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CORRECTED 5:11 p.m. PT Nov. 25, 2007
It has been more than a year since Dan Rather left CBS to create “Dan Rather Reports” at Mark Cuban’s HDNet. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter West Coast business editor Paul Bond, the newsman spoke about his lawsuit against his former employer and the state of TV news in general. (Editor’s note: The interview took place before CBS filed a motion to dismiss Rather’s lawsuit.)
The Hollywood Reporter: If this goes to court, in order for CBS to win they would be in the strange position of having to prove their own news story about President Bush and his National Guard service was false, will they not?
Dan Rather: It’s a very complicated case. Frankly, on that point, I’m just not sure. But the report was true.
THR: The documents were authentic?
Rather: The documents were a part of the story. But the story was about what is known, and questions unanswered, about President Bush’s service, and what we reported was true. This lawsuit is directed at Viacom, CBS, its ownership and its management. It has two parts: A contract with me that they broke, and the second part has to deal with fraud and how they handled the story. Basically, (it’s) the undue influence of the corporatization and the politicization of news coverage, some of which I didn’t know was happening at the time. Some goes back to our breaking the story of Abu Ghraib.
THR: But were the National Guard documents authentic?
Rather: I believe they are authentic. I believed it at the time, I believe it now.
THR: So all the people who have pointed out, for example, that the particular font on the documents didn’t even exist back then, they are wrong?
Rather: I’m glad you asked about that because, unfortunately, there has been a lot written and said about it, saying they were bogus, they were forgeries, none of which has stood up. But I do want to come back to the documents being just part of the story. The core of the story — what a journalist tries to do — is get the truth, or as close to the truth as possible. We did that. Our story was true.
THR: You’ve been accused of liberal bias in your reporting. How do you respond?
Rather: Basically, I don’t. I just ask people to look at whom the accusers are most of the time. My record is, I’m a fiercely — when necessary — independent reporter. I’ve dedicated my professional life to that, and I believe my record proves that’s exactly what I am, what I have been and what I continue to be.
THR: Are you liberal, conservative or down the middle?
Rather: I’m an American with a capital “A,” and independent.
THR: Were you ever presented with similar memos that questioned John Kerry’s war record?
Rather: No, but if I had been presented with the kind of evidence we had about the overall story — about John Kerry or anybody else in American public life you can mention — I certainly would have reported it.
THR: What kind of job is the mainstream media doing in regard to the upcoming presidential election?
Rather: I’ve never liked the phrase “mainstream media.” I can believe there’s a lot of people in every area of the press that want to do good work. But all of us, and I do not except myself in this criticism, know that in many important ways the standard in journalism has declined. I believe that some of it is what I call the corporatization and politicization of the very large companies that own these news outlets. Also, there has been an attempt to intimidate the press. If you look back in the past seven years, in some ways it has been successful, and it’s something we ought to be concerned about.
THR: Give me an example of intimidation.
Rather: We detail in the lawsuit — we broke the Abu Ghraib story as a worldwide exclusive, and look at the way that story was handled by Viacom and CBS.
THR: How exactly does Abu Ghraib relate to problems with the Bush National Guard story?
Rather: The people who own these large corporations have regulatory and legislative needs in Washington, and they are asking for favors in Washington. In some cases, the very same investigative reporters are digging into things these people don’t want out. I’m giving you an example that I lived through.
THR: You feel somebody specific in government targeted you because of your uncovering of abuses at Abu Ghraib?
Rather: You asked me for an example of the corporatization of the news and how it affected coverage, and here’s an example.
THR: This was about Viacom needing Washington favors?
Rather: We broke the story, the story was delayed for weeks, and after we ran it there was never any follow-up to it. Name me a news organization that would have a story of that magnitude that wouldn’t have wanted to at least do a follow-up report.
THR: Do you think TV news in the Internet age is as relevant as it had been?
Rather: Yes. The Internet has given added value to the public. The question is how long will it remain this relevant, given that many younger people depend on the Internet more than they do on television or radio.
THR: What do you think of Katie Couric’s performance?
Rather: I have nothing but respect for her and wish her well.
THR: How do you like working for Mark Cuban?
Rather: About all I know of him is the way he has treated and supported me. He has given me total, complete and absolute editorial and creative control over a one-hour news program every week. He’s been better than his word and better than his contract in terms of providing resources. He’s particularly good when we have done something controversial, like with the story about what’s wrong with voting machines.
THR: What do you hope to accomplish with the lawsuit? Is it about money?
Rather: It’s not the money. I recognize that somebody might see a $70 million or $80 million figure and wonder how it cannot be about the money. Money is the language they understand — Sumner Redstone and the people at Viacom. A substantial part of what results from the lawsuit will go to good works, including furthering investigative journalism.
THR: What’s the difference in working with a startup like HDNet and a huge organization like CBS?
Rather: Mark Cuban said to me, “Don’t be concerned about ratings or demographics, just do the best work you can do and be as fearless as you possibly can.” That’s a big difference. Another is Mark Cuban owns HDNet, so it’s not a matter of answering to stockholders or having a large super-structure over and above the news.
THR: Considering it’s so hard to turn a profit, will the networks leave news behind?
Rather: When it comes to predictions, my crystal ball is constantly in the hock shop. The indications are, with more ways to receive TV programs, the competitive pit will continue to grow. Increasingly smaller audiences for more news outlets.
THR: Do you think audiences are as well informed as they used to be?
Rather: What a good question. The honest answer is I don’t know, but I doubt it.
THR: What do you think of the blogosphere that dissects the news each night?
Rather: One wants to be careful not to over-generalize. There are some blogs doing a good job of integrity-filled journalism, there are others where they write the first thing that comes into their minds, and there are other blogs that are carefully orchestrated for partisan political and ideological gain.
THR: You’ve had a hugely great career in journalism. A career most every other journalist would want. Why go to tiny HDNet and not retire?
Rather: I appreciate the compliment. I’m not sure I’m worthy of it, but I’m basically a reporter who got very, very lucky, and I’m aware of that. As to going to HDNet, I love covering news; I have a passion for it. Trying to be a truly independent — with a capital I — reporter who specializes in international and investigative reports, and it has its downside, some of which you’ve gone over. It gives one the opportunity to contribute. As long as I have my health, and as long as there is someone who will let me cover news, I want to keep doing it. I’d rather wear out than rust out.
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