'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Dan Rather ('Truth')

The legendary TV newsman, now 84, reflects on his life, the state of news and the controversy that ended his career at CBS News and inspired a film: "I didn't think then, I haven't thought since then and I don't think now there was any reasonable doubt about the documents."
Christopher Patey
Dan Rather

"I recognize that I set before you a reputation," says Dan Rather, the legendary TV newsman who is portrayed by Robert Redford in the divisive new film Truth, as we sit down to record an episode of my "Awards Chatter" podcast. "I've made my mistakes and have my wounds, some of them open, some of them self-inflicted. A lot of that comes from covering controversial stories. You cover the Civil Rights movement at a time when it's a very controversial movement, you cover the Vietnam War, you cover the widespread criminal conspiracy known as Watergate, and a certain segment of partisan political American life says, 'This guy — he's got an agenda!' My own agenda — all it's ever been — is to try to bear witness to what I see."

(You can play and read the conversation below or by clicking here you can download it and past episodes on iTunes — recent guests include Will Smith, Amy Schumer, Eddie Redmayne, Brie Larson, Ridley Scott, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Ian McKellen, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore, Olivia Wilde and Benicio Del Toro.)

Truth chronicles Rather's most controversial moment: When, shortly before the 2004 presidential election, he reported, in a segment on CBS' 60 Minutes Wednesday, that incumbent George W. Bush had gone AWOL from the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. The story itself, he insists to this day, is true. But the legitimacy of the evidence used to support it — namely, documents allegedly from that time — quickly came into question and ultimately led to the terminations of Rather's longtime producer Mary Mapes (played in the film by Cate Blanchett) and three others who worked on the story, as well as the involuntary departure of Rather from "the Tiffany Network" a year earlier than he desired. (The whole saga has come to be known as "Rathergate.")

"I had 44 great years at CBS," says the 84-year-old, who still is at work, "trying to find my way in the digital age" — he currently hosts "The Big Interview," an interview series, for web-based AXS TV. "I loved CBS and still do. It's a great national institution. Would I have had it end differently for me? Of course. But until the movie started being made, it was well behind me. I went on and worked full-time doing investigative reporting — in some ways, among the most satisfying years I've had. So I had it in my rearview mirror. … But that was all behind me until they started to write the movie. I never thought the movie would get made. After it got made, I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. But it brought it back to the fore."

Now, several months after Truth's world premiere at the Toronto Film Festival — an event Rather attended, and at which he choked up — how does he feel about it? "It's a terrific story, I think," he says, "a narrative of how it happened that a group of very experienced reporters reported a true story and they all lost their jobs as a result. But, at a deeper level, what the film is about is what's happened to the news, why it's happened, how it's happened and why you should care about it. It raises the question, 'What kind of news do we want going forward?'"

Over the course of our conversation, we talked not only about Truth and the current state of news, but also about Rather's personal evolution. Born and raised in Texas during the Great Depression, he fell in love with news through his working-class parents, who loved newspapers, and his own experience listening to news at the outset of World War II, during which he was "completely bedridden" with rheumatic fever and became "riveted" to the radio by the coverage of CBS' Edward R. Murrow and his legendary team of reporters. ("They were in faraway places with strange-sounding names doing important work," he says.) After his recovery, Rather trained himself to become a print reporter, then went to work in radio and eventually landed a job at a TV station in Houston — "just at the time when television was beginning to become the dominant place for entertainment and news."

The youngster won a lot of attention with his coverage of 1961's Hurricane Carla, which led to an offer to join CBS News. There, he made his name through his coverage of the assassination of John F. Kennedy — on Nov. 22, 1963, he was in Dallas covering the president's trip, and he was the first person to report that the president had died from his injuries. Prior to that date, newspapers were Americans' primary source of information. "From that moment on," he asserts, "television news became dominant, became the place where most Americans got most of their news."

Over the next few years, Rather established himself as a fearless reporter willing to go wherever the news led him. At his own request, he spent nine months, from 1965 into 1966, in the "green jungle hell" of Vietnam — "I recognized that it could become one of the great stories of my generation and I wanted to go," he says, adding, of what he saw there, "To say I was shocked and appalled would understate it. … It made a very deep impression on me." And, in 1980, he earned the nickname "Gunga Dan" when he traveled to Afghanistan, during its occupation by the Soviets, and became the first Western journalist to report from inside the country — "We were told it was impossible," he recalls, "but we found a way in [namely, dressing as a Mujahideen], were in country 18 days and walked out."

In 1980, Rather "was named to succeed Walter Cronkite — please note I didn't say replace Walter Cronkite, since nobody replaces a legend" as anchor CBS Evening News in 1981. It was perhaps the most prestigious job in TV news at that time, when there were only three networks and viewers got their news each night through the evening broadcasts of one of them. "I didn't dream of being anchor of The CBS Evening News," Rather insists. "Frankly, I didn't have a full idea of what I was getting into." He found that being chair-bound made him restless: "I thought — and I still think — I'm at my best in the field, so I was looking for a way to take the evening news to the news." His desire to get out from behind the desk — and the fact that "the technology of satellite coverage, the miniaturization of equipment and portable telephones corresponded roughly with my taking the evening news in 1981" — enabled him to become what he terms "a mobile anchor." (He quickly adds with a laugh, "I recognize that that's an oxymoron!")

Throughout the 1980s, Rather's broadcast outpaced NBC and ABC's in the ratings. At that very time, though, the landscape of TV news was shifting beneath all of them as cable news — which was on the air around-the-clock — began its rise. "It changed the competitive dynamic," Rather says, "and, over a long period of time — we're talking eight, 10, 12 years — it resulted in a diminution of the standards. The competitive arena grew much larger with cable news, led by CNN, and as the competitive arena became larger, competition became fiercer, and as it became more fierce, the standards began to reduce." He laments, "There's been a deterioration of standards. There's been what I call a corporatization, politicization and trivialization of the news."

The dominant cable news network eventually became Fox News, a favorite of conservatives, which often argues the rest of "the mainstream media" is dominated by liberals who slant their coverage to fit their personal preferences. Does a "liberal bias" actually exist in TV? Rather says, "This is a myth, about 'liberal bias.' I recognize that any number of your listeners are saying 'Well, here goes old liberal left-wing Communist Socialist Bolshevik Dan Rather. But I care about journalism. I have a lot of flaws, but I have a passion for journalism, I have a passionate belief in the importance of journalism, and overwhelmingly the reporters I've worked with over the years, going all the way back to the early 1950s, are trying to be honest brokers of information. That's what I have tried to be." (He acknowledges that he and many other TV journalists have an "empathy for the downtrodden" — "for the hungry, the homeless, the heartbroken, the helpless, the voiceless and people who believe they've lost all hope" — and this, perhaps, is misconstrued by some as "bias.")

The perception of some that Rather is left-leaning perhaps was fueled by two uncomfortable interactions he had with prominent Republicans long before Rathergate. The first happened at the 1974 convention of the National Association of Broadcasters in Rather's home state where, while serving as CBS' White House correspondent, he received applause upon rising to ask a question, prompting President Richard Nixon to crack, "Are you running for something?" to which Rather responded, "No, sir, Mr. president, are you?" The second occurred in 1988 when, during a live interview on The CBS Evening News, he bucked heads for nine minutes with Vice President George H.W. Bush, who was a candidate for the presidency.

Rather, the leader and face of the CBS news division, always had managed to withstand such controversy — until the 60 Minutes Wednesday segment in September 2004, produced by Mapes (with whom he worked for more than 15 years and who he describes as "a hell of a reporter … one of the great television reporters of her generation"). He feels, in retrospect, that he should have seen trouble on the horizon months earlier, when he and Mapes collaborated on an April 2004 segment, for the same program, that unveiled the explosive Abu Ghraib scandal. "We had trouble getting it on the air," he says, suggesting that CBS nearly bowed to pressure from its corporate overlords at Viacom, who, he says, feared that the fallout of the story would cost them influence in Washington. "Bluntly put, they tried to keep the story off air the air." (The program later — and somewhat controversiallywon a Peabody Award for the segment, which Rather accepted tearfully as Mapes, who already had lost her job and begun writing the book that would inspire Truth, stood behind him.)

"Then we come back in the fall [Sept. 8, 2004] with a story that was true," he says emphatically. "We reported a true story. We didn't do it perfectly. We made some mistakes of getting to the truth. But that didn't change the truth of what we reported." The key points, he maintains, are that Bush got into the Texas Air National Guard — and therefore stayed out of the Vietnam War — through the help of powerful friends and family, and that he subsequently disappeared for a chunk of the time he was supposed to be in service. "Those were the bedrock facts of the story we reported. In the process of putting this together, those partisan political forces and ideological forces who found this a very inconvenient story — they couldn't attack the hard-rock facts, so they looked, 'Where is the story weak?' So they concentrated on the documents and they succeeded. They overwhelmed CBS — they overwhelmed us who reported it — by making the focus not on the hard-rock truth of the story, but rather the process by which we arrived at that truth." Consequently, he says, "They changed the conversation" and, to his dismay, "The corporate entity caved."

In the days after the segment aired, Rather doubled-down on the veracity — if not the authenticity — of the documents. But on Sept. 20, he says he was "coerced" to acknowledge, on the air, that CBS no longer could stand behind the documents at all, and that marked the beginning of the end of his tenure at the network. "CBS News had a history and a tradition of taking on the tough stories," he says. "The corporate entity that sits above the news division backed its reporters and backed its reporting, sometimes uncomfortably, sometimes raising an eyebrow. But part of what made CBS News, CBS News, we thought — something different, something stand-alone unique — was taking on the controversial stories and, whatever hell there was to pay, the corporation was going to back you." But by the time this segment aired, he says, "The corporate DNA had changed." He elaborates, "It [Viacom] had a lot of things it needed out of powerful people in Washington, and I wasn't smart enough — quick enough — to understand that the whole dynamic had changed between the corporation and the news division."

CBS commissioned a commission to look into the matter and recommend next-steps. In the wake of the commission's findings, Mapes and three others were terminated, and Rather began to be phased out. "It wasn't independent," Rather insists, noting that one of its members was a close associate of the Bush family. "It was never designed to determine whether the story was true or not; it was designed to determine why all of this hell was raised behind it. This was a kangaroo court, to put it bluntly. … It was a phony from beginning to end, and its purpose was to give the corporation a public rationale for firing — getting rid of — the people who were responsible for the story."

Rather had planned to step away from the CBS Evening News anchor chair after reaching his 25th anniversary in the job, but he was forced to vacate it roughly a year before that date. His last broadcast was on March 7, 2005; underneath his suit and tie, he wore a T-shirt that had been given to him before his first broadcast that bore the letters "FEA," as in "F—k 'Em All," and he employed as his sign-off the same word he briefly had used as his sign-off in the 1980s: "Courage." He remained a 60 Minutes Wednesday correspondent for a few more months, but felt he was given assignments sparingly and that those he completed deliberately were aired on dates when the smallest number of viewers would be watching. He left CBS once and for all in late 2006, at the request of the network. The others who lost their jobs over the story settled with CBS in return for their silence about the situation; Rather, however, did not. In September 2007, he sued the network for wrongful termination, seeking $70 million in damages. (His case was dismissed in September 2009.)

As Rather looks back at the fateful segment and its fallout, he seems to feel a mixture of sadness and resentment. "Ideally," he says, "we would have been able, with the documents, to say, 'There's no reasonable doubt about the documents.' I didn't think then, I haven't thought since then and I don't think now there was any reasonable doubt about the documents — but I understand when people say, 'Well, Dan, it's one thing for you to have that opinion, but you didn't prove it. On the other hand, we're now, what, 12 years beyond the case, and nobody's ever proven the documents were not what they purported to be. But I agree that, in a perfect world, we would have been able to prove the documents beyond the point we proved them."

In retrospect, Rather — who still watches evening news broadcasts with his wife, Jean, to whom he has been married for 59 years ("I'll watch one one night, one the next night and one the next night — sometimes I cheer, sometimes I curse") — acknowledges that the controversy could have been avoided: "We could have put the story on without the documents," he says wryly. "[But] what was in the documents, what was said in the documents, corresponded to everything we knew about the case and is true to this day."

He muses, "I was really lucky to work at CBS News. I'm very proud of the career I had. I'm a great believer that you are what your record is, and my record there is what it is. For those who say, 'Well, but it didn't end very well,' I say, 'Well, life sometimes goes that way.' And about the movie? Of course I would have preferred they make a movie about my coverage of Martin Luther King or the Kennedy assassination but, again, life doesn't always work out that way." He adds, "Everything in television is fairly ephemeral. Looking ahead 15, 20 years from now, I don't think anybody will know who Dan Rather was, or for that matter care — nor do I think they should."

Truth was released by Sony Classics on Oct. 30. Awards voters are being asked to consider Blanchett for best actress and Redford for best supporting actor.

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