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Book Notes

September 6, 2012

Rather's book is a fun read

COOPERSTOWN — There have been a lot of great news reporters over the years. The good ones have some common attributes such as integrity, selflessness and admiration from their peers and audiences. Controversy is something that doesn’t seem to get attached to them. If they have an opinion it’s normally well respected.

When one thinks of the gold standard in reporters, it’s usually someone like Walter Cronkite. Cronkite, who grew up in Texas, hosted the “CBS Evening News” from 1962 until 1981. Those were the days before 24-hour cable news networks and blowhards who thought “news” was whenever they opened their mouths. Most people got their national news from the three major networks back in those days and Cronkite was so well respected that he was called “the most trusted man in America.”

Bob Schieffer is another popular newsman who also once anchored the “CBS Evening News” and currently hosts “Face the Nation.” It’s hard to find anyone who has a bad thing to say about him. He simply reports the news with his folksy Texas accent in a straightforward manner. No controversy there.

Jim Lehrer hosts the “NewsHour on PBS.” Everyone likes him. Maybe it’s because he’s also from Texas, but his chief goal seems to be to never offend anybody. He has a good track record and remains popular and admired.

It’s too bad that all reporters couldn’t have the appeal and respect of Cronkite, Schieffer, and Lehrer. Today, with the flood of cable news burying the network newscasts to the point where it seems that nobody is watching them, ratings are the only thing that count. Putting the best looking or most obnoxious personality in the anchor chair appears to be more important than the news itself.

One of the best-known newsmen today doesn’t qualify for the gold standard. Dan Rather is also from Texas and a former long-time “CBS Evening News” anchor but that’s about all he has in common with his brethren. If the others avoided controversy, Rather attracted it like fruit flies on a banana. Whether it was making stupid comments to a sitting president or getting beat up by a raving lunatic, Rather always managed to be the story instead of the one reporting it.

In 1973, during the Watergate scandal, he was at a formal press conference with President Nixon. When his turn came to ask a question and he announced his name and network, the audience of Nixon supporters booed. Nixon, who hated Rather’s guts, quipped “Are you running for something, Mr. Rather?” Rather replied, “No sir, Mr. President, are you?”

It was a “clever” response from a supposedly objective reporter. Nobody remembers Rather’s actual question or anything else about that entire press conference except for his “witty” retort. Cronkite, Schieffer or Lehrer would never have made such a sarcastic remark. Of course, they wouldn’t have been booed; either, even by Nixon lovers. The irony is that Rather pulled another faux pas when he started crying on the air after Nixon’s resignation speech in 1974.

Despite his controversial actions Rather was seen as the logical successor to Cronkite when the latter retired in 1981.

Most of his 24-year reign passed unremarkably but there were some incidents. He appeared on the cover of Time magazine as the CBS “$8 million man,” wasn’t too thrilled when the network stuck a female co-host on the air with him, and got into a spat with George Bush (Sr.) during a live interview.

However, the most bizarre incident was when some deranged individual targeted and assaulted him on the streets of New York City in 1986. That was unintentional publicity but still it put his name in the news instead of behind it.

In 2004 Rather’s career at CBS began to unravel when he got mixed up in an interview with someone who claimed to have documented proof that President Bush (“W”) had not fulfilled his commitment to the Air National Guard. Bush supporters questioned the authenticity of the documents and the whole story blew up whether it was true or not. Instead of the issue being primarily about Bush’s military service it once again became all about Dan Rather. His career at CBS ended a couple of years later under antagonistic circumstances.

Rather’s rather bizarre career makes his recent autobiography, “Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News,” a compelling and attractive read. You don’t have to like or agree with him to enjoy the book. He has known and interviewed many of the heavyweights in the news, and reported from many of the hot spots around the world. Those alone make his screed a worthwhile read.

He trashes CBS News to no end and whether you believe him or not, you get the feeling that the network deserves the criticism. There is little doubt that once the three major networks were bought up by multinational conglomerates that news took a backseat to ratings and kissing up to the regulators in Washington. Those accusations ring true.

Rather’s review of the presidents he knew is actually quite educational and one of the best parts of his book. His description of Afghanistan from both a historical and personal perspective is also enlightening.

I went into reading “Rather Outspoken” with an open-mind and came out of it the same way. It gets a little tiresome hearing him call everyone who supported him “the best in the business” and those that opposed him “backstabbers.”

He also gets a bit too schmaltzy when discussing his current show, “Dan Rather Reports,” and his fondness for Mark Cuban.

Overall though, Rather’s book is a fun read. It’s a trip down memory lane and lets us know, for better or worse, why Dan Rather was there for a good part of it. He may end up being remembered more as a celebrity than a newsman, but in that sense he was a trailblazer. In today’s media world that’s considered a badge of honor.

David Kent is the Director of the Village Library of Cooperstown.  He can be reached at co.david@4cls.org.

 

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