Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Rather delusional

What do you do with a broadcast journalist who is forced into early retirement after drumming up a false presidential scandal? If he's Dan Rather you give him a lifetime achievement award:

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather said Monday that there is a climate of fear running through newsrooms stronger than he has ever seen in his more than four-decade career.

Rather famously tangled with President Nixon and his aides during the Watergate years while Rather was a hard-charging White House correspondent.

Addressing the Fordham University School of Law in Manhattan, occasionally forcing back tears, he said that in the intervening years, politicians "of every persuasion" had gotten better at applying pressure on the conglomerates that own the broadcast networks. He called it a "new journalism order."

He said this pressure -- along with the "dumbed-down, tarted-up" coverage, the advent of 24-hour cable competition and the chase for ratings and demographics -- has taken its toll on the news business. "All of this creates a bigger atmosphere of fear in newsrooms," Rather said.

Rather was accompanied by HBO Documentary and Family president Sheila Nevins, both of whom were due to receive lifetime achievement awards at the News and Documentary Emmy Awards on Monday evening.

If there is any fear in the network newsrooms it is due to the realization that they no longer have a captive audience waiting to be spoonfed their version of world events. This mounting pressure to actually tell the truth can be too much for these old-school journalists to bear.

Nevin asked Rather if he felt the same type of repressive forces in the Nixon administration as in the current Bush administration.

"No, I do not," Rather said. That's not to say there weren't forces trying to remove him from the White House beat while reporting on Watergate; but Rather said he felt supported by everyone above him, from Washington bureau chief Bill Small to then-news president Dick Salant and CBS chief William S. Paley.

"There was a connection between the leadership and the led . . . a sense of, 'we're in this together,"' Rather said. It's not that the then-leadership of CBS wasn't interested in shareholder value and profits, Rather said, but they also saw news as a public service. Rather said he knew very little of the intense pressure to remove him in the early 1970s because of his bosses' support.

When Rather speaks of not feeling "supported by everyone above him" he is clearly alluding to his own network's unwillingness to back him up on his false "Killian memo" flap during last year's presidential campaigns. But this "smoking-gun" document was so easy to recreate (all it took was one one blogger, a computer, and Microsoft Word at default settings) that it would have been professional suicide for CBS to stand by Rather.

Rather sidestepped the question of what should happen to the evening news in the expected makeover. "Not my call," he said. And he said he hadn't been asked, either.

"I gave it everything I had, I didn't hold anything back. I did the best newscast we were capable of doing," Rather said.

A man like Dan Rather is never going to have to face the reality of his own incompetence because he is always going to be surrounded by an incestuous group of colleagues who are all too eager to pat him on the back and say "Well, done." This will be the only world he ever has to know.

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