At the age of 91, journalism legend Dan Rather remains on top of the news.
Take the recent CNN town hall with former President – and current candidate – Donald Trump. Bad idea, he says.
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“I think it’s clear it was a mistake to do the kind of quote ‘town hall’ unquote that CNN put on,” he tells Deadline. “It allowed straight out propaganda. It was an unpaid political commercial.”
Rather isn’t saying the news media shouldn’t cover candidate Trump. He’s saying it comes down to whether the interview happens live.
“There are times, for example in a debate for the Republican nomination, when of course it should be covered live,” he notes. “But he should not be given an opportunity to just ramble on, tell one lie after another, unchallenged.” Rather adds, “I’m not here to tell anybody how to run their journalism operation. I’ve made my mistakes, certainly, over the years. I would say if you’re going to have him on the air for an hour or more, as CNN tends to do — it’s in that neighborhood — then don’t do it live. You tape it, and then you can edit and add your own editorial comment. But I think it’s clear that CNN made a mistake with that.”
Our interview with the former anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News came just a few hours before Trump was indicted on federal criminal charges in connection with alleged mishandling of classified documents after leaving the White House. The newsman was in New York, his old stomping grounds, for the world premiere this evening of Rather, the documentary about him directed by Frank Marshall.
Regarding Trump, Rather said the twice-indicted former president could still win re-election next year.
“I don’t think anyone in the press kids themselves — and no one in the public should kids themselves — should he be the Republican nominee, once again, he can win,” he says. “I’m not predicting he will win, but I’m simply saying it would be foolish to say, ‘Oh, well, after all these things that have gone under the bridge, what we now know about President Trump, he couldn’t possibly win.’ I would say be careful. I don’t think that’s the case.”
Our conversation turned to Tucker Carlson, the Fox News anchor fired within days of parent company News Corp settling a defamation suit brought by Dominion Voting Systems for $787 million.
“Given the situation of the lawsuit, it’s no surprise that Tucker Carlson lost his job because in the end, what it was about — beginning to end — was all about money,” Rather observes. “As long as Tucker Carlson turned out considerable revenue and great profits for Fox and the Murdoch operation, he would be exceptionally well paid himself and would be seen as a valuable, if not the most valuable property that Fox had. The second it became about big money, even by Murdoch standards — a billion dollars or anything approaching that — then no surprise that Tucker Carlson became expendable. Having said that, I want to emphasize that what I know about the inner workings and decision making process in the tiers of Fox News could be written on the stomach of a germ, which is to say, I don’t know much about it, but I think it is pretty obvious that it, in the end, it was about money and Tucker Carlson paid the price.”
Rather has long been known for his aphorisms – like “stomach of a germ,” or this one: “Don’t taunt the alligator until after you’ve crossed the creek.” That manner of speaking reflects the homespun wisdom of his Texas upbringing. But Marshall’s documentary goes well beyond the epigrams to the substance of the man, his faith and family, and a career that can only be called one of the greatest in the history of American journalism.
“It certainly is a deep dive,” Rather says of the film. “Among my surprises is that there’s quite a bit of picture and audio in this documentary that I had never seen myself. The uninitiated might say, well, how can that be? But just for example to keep in mind, during my first time in Vietnam, 1965, ’66, everything was shot on film, not videotape. So, in the field as the combat correspondent, you wrote out a script by hand — computers didn’t exist — and sent the film off to New York to be processed, edited, and put on the air. And that explains why in this documentary there are scenes that I remember, but that I’ve never seen the footage before.”
The documentary shows Rather reporting from Vietnam, cheek by jowl with soldiers in the middle of a firefight.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say there were any number of times when I quietly said to myself, well, you know, this could be it,” he says. “But if you’re in journalism for the right reasons, which is to be a public service, it’s a story that matters… I learned a lot when I was in Vietnam. It’s a story that matters. And you say, ‘I want to be an eyewitness to that story, so I can be an honest broker of information in trying to explain to people what’s going on, what’s really going on,’ as opposed to powerful people trying to convince you something [else] is going on. But yes, of course, you get afraid. But it’s sometimes hard to explain to people on the outside of journalism, when you get focused, really focused, hard focused, almost nothing else matters.”
That hard focus – the ability to remain calm and keep his wits as titanic events occurred around him – distinguished Rather from his earliest days in television news. Rather shows him reporting on a hurricane in Galveston, Texas as a young man. That assignment for a local news station brought him to the attention of CBS News brass, who hired him to be the network’s Dallas bureau chief in 1962. The following year, President Kennedy would make his fateful trip to Dallas with Rather on hand to cover what was supposed to be a routine campaign swing.
“I was in charge of CBS news coverage there that day. I was still a young correspondent, and I was in charge only because everybody was convinced nothing was going to happen,” Rather recalls.
CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, citing Rather’s on-the-scene reporting, shared the bulletin with the nation that President Kennedy had been killed. Not surprisingly, Rather considers what he calls those “four dark days in Dallas” — encompassing the assassination of JFK and then the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald – as the most important breaking news assignment of his life.
“To have that as the responsibility suddenly, and saying to yourself, ‘This is about as important as it gets, so you better try to be the best you can be,’” he recalls, “certainly never be forgotten for me.”
He would go on to cover the Vietnam War, spending about a year in-country total, then became CBS News’ chief White House correspondent, a post that found him sparring on more than one occasion with then President Nixon. Excerpts of Nixon’s secretly recorded Oval Office conversations reveal him obsessing over Rather and trying to find ways to “hit him hard.”
Rather says when he first became aware of the recordings, it wasn’t a complete shock “because members of [Nixon’s] staff had said equivalent things over a long period of time, and [Nixon] made it very clear, one time after another that, let’s say he was not an admirer of my work. I was surprised, quite frankly, at how many times he referred [to me on the tapes]. After all, he’s president of the United States, most powerful man in the world. And to hear him mentioning your name, not once, not twice, but over and over, it wasn’t unsettling, but it was revealing to the extent, well, yes, I knew exactly how he felt, but I didn’t realize that he felt obliged to mention it in his office. It turned out he did.”
Once he succeeded Cronkite in the anchor chair, Rather would have exclusive interviews – and sometimes clashes – with presidents and presidential candidates, like the famous one he did with then-Vice President George H.W. Bush in 1988. That’s documented in the film, as is Rather’s ultimate departure from CBS News which stemmed from his reporting on President George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.
That 2004 report for 60 Minutes II, which alleged the elder Bush had used his influence to keep his son out of active duty in Vietnam, was partly based on documents whose authenticity was later questioned. Eventually, CBS News apologized for relying on possibly forged documents for its report, as did Rather (the controversy overshadowed the question of whether George W. Bush had in fact been shielded from serving in Vietnam).
Rather later sued CBS, alleging he had been made a scapegoat over the controversy and sacrificed to “pacify the [Bush] White House,” but the suit was thrown out. From the vantage point of today, Rather sees his firing in the context of seismic changes in television news.
“For all those years from the [Edward R.] Murrow years and the Cronkite years, and from the very early years of my own being anchor and managing editor for the CBS Evening News, news was viewed as a public service,” he comments. “If it made some money, they were pleased — that is, the owners were pleased — but they saw it as public service. After that, for the industry as a whole — not just at CBS — the original owners of the network news operations sold the properties, or their heirs sold the properties. And with each sale new corporate leadership came in with new ideas about what news could be, should be. And one of the things they decided is, and this was generally across the spectrum at all networks in one way or the other, it became all about the money, no thought of public service.”
If that was the nadir of his career, Rather has enjoyed a remarkable resurgence in recent years. Into his 80s and now 90s, he has continued to pursue journalism and produce documentaries and he’s become a social media star, dispensing pointed and pithy observations to a Twitter following alone of 2.6 million.
“When it was first proposed to me, Dan, if you want to have any semblance of relevance, even microscopic size, you’ve gotta be on the internet, frankly, my first answer to the people who worked with me at the time, was that I was born too early for the internet,” he says. “But they eventually convinced me to try it. I wouldn’t say I was astounded to find an audience on Twitter and Facebook, and then later with the newsletter Steady, but I was very much surprised… I couldn’t have been more surprised if a giraffe had come loping through the room.”
He adds, “I don’t want to sound corny, but it’s true, I really am humbled by it… But at age 91 — be 92 in October — to have people who have no idea what I did on television believe that I’m worth reading, to have this many people do it, well, it’s an honor and I’m humbled by it.”
The documentary makes the case that journalism, for Rather, stems from his sense of patriotism, his sense of obligation to our form of government. Returning to the question of the Trump presidency, he sees real damage having been done to the Fourth Estate, an institution the Founding Fathers considered essential to democratic rule.
“[Trump’s] relentless attacks have had their effect. They’ve damaged public trust in the press. They’ve severely damaged what the press thinks of itself,” Rather maintains. “Mind you, I say this in the context that we in the press, and I certainly include myself in this criticism, we’ve made mistakes. And every time we make a mistake we hurt ourselves.”
He says the news media must not hesitate to use the word “lie” when Trump utters them.
“The press, including myself, had always been reluctant to use the word ‘lie,’” he says. Early in the Trump presidency, he observes, “We almost got to the ridiculous point. You would say, ‘He’s using sophistry,’ or anything to avoid the word ‘lie.’ But at some very important point, hard to pinpoint exactly the date, the press begin to come around and say when a lie is a lie — it’s a provable lie, no ifs and or buts about it — then you need to say so.”
Rather adds, “President Trump, and those who helped him, got the president and everybody else in there discussing, is anything real? Is anything factual? Well, of course the answer is yes, there are things that are factual. Two and two equals four, not five, and water does not run uphill.”
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