with gallery, video: Dan Rather discusses his life in journalism at the Michigan Theater
- Saline baseball forces one-inning conference championship playoff and more Monday results
- Michigan football golf outing caps $1 million fundraising weekend for Mott Children's Hospital
- Michigan softball advances to super regional with 3-1 win over California
- Pair of Lauren Sweet home runs lift Michigan softball past California
More than 650 people gathered in the Michigan Theater’s main auditorium on Monday evening to hear newsman Dan Rather give his take on historical and current events, his career, and the state of American journalism for a little more than an hour.
“What I wanted to do with the book is put the kind of stories that I tell my family and friends, when we’re around the fireplace, or maybe late at night, when somebody would say, ‘Dan, what really happened when you were at the Kennedy assassination? Or, what was it really like to cover Vietnam? What was it really like to interview Saddam Hussein?’” Rather explained.
The book takes a broad view of the veteran television journalist’s career, but about a quarter of it focuses on the controversy surrounding Rather’s story about George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard Service, and Rather’s subsequent exit from CBS News.
“I found myself in a bit of a dilemma,” said Rather. “I wanted to write this book about true stories about life in the news, and I realized, if I didn’t put those unfortunate times in the book, somebody’d say, ‘Well, you ducked and dodged.’ If I did put them in, (people) would be wholly concentrated on that and nothing else.”
And indeed, there’s lots more to talk about. Having interviewed every president since Eisenhower, Rather has had a front-line perspective on some of the biggest stories and historical events of the last half century, including the civil-rights movement.
Rather talked about CBS News’ controversial choice to show footage of black Southern protesters being blasted with hoses and attacked by police dogs. As people across the country watched these images in their living rooms, many were horrified; but others began to say the “C” in CBS stood for “communist” or “colored.” And local affiliates throughout the South threatened to drop their affiliation with the network.
“I remember, as a reporter, the first time I saw (a KKK meeting),” Rather said. “It was jaw-dropping scary. And all I could think about was, if I, as a white (person), see this and chills run down my spine, what must it feel like for a family of African Americans with children?”
As for the current state of journalism, Rather argued that there’s a crisis born of the “corporate-ization, politicalization, and trivialization of the news.” But the first question from the audience centered on our future in Afghanistan.
Another audience member asked about the decision to air the Abu Ghraib story.
“This is the story nobody wanted to be true, including myself,” said Rather. “ This was the simple thing that convinced us to run the story: What was happening in Abu Ghraib prison was well known in Iraq. Iraqis knew what was going on there. It was well known by the Russians, it was well known by the Syrians, it was well known by almost everybody except the American people. And to say to ourselves, we’re going to self-censor our show, we know tbis stuff is going on, but we’re not going to let anybody know what’s going on—no American reporter would hold back on that story.”
Here’s Rather answering a question about the future of American journalism.
This led to a two-pronged question about Britain’s News Corp. scandal, and the rise of female war correspondents.
One member of the audience asked Rather about how the nature of his work inevitably repelled and antagonized people.
“If you cover big, controversial stories, you’re going to have to face the furnace and take the heat, and I have,” said Rather. “And I have the scars to show for it. Some of them are self-inflected, some of them are still open wounds. But I wouldn’t trade for anything, because the opposite of that is mediocrity. I can’t stand mediocrity.”
Regarding Rather’s post-9/11 appearance on “The Late Show with David Letterman,” a man asked why Rather said, on that show, that we shouldn’t question our government in that time.
“If you’re a pro, you can’t let your own emotions get ahold of you,” said Rather. “You have to be laser beam focused on what your job is. So the same kind of emotions most people are experiencing at the time, you push down deep within yourself and say, ‘I’ve got a job to do.’ That’s what I did. Now, when I got on the Letterman program, much to my great surprise, the grief, the anger, the outrage, the deep feelings for all the families that suffered, all that stuff (came to the surface.) I can only tell you that I don’t apologize for grief. And what I was going through at that moment on the Letterman program was grief.”
“ I do think that in the wake of that, and here’s where I’m very critical of myself, as well as many of my compatriots, in the roll-up to the Iraqi war, we didn’t do, I didn’t do, what we should have done. There was a reluctance to ask the tough question. There was a reluctance to say, ‘Listen, this doesn’t add up.’”
For aspiring journalists, Rather had two bits of wisdom to offer.
“Understand two things: that you must burn with a hot, hard flame wanting to do it,” he said. “You have to have passion to make it in journalism. Certainly to make it at any level where you can consistently make a living. That’s number one. And if you don’t have that passion, or you don’t think you can develop that passion, you really should get into something else. Number two, understand that writing is the bedrock of the craft. Whether it’s television, radio, or newspaper writing, if you want a career in journalism, then dedicate yourself to making yourself the best writer you can be, and to be an ever-improving writer. If you do so, and have a passion, I can’t guarantee you’re going to make a lot of money and become a well-known name. But you will always be able to make a living.”
Finally, when addressing the George W. Bush Texas Air National Guard story that led to Rather’s departure from CBS, Rather said, “We reported a true story. You may want to argue about the process, how we got to the truth. These are facts. It’s not a matter of our opinion. One, a young George Bush got into the Texas Air National Guard through his father’s influence to avoid the risk of going to Vietnam. You can like it or not like it—it’s a fact. Fact two: after he took on this responsibility and was trained as a pilot, a six year commitment, he disappeared for over a year. Ask anybody in the service what happens to you if you disappear overnight, never mind for over a year. There’s no joy in reporting the story, but it’s the story.”
Rather also mentioned that media magnate Sumner Redstone, now CBS Executive Chairman, mentioned in 2004 that he supported Republicans and that they were, in his opinion, best for the company.
“He’s free to say that,” said Rather. “It’s a free country. There’s nothing wrong in saying that. What’s wrong is creating an atmosphere in the company where people below you think, ‘Oh, that’s what the boss wants, so therefore we better be very careful if we report anything that’s contrary to that.’”
The last question focused on the benefits and dangers of Wikileaks, and while Rather saw both sides, he said that in the end, “Journalism is not a pure science. It’s a kind of crude art. So put me down on the side of, when in doubt, put it in the open. Let people decide.”
As audience members lined up to have Rather sign a copy of his new book, many exchanged memories of watching him on television—including seeing him punched while reporting from the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and watching anchorman Walter Cronkite, in a rare moment of on-air anger, consequently call the assailants “thugs.”
“I feel like (Rather's book is) a summary of my lifetime,” said Dexter’s Kathie Sandmaier. “I’m going to have my kids read it. He’s a national treasure, and it’s worth coming out for somebody like that.”
“I was a reporter at Dallas for 10 years,” said Ann Arbor’s Jim Walker. “CBS fired me for one of same concepts that Rather talks about—the corporate-ization of news, and some of the things that I refused to do for the company. So what he says in the book really resonates with me. And I’m just fascinated by him, period, and all the things that he’s covered throughout the last 60 years. Just an amazing, amazing career.”
And because Rather had to turn away some questioners, due to time constraints, it seemed that many in the crowd felt, as did Ann Arbor’s Rosalie Karunas, that they “could have listened to him longer.”
What did Karunas find most compelling? “His observations on journalism and the value of free, unencumbered speech that isn’t beholden to the kind of institutionalization that he referred to. It’s a good perspective that we need to hear. I see him as a person of integrity.”