medium is not the message, after all?
Hell, no! Dogg just be shuckin' and jivin' 'cause he knows he's busted!
It was as if I, mongering along in my humble news niche as gossip editor of the National Enquirer, had, after slapdash attempts at authentication, published in my column scandalous documents about a major celebrity, only to have them exposed as amateurish forgeries. Just for fun, let's say my bogus papers revealed, in lurid detail, that comedian Jimmy Fallon of Saturday Night Live fame was a serial molester of Catholic priests, and that this rogue ex-altar boy had inflicted an STD on a certain Father O'Reilly.
Now, I'm no Dan Rather. But as a newsman who's battled my way to borderline fame, or notoriety, if you will-millions read my signed column and see my face above it-I'm desperate to maintain my hard-earned reputation for accuracy. I know that once a celebrity sin is confessed and the gory details chewed over, people quickly get bored. Were I caught in such a scandal, I'd take the course of action that always, always works: I'd admit the screw up, beg the mercy of my readers with misty eyes, and apologize abjectly to the usually good-natured Mr. Fallon.
Apparently, however, that is not how it is done by the Media Elite (as opposed to the media Big Leagues, of which I actually am a member because of the Enquirer's huge circulation). I can't tell you what's advised in the CBS Handbook for TV Journalists-if there is such a thing-but based on the early evidence, the approved network technique for handling a pesky caught-with your-pants-down debacle is deny, deny, deny! Attack all questioners as "partisan ideologues"! Go on the offensive!
Phony documents? Hey, no problemo! Simply concede that they might be a tad flaky, then get terminally aggressive. Immediately demand a full and frank interview from the victim-on the grounds that even though the documents may be bogus, the story is true and you insist on, with respect, an answer to all your questions.
Wow! So that's how it's done in the Media Elite. Hildy Johnson would be impressed. I certainly am. As a modest tabloid toiler, I've slogged along for years breaking stories the hard way-cultivating reliable contacts in places where news is likely to happen, developing sources who trust me with valuable info that might even lead to a No. 1 New York Times bestseller-like my book on the O. J. Simpson trial. So, I'm actually embarrassed to admit I've never had the genius to ply the phony document dodge.
Using Dan Rather's technique, I could, er, "discover" a phony birth certificate that says Angelina Jolie is actually a man! Then, following the CBS template, I'd trumpet the documents in my column, wait for them to be discredited by experts-then challenge Angelina in a column headlined: "This story is true! With respect, disrobe."
Now there's a fantasy. But as news technique, it's ... Rather dumb!
Lest you think I'm misrepresenting the Darth Vader of network news, I'll let him explain the elitist theory of phony document denial in his own words:
I think the public, even decent people who are well-disposed toward President Bush, understand that powerful and extremely well-financed forces are focusing on questions about the documents because they can't deny the fundamental truth of the story. If you can't deny the information, then attack and seek to destroy the credibility of the messenger, the bearer of the information. And in this case, it's change the subject from the truth of the information to the truth of the documents.
Vintage Dan blather!
He avers in the above that "powerful and extremely well-financed forces are focusing on questions about the documents!"
That's right, Dan. Those "forces" are otherwise known as "the press!" It's us, your colleagues! And here are the questions we're focusing on:
Why were you willing to accept the word of an avowed Bush hater?
Why didn't you verify the origin of a document that wasn't even an original, but a copy?
Who forged the documents?
Why did you rush to foist a smear of a sitting president's military record just fifty days before a presidential election without triple-checking your facts?
And why, when the press asked legitimate questions about your story, did you look into the camera and voice the outrageous lie that it was only "partisan political ideological forces" that raised such doubts?
Enquiring minds want to know, Dan.
I want to know.
With respect, answer the questions.
Have you no shame, sir? Are you finally so arrogant, so inflated by your legendary ego that you refuse to consider the idea that perhaps it's time you were floated out to sea on the next ice floe? Did you not consider that scary scenario when you turned seventy-three this past Halloween? As an objective, balanced journalist, don't you agree it's time you were gently shown the door?
The New York Post asked the embattled anchorman that question. He replied, "I don't have a date [to retire]. I don't have a timetable. As long as I like doing it, as long as I think I can do it at least reasonably well-and, most importantly, as long as the people I work for think that I can do it reasonably well, then I want to continue doing it. I have a passion for what I do. I love what I do."
Can Dan survive? On the Internet, enraged bloggers blogged: THROW THIS ANCHOR OVERBOARD!
His CBS News anchor/managing editor predecessor, the respected Walter Cronkite, said publicly he would have fired Dan Rather years ago, after he stormed out of the CBS newsroom in a raging temper and left the network dark for six long minutes-an eternity in TV time.
And Rathergate? As they say in TV, folks, "Join me for an exclusive, in-depth probe of the document debacle, coming up next! You sit in the jury box as we conduct the Trial of Dan Rather."
But first, as I mentioned in the Preface, let me point out that as I write this book about Rathergate-an ongoing media cause célèbre-there is breaking news about the case I will deal with as it happens. So far, the CBS-ordered independent investigation of the boondoggle is not complete. Not that it matters to us. Because who-outside of CBS-needs it? We already know enough facts to judge Dan Rather's conduct. Barring a heretofore-unknown murder or other odd twist, the story is ripe to be told, so I'm going to tell it. And how am I qualified to sit in judgment? Well, like many reporters who rose to be editors, I've sat in on the postmortems of story screw-ups-either as a potential suspect or as editor-in-charge of the inquisition. Trust me when I tell you: An unbiased first look at facts already in evidence clearly indicates that Dan & Company committed mind-blowing gaffes of journalistic judgment and simple common sense. Whatever the CBS investigation uncovers will be fine print, believe me, unless ... unless Dan's producer, Mary Mapes, testifies that her boss Dan ordered her to contact presidential candidate John Kerry's campaign to tip them about the Bush-bashing documents! That would be a bombshell. The story would escalate from Rather Dumb to ... Rather Biased!
But that's not going to happen. I believe Dan Rather is a strident liberal guilty of bias in the news he presents and in the way he presents it. Do I believe his driving motive here was to torpedo Bush's campaign? No! Would he love to see Bush embarrassed and defeated? Yes! But....
As a veteran reporter, let me suggest that Mary Mapes put her source-Texas Bush hater Bill Burkett-in touch with the Kerry camp simply to keep him happy and get her paws on those documents. It wouldn't be the first time a reporter cut a corner to cut a deal-it won't be the last. And Mapes, as you'll learn in the pages ahead, has a history of improperly currying favor with sources to get what she wants.
So, let's reel our minds back to that original breathless broadcast on September 9, 2004, when CBS anchorman Dan Rather reported his exclusive discovery of Texas National Guard documents and presented them as proof that (1) George Bush was a lazy no-show during his military service, (2) he was grounded as a pilot because he ducked his mandatory medical exam, and (3) he got kid-glove treatment from a superior officer because of pressure from his daddy's powerful friends.
The report made major headlines after it aired on 60 Minutes II, the Wednesday night clone of the venerable and respected 60 Minutes. A veteran of the long-running original, Morley Safer, condemned the report and sent a cannonball screaming across Dan Rather's bow in a New York Times interview.
"These are not standards that would have been tolerated, and it's inconceivable this would have made it on the air on the Sunday show," Safer snapped.
Adding to Rather's embarrassment was a report on the Internet site The Washington Note that Fahrenheit 9/11 director Michael Moore said in a speech at the University of Central Arkansas that he'd been offered the fraudulent documents from the same CBS source while making his movie, but he turned them down. If true, that's an eyeopener. Moore, a rabid liberal partisan under no journalistic constraints, didn't trust the documents or their source-but Dan Rather did?
Consider this: While grilling veteran 60 Minutes gasbag/commentator Andy Rooney, radio talk-show host Don Imus was incredulous that CBS News had so casually accepted anti-Bush activist Bill Burkett-an ex-National Guard malcontent with admitted mental problems-as a source of "unimpeachable" integrity, to use Dan Rather's word.
Imus told Rooney: "The first thing we would have done, if we had been contacted by Burkett, we would've Googled him ... if you Google the guy, you come up with what looks like somebody ... who has an over-the-top agenda."
It's an ironclad rule of journalism, and it's plain old common sense: Before you deal with a source, know exactly who they are.
Interestingly, Andy Rooney-as he often does-then blurted an opinion that undoubtedly made his bosses wince, hinting at a question that's plagued CBS for years: Shouldn't Dan have been dumped because he's just plain weird, a loose cannon who might someday blow up the whole blasted ship? Rooney said:
"[Dan] gives the impression of falseness sometimes that does not exist in his character. I think he is a first-class guy, a good guy and an honest guy. And yet, there is something about the way he behaves sometimes that makes people suspicious of him. And it's too bad."
Too bad, perhaps, but when you're a TV anchor, perception is reality. Rathergate aside, why didn't CBS deep-six their anchor years ago after his sinking ratings dragged their evening news down to dead-last behind NBC's Tom Brokaw and ABC's Peter Jennings? It's hard to believe CBS execs know nothing of that jumpy unease so many viewers experience when they stare into Rather's piercing, pugnacious eyes and sense the volcano bubbling inside. News business insiders have always puzzled about the network's almost saintly tolerance of that edgy alter ego known as....
Dan, Dan, The Loony Man.
To quote Imus again: "Watching Dan Rather do the news, he looks like he's making a hostage tape. They should have guys in ski masks and AK-47s just standing off to the side."
Even Dan's ardent attempts to be a warm, folksy guy were often off-putting. Remember the lame My Three Sons sweaters he wore for a while? And how one night he suddenly looked us in the eyes and signed off-just for a week, actually, until execs muzzled him-with that one word: "Courage"?
And who has not marveled at his wacko Texasisms or Ratherisms, as they're sometimes called? The whole country buzzed that Dan's screws were loosening visibly when he babbled on election night 2000: "Sip it, savor it, cup it, Photostat it, underline it in red, put it in the album, hang it on the wall, George Bush is the next president of the United States."
But Dan has survived ongoing suspicions of lunacy for decades, so let's get back to the burning question: Should he be bounced for Rathergate? To restate the case: If he truly believed that the documents proved George W. Bush shirked his duty in the Texas National Guard, despite bright-red flags warning that they might be phony, CBS News team leader Dan was demonstrably incompetent. And if he knew there was a strong possibility that they were phony, yet still rushed to "break" the story, he's almost certainly guilty of political bias and trying to influence a presidential election just fifty days away.
Keep two facts firmly in mind when judging Dan: On CBS News, he's not just another "talking head" who reads teleprompter copy written by others. Or so he tells us-endlessly. Dan proudly asserts he's a guy who hits the street and reports the news. Hands on. Lotsa elbow grease. But more than that, he's the managing editor-a title he fought for like a pit bull on PCP, right, Tex? Managing editor is not, as Dan constantly reminds us, an honorary title. It is a major position of authority. It means that Dan is the big dog and deserves the heat when his team screws up. Yet he's told the New York Post and others-even before the independent investigators began their work-that he has no plans to retire. And, he says, he sure as hell won't resign.
With respect, folks, answer the question. Should Dan Rather have been fired? (At this point, we know he's retiring from the anchor chair, though the plan is for him to stay on as a reporter for both versions of 60 Minutes-returning to the scene of the crime, so to speak.)
Me, I'm not so sure-not that Dan gives a damn what a newsman from the National Enquirer thinks. Ah ain't one of them Media Elites, y'all! But I hesitate to demand he should be drummed out of his job because (1) I'm naturally cautious about dissing anybody who's got Dan's scary look and was born on Halloween, and (2) I get jumpy as a frog on a campfire skillet (feel free to grab that, Dan ... if you haven't already) when it comes to jeering a rival journo who blows a story. It's an occupational fear, believe me. If there's one refrain you keep reading about and hearing from journalists as we pick over Dan's bones, it's "There but for the grace of God go I."
Trust me: There isn't a good journalist alive who's never been wrong. It's so easy to get sloppy on fact-checking and oh so tempting to believe a story you desperately want to believe-one you just feel deep down in your gut is true. But journalists are haunted by the knowledge that even when you do everything right, even after you shine relentless, cynical light down every rat hole, something slimy still can slither up and bite your ass.
Over a lifetime in the news business-working for wire services, daily newspapers, TV, radio, and the world's most feared and famous tabloid-I've composed prissy homilies about the business of newsgathering to which my reporters are forced to listen endlessly. Here's one to stitch on your sampler:
Every time you publish a story, you're jumping off a cliff ... so hope it's a bungee jump.
Dan crashed and hit bottom. He's alive and in a lot of pain, but the question that rivets both fans and detractors is: Should he be allowed to survive? Before I get to the end of these musings and a step-by-step postmortem, I'll know the answer to that question.
Excerpted from Rather Dumb by Mike Walker Copyright © 2007 by Mike Walker. Excerpted by permission.
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