Murrow’s Boy

Dan Rather in high definition

The headquarters of Dan Rather Reports is a small, disheveled space just off Times Square in Manhattan, cluttered with temporary office equipment and distinguished by a low drop ceiling that evokes the abode of an insurgency of pamphleteers. In a far corner is Rather’s office. Much of his old furniture has been transplanted from CBS, and a khaki trench coat from his globetrotting days hangs nostalgically in a nook. On a sea chest rests a plaque bearing advice from Benjamin Franklin: “If you would not be forgotten, as soon as you were dead and rotten, either write things worth reading, or do things worth the writing.” Rather is enmeshed in a $70 million breach-of-contract lawsuit against CBS that could help determine how he will be remembered, but the quote registers more as inspiration than epitaph. “I’m still trying to do great journalism,” he told me. “I don’t feel I’ve ever really done that. I keep hoping there’s the potential. Kennedy, Vietnam, Watergate, Afghanistan, any number of exposés for 60 Minutes, Tiananmen Square, 9/11—all of that is part of the record, which is not yet complete.”

Like a lot of things in Rather’s world, Reports was conceived as an ode to his “polar star,” Edward R. Murrow, and specifically as an update on See It Now, Murrow’s landmark television show from the 1950s. Notwithstanding the persistent attempts over the years to decipher Rather’s personality and the odd moments that have pocked his career, his allegiance to Murrow is often missed, or misunderstood. Rather, who turned seventy-seven in October, has been imitating Murrow ever since he was a child bedridden for months with rheumatic fever, inhabiting the universe of Murrow’s radio dispatches from Europe during World War II. When he took over the CBS anchor chair from Walter Cronkite in 1981, Rather decided to “dance with the one that brought me” and emphasize his reporting skills; against many peoples’ advice, he exhumed the reporter-anchor hybrid created by Murrow and made it his own. When George Clooney’s biopic on Murrow, Good Night, and Good Luck, arrived in New York in 2005, Rather saw it immediately—and then he saw it several more times. At the Manhattan premiere, Rather said, he “nearly levitated” from his chair. “It brought back a flood of memories. I was humbled. Here’s Murrow, who could have retired in 1947 and been on everybody’s all-time team, but he didn’t. I was the last person to leave the screening. I wanted to learn.” Rather, of course, was suggesting that in 2004, after CBS eased him off the air over his unsubstantiated report that President Bush got preferential treatment in the Texas Air National Guard, he could have retired, too.

On See It Now, Murrow gave the audience what Rather likes to call “added value”—his high standard for depth and originality. But Murrow was, more essentially, a television pioneer, and a central attraction of Rather’s show is seeing a former stalwart of the establishment, a millionaire and an icon of a decidedly different era, recast in similar terms, on HDNet, a boutique cable channel and with a fraction of his former audience (HDNet has around ten million subscribers, but won’t release numbers for how many watch Reports; when Rather left the anchor chair at CBS Evening News, he had nearly eight million viewers nightly). Playing Rather’s William Paley in this improbable sequel is Mark Cuban, the billionaire Internet entrepreneur who co-founded HDNet hoping to cash in on the high-definition technology craze, and who, in the summer of 2006, plucked Rather from the purgatorial aftermath of his 60 Minutes II report on Bush, offering him carte blanche to develop an investigative news show that would function as a counterpoint to the superficial inclinations of network news. While the analogy isn’t perfect, the show is, surely, a throwback. Many of the twenty-five staff members are exiles from big media companies, happily untethered from the burden of ratings, and the productions have an anachronistic bent: long, sober, and largely advertisement-free documentaries thoroughly devoid of excessive sentiment and the “gets” and “money shots” of prime-time TV. “Cuban deserves a lot of credit. I had my doubts,” Rather told me. “But the only thing he ever said to me was, ‘Have guts and do excellent work.’ ” The effect, Rather claims, has been rejuvenating. “This is sheer joy for me. I’ve never been happier or more satisfied. One reason I’m talking to you is to spread the word.”

It was interesting, given the degree of animus surrounding Rather, to hear him talk about happiness and satisfaction, neither of which has ever been considered indispensable to the Rather brand. One reason I was talking to him was that there was something intriguing about the notion of Dan Rather at peace, even though I had never fully bought the various simplistic characterizations that he had been saddled with over the years, from “bizarro Rather” to “liberal Rather” to “folksy, sentimental Rather.” He dodges most questions that attempt to get at his place in history, but Wayne Nelson, his executive producer on Reports, told me that Rather is “enjoying life for the first time,” and I thought maybe he’d open up and talk candidly about his departure from CBS, and about his most dramatic career moments, many of which are among his most contentious. I wanted to reconcile all the ideas that people have about him with the ideas that he has about himself. I also thought that sooner or later he might revert to form. In June, he’d indicated the possibility of getting exclusive interviews with the presidential candidates for what he called “a sit down, not a debate—a talk about things not normally talked about, like crumbling national infrastructure and schools.” Given his notorious run-ins with politicians—he once publicly mocked President Nixon at a press conference in Houston during the Watergate crisis, and later sparred with vice president George H. W. Bush during an interview about the Iran-Contra scandal—I wondered what might happen if he sat with, say, John McCain, and dug into the senator’s positions on the war in Iraq.

But the idea fizzled. Part of it was no doubt due to HDNet’s stature. “We can’t make the argument for a mass audience,” Rather told me. “I think we have a good argument to make about the quality of audience. But we’re seen as peripheral.” Still, any high-profile interview Rather now seeks is also affected by lingering questions about his reputation that are at the center of his lawsuit against CBS, in which he alleges that he was made the scapegoat for the forged-document scandal at the heart of the Bush story. The gaudiest claim is a kind of Washington conspiracy theory: Rather alleges that Viacom, CBS’s parent company in 2004, fired him to curry favor with the Bush administration and protect its business interests in Washington, which in 2004 included the relaxing of media-ownership laws. “The whole beating heart of the suit,” Rather has said, “is to put some sunlight on a fact—and it is a fact—that these huge conglomerates that control eighty to eighty-five percent of communications need favors in Washington.” Clearly, though, the lawsuit has an additional purpose: to provide a stage for the evidence Rather says he has that proves he and his 60 Minutes II producer, Mary Mapes, got the Bush story right.

One morning in June, I met Rather for breakfast at Nectar, a modest Upper East Side coffee shop where Rather blended into the time-worn surroundings. When talk turned to the lawsuit, he again invoked his polar star. “I’m constantly asking myself, ‘What would Murrow do?’ ” he said. “He spoke truth to the powerful at their height, the great fear inducers.” This was a day after Rather had attended Tim Russert’s funeral and a day before he would head to the Gulf Coast to fish for speckled trout with his grandson. “There’s nothing professionally I like better than getting to the bottom of a big story. Short of the power of subpoena, and the pain of perjury, I’m doing all I can. Either you move forward and have the moxie, or . . .”—he collected himself. “I’m taking on a giant corporation; they spend their stockholders’ money. I had the guts to spend my own money and get to the bottom of this. That’s what that’s about.”

Last summer, Rather lived a kind of double life. When he was in New York he was often away from the office, meeting with attorneys or giving depositions. But then he’d “compartmentalize” and do journalism in bundles. In June alone, he traveled to the Galapagos to report a story on illegal shark-fin hunts; to Colombia, where he interviewed President Uribe about a free-trade agreement that’s in the works; and to Washington, where he met the Venezuelan ambassador and tried to arrange an interview with Hugo Chavez.

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.

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.”

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.”

It was interesting to hear Villanueva—someone unconcerned with the parochial fixations of Washington and Manhattan media cliques—home in on “exposure” and “publicity.” In her calculated approach to professional salvation, she seemed to suggest an alternate, apolitical idea of Rather, based not on all the attempts to “understand” or vilify him (for example, Villanueva knew next to nothing about Rather’s lawsuit), but on something more intriguing: the way, perhaps, that his omnipresence on television in the latter half of the twentieth century branded his visage upon the American psyche. Since 1979, each of Rather’s contracts with CBS included an airtime provision, guaranteeing Rather a considerable amount of prime on-air spots, which was understood as dually beneficial: it increased Rather’s exposure, the lifeblood of a television personality, while bolstering CBS News’s credibility, since the anchor was its personification. As went the fortunes of Dan Rather, in other words, went the fortunes of CBS News. Indeed, the rulings thus far in Rather’s lawsuit leave open the possibility that CBS owes Rather financial damages for breaking its fiduciary duty to him—an extra-contractual, symbiotic relationship based on loyalty and trust. This may help explain why CBS let twelve days pass after the 60 Minutes II report on Bush aired before backtracking from its support of Rather and saying it couldn’t guarantee the authenticity of the documents that indicated Bush got preferential treatment. “Rather was us,” a longtime colleague of Rather’s said to me. “We wanted to see him succeed, and we weren’t into self-immolation.”

It’s worth noting that in the wake of General Westmoreland’s 1982 libel case against CBS, the network assigned one of its own executive producers, Burton Benjamin, to investigate the alleged journalistic transgressions. In 2004, however, the network tapped two outsiders—former attorney general Dick Thornburgh and Louis Boccardi, the former head of The Associated Press—to investigate the Bush story. Their report is published on the Internet for all to see, while CBS had literally begged the presiding judge in the Westmoreland case to not release Benjamin’s findings, calling them “oppressive.”

The disparity underscores not only two vastly different media eras, but informs a final example of Rather’s misreading of his place in the equation. During those awkward twelve days following the 60 Minutes II piece, Rather reported on the fallout from his own story on the Evening News, announcing with a kind of stoic defiance that CBS would stand behind it, as it was based on “a preponderance of evidence.” It is no surprise that Rather helped write the script for many of these shows; the theme is straight from Murrow. Once, during one of our interviews, Rather had mentioned a scene from Good Night, and Good Luck that spoke to his decision to defend the Bush piece even when the walls of his universe were crumbling. It concerned a story on Milo Radulovich, an Air Force reserve officer facing dismissal because of his father’s alleged Communist sympathies. Shortly before the story was to air, an Air Force general and a lieutenant colonel came to visit Fred Friendly, the creator and producer of See It Now, and pressured him not to run it. “He was cold steel to them,” Rather said. “He listened, but he didn’t give them an edge. ‘Let’s not have any misunderstanding,’ he said. ‘We’re doing this piece. Murrow believes in it, you’re not going to talk us out of it.’ ” Rather paused, and then said, “In the old way of doing things, management protected the talent.”

The gas-can story came and went on HDNet; in terms of buzz, a Google News search turns up little more than a few items on an anti-Wal-Mart blog that mentioned the manufacturer’s nonchalant reaction and the fact that Wal-Mart seems to have no plans to pull the product from its shelves. In its finished form, the piece seems to go on and on in an anesthetized state, suggesting the burden of seriousness amid the overwhelming din of digital media. Meanwhile, in September, New York Supreme Court Judge Ira Gammerman dismissed Rather’s fraud claims while allowing his breach-of-contract claim to continue. Thus truncated, even if a trial occurs, it remains to be seen the extent to which Rather will be able to introduce his larger ideological agenda about Viacom’s meddling, or even to rehash certain details of the Bush story based on the new evidence Rather claims he has. Gammerman would likely have to create an exceptionally large evidentiary berth for Rather to broach all the First Amendment questions he says motivated the suit in the first place. His lawyers, though, maintain that CBS misrepresented the agenda of the Thornburgh-Boccardi investigation, which they call “a public administration gimmick to appease the Bush administration and throw Rather under the bus,” and coerced Rather into not continuing to defend the story even though company officials knew there was more to it. Both could theoretically qualify as breaches of fiduciary duty—a claim likely to survive until the suit’s bitter end—based on the expectation of mutual trust that Rather and CBS had developed over the years.

Last July, I was in court when Judge Gammerman issued perhaps the most favorable decision for Rather since his suit began, allowing his attorneys to depose nearly all of the major actors in the case. He alluded to a November trial date, suggesting a certain build-up of momentum. Rather attended this proceeding, entering the courtroom after the endless line of attorneys. He seemed cool and dispassionate, reacting more to Gammerman’s contrarian angst than to the forward or backward sway of argument, which included an unsuccessful attempt by his attorney, Martin Gold, to have released to the media ten documents already produced in depositions that Gold said were “matters of national importance.” A few days later, I received the second of two late-night telephone calls from Rather, and in talking about developments in the case, he passed along a gossip trail that seemed, to him, significant. “I hear a Hollywood producer is thinking about making a movie about all of this. I’m not surprised. You know, there have already been two recent movies about the inner workings of CBS. They both got nominated for an Oscar, and one made $70 million.

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Jesse Sunenblick is a writer who lives in Brooklyn.