I sat next to my friend Ray Richmond, a longtime Hollywood Reporter columnist who also writes the new Past Deadline blog for the trade paper, at HDNet‘s press conference for Dan Rather earlier this week. Ray noted that this new and tiny corner of the increasingly fractionalized TV news world seemed like kind of a sad home for Rather, until recently one of the Kings of Old Media.
”It’s like he used to fight at Madison Square Garden and now he’s fighting at a high-school auditorium,” Ray said. But the former CBS anchor appeared quite pleased with himself and the situation, although his voice did seem to break every time he brought up Edward Murrow. (This he did, early and often.)
Someone mentioned that HDNet owner Mark Cuban has been describing this new venture as “Dan Rather, Unleashed.” So does this mean that before, at CBS, Rather was on a leash? He responded with one of the many cliches Bernard Goldberg listed as well-worn Ratherisms in Bias, Goldberg’s bestseller about liberal media: “You know, I wouldn’t touch that with a 17-foot pole, which is what I use for things I wouldn’t touch with a 12-foot pole,” Rather said. Folksy! Then he added that “the biggest compliment you can pay a man in Texas is to say he’s a hoss. And I’d like to think when it comes to reporting, yeah, I’m a hoss.” Even folksier!
Except, er, what does it mean? If you’re not watching a Bonanza rerun, that is. Ray and I looked at each other. “I’m a fat guy who plays a fake cowboy?” suggested Ray. (To me, not to Rather.)
Over the years I’ve noticed that Rather not only comes up with odd figures of speech himself, he inspires them in others. A few years ago, for instance, the Los Angeles Press Club honored him at its annual journalism awards dinner — and here I have to tell you that one of my least favorite things is a habit some fellow L.A. media types have of referring to gutsy female journalists as “ballsy.” For those unfamiliar with the “if you can’t say something nice…” world of Los Angeles media, let me explain that just making the occasional mildly blunt observation gets this “compliment” regularly thrown your way.
And I always find myself silently thinking in response: “Thanks! And why don’t you add that I have five-o’-clock shadow and male-pattern baldness and really make my day?”
So I wasn’t entirely unsympathetic to feminist attorney Gloria Allred, who introduced Rather at that L.A. Press Club ceremony, when she got up at the dais and announced: “To Dan Rather, for enduring the attacks of Bill O’Reilly et al: Dan Rather… you got breasts!” Still, it’s got to be one of the weirder turns of phrase I’ve ever heard.
At the HDNet press conference, someone brought up the whole question of the liberal baggage Rather brings to his stories. And we were off and running.
“Yes, I have baggage,” Rather began. “I have baggage of being a graduate of the journalism school out of the University of South Vietnam! I have baggage from the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham. I have baggage from Watergate, and covering — as the White House and lead correspondent for CBS News — the only president in history who resigned. I have baggage from Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded it. I have baggage from two on-sea interviews with Saddam Hussein. You bet your life I’ve got a lot of baggage. And make no mistake, I’m proud of it.”
Wow, I thought, that’s a lot of baggage. I wonder how much you’re supposed to tip the guy who carries it up to your room? But Rather wasn’t done yet. Far from it.
“Some of what you describe as quote-unquote baggage comes from people who have the following view, which they’re entitled to have (this, God bless it, is America, and you can have it) but their view is: ‘Listen, Mr. (or Ms.), you report the news the way I want it reported, or I’m going to make you pay a price. I’m going to hang a sign around your head that says you were a bomb-throwing Bolshevik or something. And I’m going to mount a sizeable and very effective smear campaign against you.’”
“Now this doesn’t only happen to me. If you’ve seen Good Night, and Good Luck” — which Rather has five times, the New York Times reported last month when it broke the story of the news anchor’s move to HDNet — “you know what I’m talking about. I should be lucky enough to live to the day that I can walk in the same room with Ed Murrow, but I can’t, and nobody before or since him could.”
Well, of course not, I thought, because Murrow’s dead, so no one can walk in the same room with him anymore. But Ray reminded me that Rather once told him he often used to see and talk to Murrow’s ghost roaming the CBS hallways when he was working late there some nights. So I suppose in that case, they have walked in the same room, in a Sixth Sense manner of speaking.
“But there’s the model for things,” Rather continued. “If you’re determined to be fiercely independent when necessary and say ‘No, Sir, (or Ma’am), I’m not going to report the news the way you want it reported. I’m not going to be bullied or intimidated. I’m not going to back up, back down, or back away to meet your partisan, political, or ideological agenda — I’m going to play to my bias for independent news,’ now, when you face the furnace, you’re going to take the heat.”
“Sometimes I’ve had people tell me, ‘Dan, this is not healthy for your career,’” he added. “Well, my answer to that is, to hell with the career. I didn’t get into journalism as a careerist. I’m not going to go out of journalism as a careerist. So yes, I’m biased about doing independent journalism. And you bet I’m prejudiced. I’m prejudiced toward reporters — and America is filled with reporters who want to do the right thing…News, real news, is a wake-up call, not a lullaby. And I’m not in the lullaby business.”
I thought that if this had been a movie or TV show, there would have been much applause and probably even a standing ovation at the end of Rather’s ornate and emotional crescendo. Even though it was just a real-life press conference, I half expected at least a little scattered applause. Because after all the room was filled with reporters, and we do like to be flattered about our independence and such.
But this was the Television Critics Association, which means the room was filled with grumpy old entertainment industry reporters. So people just reached for more pretzels.
– Catherine Seipp is a writer in California who publishes the weblog Cathy’s World. She is an NRO contributor.