Dan Rather with Digby Diehl. Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2012.
CBS News had a traditional history of discovering and reporting the news no matter how controversial the topic. Edward R. Murrow reported on many controversial subjects, CBS explored civil rights issues even as TV stations in Southern states balked and labeled CBS the “Colored Broadcasting News.”
Dan Rather found CBS less wiling to broadcast controversy when his research team uncovered military command ordering the torture of Iraqi detainees, even after obtaining photographic proof. CBS, which had previously challenged the White House on the Viet Nam War, feared upsetting the Bush White House on the Iraq War as CBS’s parent company had a matter before the politicized Federal Communications Commission. In sum, Rather learned that big business including television works with Big Government to their mutual benefit. CBS executive sought to delay the story until Seymour Hersh and the New York Times, who also has the story, were about to break the story. CBS then allowed the story to be broadcast.
Rather believes network executives feared Federal government reprisals if they broke the story. They made the unprecedented decision that there be no follow-up stories. Rather notes that the fears that his sources regarding the story had that the military would have subordinates take the blame proved correct.
CBS had been purchased by Viacom. Viacom’s owner Sumner Redstone is politically connected and used political connections for government actions that increased Viacom’s profits.
Rather argues the truth must be the basis for news. He notes there are organizations that set to distort the news for political purposes. The Internet can be used to distort news. He notes this has arisen over rumors that Vince Foster was murdered, questioning John Kerry’s military service, and arguing Obama is not an American citizen. He believes similar groups discredited the true story that CBS reported taht George W. Bush was AWOL for a year from the Texas Air National Guard. Rather states the story was correct. Bush, without having the minimal credential for pilot tests, used the influence of his Congressman father to become a Second Lieutenant pilot in six weeks. He took a year leave to work on an Alabama Senate campaign and left an obligation to serve in the Texas Air National Guard. The Guard records confirmed his absence. Bush was honorably discharged eight months before his obligation ended. Documents confirming this were uncovered. the WHite House claimed no knowledge of the documents but did not deny them. Internet bloggers attacked the documents and claimed they were forget without the bloggers ever having seen them. Fox News reported the allegations that the documents were forged. Other news media picked up the Fox News story. The question of the legitimacy of the documents received more press attention than did the story that Bush had gone AWOL and possibly even deserted.
CBS attorneys worked to distance executives from the story rather than defending the story. Rather defended the story and the documents. He noted the forgery allegations were false. Despite the story being true, CBS executives ordered Rather to shut down further research into the story. Rather refused. CB then ordered Rather to apologize. Rather noted that when William Paley was in charge of CBS, they defended their stories, even if flawed, so long as they were true. Redstone had a different agenda. He endorsed the Bush Republican ticket because they favored deregulations which would financially help Viacom. When Bush was reelected, CBS executives pushed Rather out from CBS News.
Rather wanted to be a journalist as a boy. While in college, he first worked on a local radio station, where he developed the art of ad libbing. He later wrote obituaries for the Houston Chronicle. He then became a news writer for the Chronicle’s radio station for $45 a week. He worked there for six years, rising to a $9,200 annual salary. Rather was then offered a TV job and was hired as news director where he was the only full time employee working with two part time cameramen. He would deliver the news and press a button for person in the control room to show film footage during a 15 minute news program at 6 pm and at 10 pm. He got the station to buy a used Army processor for $1,500 for film footage. His news program went from third to first in local Houston ratings. Rather’s broadcasting of Hurricane Carla in 1961 pioneered hurricane coverage as the first tie a news team broadcast from a live hurricane and for showing the first map of a hurricane’s path.
In 1962, Rather was hired as a national CBS correspondent. He was assigned as the Dallas Bureau Chief covering 23 states. Among the stories covered were the desegregation movement and civil rights, and rioting at the University of Mississippi (where journalist Paul Guilhard was shot to death minutes after Rather spoke to him). Some local CBS affiliates in the South declined to assist Rather on their stories. Some Southern Senators threatened CBS over broadcast licenses. CBS President Frank Stanton had helped Vice President Lyndon Johnson enter radio and TV. Stanton got Johnson to defend CBS from the Senators’ threats.
The Atlanta CBS affiliate sought to censor the CBS national news. Stanton threatened to sign another local station as Atlanta’s CBS affiliate. The Atlanta station and others no longer attempted to cross the national CBS News.
TV coverage of police brutality against civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham led to at outrage that desegregated the city’s facilities.
Rather coordinated CBS coverage of President Kennedy’s trip to Dallas. Along the motorcade, CBS cameramen threw film footage to people identified by holding grapefruit bag holders. The then rushed the film for processing. Rather caught the last film as the motorcade sped by not knowing that Kennedy had been shot. Learning he had been shot, he called a hospital doctor was stated Kennedy was dead. Rather than spoke to a priest who confirmed that Kennedy was dead. Rather called CBS Radio in New York where announcer Allan Jackson reported the death before any official statement had been made. Rather remained associated with coverage for the next four days. Afterwards, Rather was named CBS White House Correspondent.
Rather was in the Oval Office as much as six times daily. President Lyndon Johnson was crass, leaving interviews for bathroom breaks and keeping the bathroom door half open.
The Nixon White House distrusted the press. Rather learned to develop other sources to obtain a broader view of news accounts other than scripted White House Press Secretary’s reports. During Watergate coverage, the White House threatened the Washingotn Post, who owned TV stations, with retaliation from the Federal Communications Commission. CBS covered the story while ABC and NBC were hesitant to report the story. Charles Colson of the White House did persuade Dick Salant of CBS to remove part of the broadcast.
Rather was moved to “CBS Reports”, the non-regular news documentary show. He believed the Ford Administration persuaded CBS to remove Rather from the White House press corps. Rather than added being a “60 Minutes” correspondent.
Rather became anchor of “CBS Evening News” in 1981. He once had a problem with a CBS Sports tennis match which went overtime into the CBS News time slot. CBS Sports abruptly went off the air without CBS News being ready, causing six minutes of dead air time. President George H.W. Bush effectively used this mistake to deflect Rather’s questioning of Bush’s involvement in the Iran Contra affair.
Prior, Rather covered the Vietnam War. His coverage presented the war dire tly to viewers. He interviewed troops directly. He dressed in fatigues, learned to be self-sufficient and not a burden to others, and traveled with troops. He learned that captains and sergeants usually best knew what was happening.
Rather traveled to Afghanistan in 1980. His broadcast how the Russians were gassing civilians upset them such that they put a bounty on killing or capturing Rather.
During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars under President George W. Bush, military personnel were no longer allowed to take correspondents with them wherever they wished to go. The Pentagon controlled what the press could see.
Rather began “Dan Rather Reports” on HDNet. He left his CBS contract worth millions of dollars. He sued for breach of contract for mishandling his story on Bush’s Guard service.
A Federal Communications Commission rule once stated that no one could own so many TV stations as to reach 35% of households. Republicans on the FCC increased this to 45%. Congressional Democrats tried to reduce this back to 35%. Viacom lobbyists helped fight for a compromise at 39%, which is what Viacom owned It was later disclosed that Congressional Republicans were upset over CBS News reports that were hurting Bush’s reelection chances Les Moonves, who rarely makes political contributions, make several contributions to Rep. Ray Blunt who had written a memo against CBS broadcasts. Blunt was also ranking Republican on the Congressional committee overseeing the FCC.
Rather went to HDNet because owner Mark Cuban supports investigative journalism, telling Rather “to go piss people off”. For the first time, Rather had a start from nothing, including renting an office and installing phones The show won an Emmy for Outstanding Business and Economic Reporting two years in a row.
Rather notes that pauses during interviews can be useful. Sometimes people being interviewed let the guard down and say something unprepared to fill the silence, which sometimes may reveal the truth of the matter Pauses can be edited.
Rather fears a free press is in danger from control of media ownership by giant multinational companies CBS, which owned 4 TV stations in the 1960s now owns 40 stations and seeks owning more.
Breaking news hurts profits as commercials aren’t run. When CBS declined to run breaking news on Senate hearings on the Vietnam War in 1969 and show Lucy reruns instead, Fred Fielding resigned in protest.