The other night Dan Rather was back in center ring. In an hour long interview with CNN's Larry King. Rather spoke with quiet fury about the suits at CBS who treated him, a 44-year employee, so disgracefully. It turns out that at the end, it was the lawyers--not actor-turned corporate honcho Leslie Moonves--who told Rather "we just don't have a place for you." But, as Rather understood--as has anyone watching the networks these last years--CBS News is a cog in an entertainment company.
"There came a time," he told King (who also works for an entertainment company with a news division) " when I realized...that we were working for not CBS and not CBS News. We were working for Viacom News...a larger entertainment company....but I want to do news that matters. And so much of the news these days...it's so driven by ratings, so driven by demographics, so driven by, we used to be told stockholder value. It's driven by things other than the public interest. I want to do news that's fair and accurate, do it with integrity and I want to do it in the public interest."
In one of the more interesting exchanges, Rather talked about 60 Minutes's controversial broadcast about Bush's National Guard record.
King: "You're saying that was a fair report, I mean that was--you believe that report to this day?" Rather: Do I believe the truth of the story? Absolutely.
Rather added, "...We had a lot, a lot of corroboration..it wasn't just the documents. But it's a very old technique used when those who don't like what you're reporting, believe it can be hurtful, then they look for the weakest spot and attack it, which is fair enough." But, he added, " It's a diversionary technique."
Rather is right.
In the days after "60 Minutes" aired its September 2004 report raising tough questions about President Bush's pampered "service" in the Texas National Guard, the heart of the story was obscured by a rightwing blog-fueled controversy over the authenticity of the so-called Killian memos. Instead of asking the White House tough questions about the well-documented information contained in the broadcast, too much of the media focused almost exclusively on the claims and counter-claims made about the disputed documents.
To be sure, Rather and his producers played into the hands of a Bush spin machine that, to this day,remains expert at peddling the lie that a liberal media is out to distort the president's record. As The Nation's John Nichols wrote at the time, "By relying on a few documents that were not adequately verified, CBS handed White House political czar Karl Rove exactly what he needed to steer attention away from the real story." But it always remained true, as Rather said at the time, that " Those who have criticized aspects of our story have never criticized the heart of it...that George Bush received preferential treatment to get into the National Guard and, once there, failed to satisfy the requirements of his service." The basic story was, in fact, well-reported by Texas columnist Molly Ivins and investigative reporter Lou Dubose almost five years before CBS's report. And in the days before and after 60 Minutes broadcast, the AP, the Boston Globe and US News & World Report all raised new questions about Bush's military record. Though each of these stories, as a good report by FAIR pointed out at the time (Sept 14, 2004), were "accompanied by significant official documentation, developments in the investigations by AP, US News and the Globe [were] largely sidetracked by the fixation on questions about the authenticity of documents aired on CBS on September 8." As FAIR's report concluded, It was like "the equivalent of covering the sideshow and ignoring the center ring."
Here's a modest editorial idea for Rather. Now that you're back with a weekly news program on Mark Cuban's HDNet TV-- and with the editorial freedom and mandate to do tough investigative reports, how about documenting the full story about the White House coverup of George W. Bush's military service?
Katrina vanden Heuvel has been The Nation's editor since 1995 and publisher since 2005.
She is the co-editor of "Taking Back America--And Taking Down The Radical Right" (NationBooks, 2004) and, most recently, editor of "The Dictionary of Republicanisms" (NationBooks, 2005).
© 2006 The Nation