Wednesday, June 13, 2012 |
First aired on The Current (11/06/12)
In six decades as a journalist, American newsman Dan Rather has carved out a storied, highly decorated career that few of his peers have been able to achieve. He joined CBS News in the early 1960s, following in the footsteps of other great broadcast reporters like Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. For more than 20 years, he anchored CBS Evening News, while also contributing to the network's iconic investigative program.
But he left CBS amid a torrent of controversy in 2005, after going to air with a story that George W. Bush, U.S. President at the time, had gone AWOL during his service with the Texas Air National Guard. The Bush administration accused Rather and his team of basing the story on false and inaccurate military memos. The CBS journalists held firm, but the network's corporate side relented under political pressure, according to Rather.
Seven years after the end of his CBS days, Rather has now written a memoir called Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News, in which he chronicles his career and shares his side of the story on what happened at the network.
"The story we reported was true," Rather said on The Current during a recent interview. "Fact one: that a young George Bush got into a special so-called 'champagne unit' of the Texas Air National Guard through his father's influence to ensure he wouldn't have to go Vietnam. Unpleasant truth, but absolutely true, never been denied by the president himself."
Rather went on to add another pertinent fact. "Number two: once he got into the service, again there's no dispute about this, he disappeared for a year. Anybody who knows the military knows you don't disappear for a day, or a day and a half, without being accountable for it, so we reported those truths. They were tough truths. People who didn't want these truths well known attacked the process by which we arrived at this story."
Rather believed the documents to be true, and to this day, believes they were "what they were purported to be." He also said the team had supporting evidence that strengthened their conviction about the story's veracity.
But the corporate higher-ups at CBS weren't interested in journalism. They were trying to do as much damage control as possible to protect their relationships in Washington, Rather said. He remembers hearing about a meeting between the head of the news division and the head of the corporation division. The news president told them the story was true. He was told, "That's not the point."
"If that's not the point, what is the point of reporting?" Rather said.
In the end, the news anchor was pressured into apologizing on-air. He apologized for having been "misled on the key question of how our source for the documents came into possession of these papers." But he never apologized for the content of the story itself.
"The apology was a mistake, because it was taken as a retraction of the story, which it wasn't," he said.
Upon reflection, Rather says this wasn't the first time the network shrank from a major story out of fear of Washington retaliation.
"We did the worldwide exclusive on Abu Ghraib, exposed it, which was delayed one week after another for far too long a period. And why it was delayed had to do with the corporate body that owned the news operation. [They] thought it was too controversial, would cause trouble in Washington. Looking back it was pretty clear to me that was the beginning of the end. As I write in the book, it was the first nudge, if not shove towards the door."
Rather has moved on and now hosts Dan Rather Reports on HDNet, a TV station launched by billionaire Mark Cuban. In a media environment filled with what he calls politicized and corporatized news, he's back to being the straight-talking newsman he always tried to be.
"I have total, complete, absolute editorial and creative freedom, and I do a weekly news program where I can concentrate on deep-digging, investigative reports."