Later that same month, Rather and a producer, Mishi Ibrahim, went to Kansas City to report a story on a spate of exploding gas cans that Rather called “ticking time bombs.” The plastic gas cans had been manufactured without a flame arrester, a metal shield that could have stopped the vapor trails from backtracking, ignited, into the can, and Rather’s report, like many Dan Rather Reports stories, had a 60 Minutes feel—a morality tale culminating in a moment of truth when, on cue, an expert (in this case Lori Hasselbring, a chemical engineer) demonstrates how a flame arrester could have prevented the gas cans from blowing up. This contradicted statements by the manufacturer, Blitz USA, and the primary distributor, Wal-Mart, that insisted such internal combustion wasn’t possible. If it wasn’t as glamorous as a confrontation with a president, it had a populist, investigative bent that Rather said brought its own kind of pleasure.
Rather has always seen himself as a reporter, and central to the narrative of his rebirth at HDNet is the notion that he is returning to his roots—he cut his teeth covering the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War for CBS—without the political and bureaucratic obstacles of working within a huge corporation. “What we have to sell here is quality journalism,” he told me. “We play no favorites. We pull no punches. What we have is absolute editorial freedom.” Cuban added: “The show is a hundred percent his.” To be sure, Cuban’s management style is entirely hands-off, even when the heat comes down, as it did last year after Reports broke the story about potential safety problems with Boeing’s new Dreamliner airplane (which the company subsequently delayed in bringing to market after trying to marginalize the story’s main source, a former Boeing employee). The story generated considerable debate; Wired’s science blog, for instance, questioned the veracity of the report, saying Rather had taken a “cheap shot” at Boeing by alleging that the composite material used in the plane’s construction was likely to shatter and emit poisonous fumes on impact. “Perhaps this is part of an attempt by Rather to make a comeback after the debacle that resulted in his departure from CBS News,” suggested Aaron Rowe, the author of the Wired post.
I was interested in what all this freedom meant to Rather, and so I went to Kansas City to meet him as he reported the gas-can story. HDNet’s travel department was no match for the purchasing power at CBS, and declined to pay for his room at the posh InterContinental hotel. Instead, Rather flew to Texas and spent the night with family members, arriving in Kansas City early the following morning. Rather is keen on stealthy entries and exits (a hired car typically shuttles him promptly to and from secondary entrances), and though I kept a vigil from the lobby for his arrival, he managed to elude me. I ended up hearing him first—his familiar timbre resonating somewhere on the second floor, near where Ibrahim had commandeered a conference room for interviews.
In the conference room, Rather dutifully plied his star routine for a clearly star-struck audience. This included Hasselbring, the engineer, as well as Diane Breneman, an attorney for several people who had been burned by the exploding gas cans. During his interviews with Hasselbring and Breneman, Rather read questions prepared by Ibrahim, his producer, who sat behind a camera watching the proceedings play out and offering direction whenever Rather missed a beat. “I need Lori to explain the flammability range issue,” she said at one point. “It’s very rare you have the right combination of factors.” Rather jotted down something on his note pad, and then repeated the question verbatim. Occasionally, Rather veered from the script and told a story or a joke. At one point, he commented on Breneman’s shiny black heels, which she’d bought in New York City for the occasion. “I recognize all women’s shoes,” Rather said. “Back when I was a reporter in Houston, the murder capital of the USA, a detective once said of murder suspects, ‘Show me their shoes, their women, and their cars.’ ” The reminiscence led him to describe his upbringing around “all these oil hands, who all had their sayings about women: ‘Never drink with a tattooed woman called Tanker.’ ‘Never lay down with a woman who has more trouble than you do.’ ”
“We need to keep this going,” Ibrahim said.