Dan Rather has reached an agreement to leave CBS after 44 years with the network. During the vast majority of that time, Rather was seen as the face of the old and respected media outlet.
Rather covered everything from the Kennedy Assassination and Vietnam to 21st century terrorism.
He has interviewed everyone from Clinton to Saddam.
He is regarded as one of the best broadcast journalists in history, with his name having been a source of security and truth in almost every American household for almost a half century.
But he lent his voice to one other piece of coverage that casts a shadow, though unfortunately, over his career when he narrated the 60 Minutes Wednesday broadcast on President Bush’s military record in September, 2004. The true tragedy: except for his “talking head” role in reporting the story, Rather failed to play almost any role its production. He didn’t even attend the screening of the piece before it aired.
In his farewell broadcast this past weekend, Rather expressed disappointment that his recent role within CBS had been cut. He was reporting about half as much for 60 Minutes as he had previous to the September broadcast. It may, however, have been his distinguished career over 44 years that saved him from a far worse fate.
And that’s how it happens.
For the record, the 60 Minutes report on the president’s military service in the Texas Air National Guard has never been irrefutably disproved, though CBS admits they “failed to follow basic journalistic principles in the preparation and reporting” of the September 8, 2004 broadcast.
This situation has been referred to as Rathergate, but Dan Rather was not fired or even removed from his anchor and reporter roles–though he would leave the anchor role a year earlier than planned. Four people did go however: Senior Vice President Betsy West, Executive Producer Josh Howard, Senior Broadcast Producer Mary Murphy, and producer Mary Mapes. The former three were asked to resign. The ladder, Mapes, was the only one immediately fired. Mapes produced the widely discredited piece.
To this day, Mapes stands by her story. She has even written a book, in which she defends her reporting on 60 Minutes Wednesday. I was recently privy to a conversation between Mapes and a former CBS employee in which Mapes called the entire situation a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
People screwed up.
Even if Mapes is right; Even if everything reported in the piece was correct; Mapes, West, Howard, Murphy and Rather screwed up and allowed their accuracy to have the chance to be rebutted. No judgment will be cast by this reporter on whether or not they deserved their fate, but verdict is rendered in their disregard for the basics.
They all sacrificed the total verification of their word for journalistic demons like speed and ratings. In an effort to be the first to break a “real” story about President Bush’s supposed sweetheart deal in the Texas Air National Guard, (and possibly in an effort to not disturb entertainment programming ratings) CBS rushed the release of the September 8 report. One former CBS employee even told me that the network didn’t want to push back the date of the report’s airing in order to avoid bumping shows like Dr. Phil.
So the team put the story together without making 100 percent certain it was nailed down. Dan Rather, having put a tragic amount of trust into his production team, became the face of the story. The rest is and will be judged by history.
When it came to broadcast news, Edward R. Murrow was right:
To those who say people wouldn’t look; they wouldn’t be interested; they’re too complacent, indifferent and insulated, I can only reply: There is, in one reporter’s opinion, considerable evidence against that contention. But even if they are right, what have they got to lose? Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing but to entertain, amuse and insulate, then the tube is flickering now and we will soon see that the whole struggle is lost.