Dan Rather is “retiring.”
Rather has worked at CBS News for more than 40 years and made his name as a reporter covering the Nixon White House. His nearly quarter-century at the helm of the CBS Evening News is the longest at the helm of any U.S. network evening broadcast
Since everyone and their brother is blogging about Dan’s failings, let me take a moment to reflect on Mr. Rather’s successes.
First, Dan Rather was a decent man. If television shows people for who they really are, warts and all, Dan Rather came across as someone with core values that were truly middle American in their origins. His much criticized colloquialisms became something of a parody of themselves in later years as script writers were used to generate them. But, IMHO, there was no better newsman during his era when the American people turned to the broadcast nets in time of national crisis.
Rather’s career was made on November 22, 1963 when, working with CBS’s Southern Bureau he reported on the death of JFK. His famous confrontation with President Nixon (Nixon: “Are you running for something?” Rather: “No, Mr. President, are you?”) endeared him to liberals and outraged conservatives who believed that Rather had demonstrated bias in his reporting. This bias was exposed on more than one occasion…but more than that, Rather’s skills as a reporter and his relentless pursuit of the “story” (not necessarily the truth) marked him as a journalist to watch.
In 1981 when Rather apparently forced Walter Cronkite into retirement, he took over the network anchor chair. Within a month, Rather was to prove himself a worthy replacement as he anchored the network’s coverage of the Reagan assassination attempt. At the time, Rather was praised for his level headed commentary. As I recall, his colloquies with on-site reporters were particularly good. “What do we know? What do we think we know?” became Rather’s bywords during times of national crisis.
But I believe Rather’s finest moments came during coverage of the attack on 9/11. He was careful without being understated. His outrage and patriotism came through loud and clear. (He had a tremble in his voice after watching House members sing God Bless America on the steps of the Capitol that day.)
As for his attitude towards the war in Afghanistan, here’s a quote he gave in an interview to Howard Kurtz of WAPO:
“What I want to do, I want to fulfill my role as a decent human member of the community and a decent and patriotic American. And therefore, I am willing to give the government, the President and the military the benefit of any doubt here in the beginning. I’m going to fulfill my role as a journalist, and that is ask the questions, when necessary ask the tough questions. But I have no excuse for, particularly when there is a national crisis such as this, as saying—you know, the President says do your job, whatever you are and whomever you are, Mr. and Mrs. America. I’m going to do my job as a journalist, but at the same time I will give them the benefit of the doubt, whenever possible in this kind of crisis, emergency situation. Not because I am concerned about any backlash. I’m not. But because I want to be a patriotic American without apology.”
Clearly, Dan Rather is no anti-American zealot. And while his coverage of the war in Iraq has recently been tinged with echoes of media coverage of Viet Nam, this is how Rather sees his job; talking truth to power. This attitude is, I believe, what blinded him and allowed his partisanship to bring him down in the Rathergate scandal.
Rather and Tom Brokaw are probably the last of the immediate post World War II generation of broadcasters whose attitudes towards and coverage of America were shaped by that conflict (Peter Jennings is Canadian). This next generation will have had their attitudes shaped by Viet Nam and Watergate.
I think I preferred the simple patriotism of Rather and Brokaw.
Dan Rather is “retiring.”