In 1958, Murrow delivered a speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association that presaged Rather’s predicament, in which he chastised CBS for pandering to television’s insulated masses after See It Now was removed, during a quiz-show craze, from its regular time slot and aired as a series of specials. The speech came to be seen as a warning about corporate excess. And by the time a clinically depressed Mike Wallace prepared to take the witness stand in 1985 to defend 60 Minutes against accusations that its exposé, “The Uncounted Enemy,” had libeled General William Westmoreland by accusing him of distorting the strength of Communist forces in Vietnam, the role of the correspondent was understood—at least within the entertainment companies that had swallowed TV news operations—to be of primary importance not for its journalistic prowess but for providing a handsome face to be exploited with close-ups and dramatic cuts in a postmodern form of debate. “It made Wallace crazy that George Crile, his producer, was the central defendant,” said Lowell Bergman, who was Wallace’s producer during 60 Minutes’s next big scandal, involving a self-censored report on the Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation, depicted in the 1999 movie The Insider as proof of the destruction of the barrier between corporate and editorial. “It presented the reality that correspondents aren’t reporters.”
In his lawsuit, Rather both utilizes and eschews this “reality.” He says he was off covering Hurricane Frances when crucial decisions were made about the National Guard story, thus distancing himself from its production, and yet claims the ensuing scandal hurt his reputation as a reporter. Following him around at HDNet, I saw this disconnect, between how Rather sees himself and how others see him, repeatedly on display. At a sold-out interview with Scott McClellan, the former Bush administration press secretary, at the Ninety-second Street Y in Manhattan, Rather’s stature as a commodity on the anti-Bush front clearly fed the audience’s bellows whenever McClellan said something juicy. On another occasion, after an interview with New York Congressman Gary Ackerman about delays in resettling Iraqi refugees in America, the congressman’s entire staff—interns, volunteers, secretaries—giddily gathered with Rather for a photo op.
In Kansas City, this paradox was driven home more directly. Rather had been introduced to the gas-can story by Mary Lyn Villanueva, the co-owner of Flagler Productions, a video production company based in Lenexa, outside of Kansas City. For more than twenty years, Flagler had been paid by Wal-Mart to record its executive events; when that handshake agreement was scuttled in 2006, Flagler (for whom the Wal-Mart contract tallied 95 percent of its income) was left all but bankrupt—until the company realized that its video library might fetch a tidy sum on the open market. After Wal-Mart declined to buy the library for $150 million, Villanueva began leaking segments to the television media, hoping to create a market for her product (at $250 per viewing hour) among attorneys engaged in a range of anti-Wal-Mart litigation. The videos—featuring cross-dressing executives slapping each others’ rears, and a pep talk encouraging middle managers to bankroll the company’s political action committee—became a cable-news sensation, most tellingly on CNBC, which promoted a segment with the news scroll, “Coming Up Next: Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” then admitted: “Actually, there’s no sex and lies, but there is videotape!”
The media swoon left Flagler disenchanted. “All they wanted were sound bites,” said Villanueva, “but this was a far more serious issue than guys dancing in women’s underwear.” Flagler sought a more sober reporter to purchase exclusive rights to the library’s crown jewels: a pair of videos in which Wal-Mart employees joked about the gas cans’ propensity to blow up. Enter Rather, whose program had earlier used the Flagler tapes to produce a report, “Wal-Mart Goes to Washington,” on the retailer’s linking of donations by store managers to its corporate pac to a safety-net initiative for its lowest-paid employees. I asked Villanueva, who is fifty, why she chose to place her company’s best prospect for financial rebirth in the hands of an aging newsman who had been exiled from the mainstream for what some consider dereliction of duty. “I can’t remember a time without Dan Rather being on TV,” she said. “Back in the day, there were only three stations. Those were the icons. When things got tough in America, those were the people you trusted to deliver. He brings a lot of credibility—almost like family. In today’s world, there’s so much choice, so much spin. And I don’t associate spin with Dan Rather.” Then she got to a larger point. “We want this story to get lots of exposure. He is Dan Rather, and he told us, once this story gets done, maybe he can go on Larry King or the Today show and generate some publicity.”