During a break, I asked Rather what he found so appealing about the gas-can story, which he’d previously suggested was a perfect example of what made working at HDNet so rejuvenating. “Well, gasoline containers are killing and maiming people. There’s a way to fix it. And it’s not very expensive,” he said. “The question to the powerful is, Why hasn’t it been done? When we get to the end, there may be good answers. If so, we want to hear them. But up to now, by and large, the questions haven’t been asked.”
The idea of speaking truth to power, however hackneyed that phrase has become, is in the DNA of all investigative journalism, but for Rather its significance can seem transcendent, even caricaturized. Rather’s conception of the idea comes straight from Murrow, but the strain with which he often expressed it at CBS—brow furrowed, eyes urgent—speaks to the degree that being Dan Rather, anchor of CBS Evening News, constrained his ability to openly express it. The cult of Murrow, in general, translates discordantly these days—part of the success of Good Night is surely due to how improbable it all seems in today’s media world—and for Rather the effect of his Murrow modeling was often that of supreme effort yielding mixed results. This is apparent in the episodes of questionable judgment and melodrama that punctuate his career—his domineering interview with vice president George H. W. Bush during Iran-Contra, for example, or his decision to walk off the set in protest of the U.S. Open’s intrusion into his coverage of Pope John Paul II’s visit to America. The interesting thing about Rather is that this tension arguably produced some of his best work. There is the sense, when watching the Bush interview, for example, of a man doing full battle with himself, straining to invoke some Murrowesque ideal in an era in which its meaning had been distorted. It makes for excellent TV:
BUSH: Let’s be careful here.
RATHER: I want you to be careful . . . . I don’t want to be argumentative, Mr. Vice President.
BUSH: (smirking) Yes you do, Dan.
To some extent, Rather’s fate was a matter of timing. Soon after he took over the Evening News in 1981, the program underwent a full-scale conversion, as Van Gordon Sauter, the swashbuckling new president of CBS News, morphed the show from a straightforward presentation of headlines into an obsessively honed quest for viewers. “I got involved in research, in the interpretation of research, the advertising, the peripheral messages we conveyed, that Dan conveyed, the slogans we had, the graphics,” Sauter told me. “It was very important to us because we had a change in image. As we were changing the broadcast we were changing the image of the broadcast, the image of CBS News.” A few years later, this trend accelerated and expanded: the bottom-line-driven Lawrence Tisch took over CBS, the news division began to shrink, and the networks entered a destructive struggle with cable news that continues to this day.
Through all of this, there was the sense that the covenant between Rather and CBS meant different things to each party—that what was interpreted as a commodity by CBS was, for Rather, the essence of “tough journalism.” “This is a guy who they brought in to be the aggressor,” a longtime colleague of Rather’s told me. “Audiences always had a mixed reaction because he was so tough on presidents. There was nobody quite like him. CBS embraced that.” Rather, meanwhile, never saw his aggressive style as maudlin or marketable; he simply saw it as being hard-nosed and driven to uncover truth—as being like Murrow. “People used to say, ‘You need to stop thinking like a reporter and more like an anchor,’ ” he told me. “But my plan—and it worked—was to keep doing what had gotten me the job: reporter and anchor. I was a student of Murrow. He was a bold, vigorous investigative reporter. I knew—like Murrow knew—that you want to signal the viewer with a constant beacon that the person bringing you the news is passionately involved in gathering the news. On TV, if you’re on every night, the audience will pick up who and what you are. It’s a big mistake to hide that—they’ll know. I wanted to keep the trust of the audience.
“Like Popeye, I yam what I yam.”