Television

Song for Dan Rather

No critic could hate Diamond Dan more than he hated himself...and the rest of us

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My first and last interaction with Dan Rather did not start off well.

"Ladies and gentleman!" shouted the Rev. William Minson, leader of the New Generation Choir, to a roomful of Los Angeles-area journalists. "I want you all to stand up and join us in singing 'America the Beautiful' to Dan Rather, a great American!"

There was much muttering (especially from my lips), but sure enough, more than 300 working reporters and editors stood up, faced the CBS legend sitting up at the head table, and dutifully serenaded him with patriotic song. He did not look embarrassed. Soon after, he was presented with a lifetime achievement award from the Los Angeles Press Club.

The first, cheapest, and arguably best reason to despise someone is because he is rich, famous, and powerful. Bonus points if he works in your profession and carries on like a self-important jackass. Schadenfreude is a dish best served daily, and if America is rich enough to give around $7 million a year to not one but three different humans who have a job the Brits accurately call "newsreader," then certainly we have more than paid for the right to laugh like pitiless hyenas at the sight of the great Dan Rather slinking away from his enviable post in half-shame, like an armadillo leaving an ant nest after mistakenly pissing on it.

The battle over Diamond Dan's obit continues to be waged elsewhere. My own two cents has nothing to do with fonts, pajamas, liberal bias, or the name "Kenneth." What irked me about Rather was that he was one of journalism's all-time great self-flagellators, always eager to confess blame for the declining standards of the trade, always making sure to spread that blame out nice and thick on the rest of us…and always showing up on time to collect his seven-figure paycheck.

"In the constant scratching and scrambling for ever-better ratings and money and the boss' praise and a better job, it is worth pausing to ask—how goes the real war, the really important battle of our professional lives?" Rather once asked in a noted speech in front of the Radio and Television News Directors Association, worth quoting at length. "How goes the battle for quality, for truth, and justice, for programs worthy of the best within ourselves and the audience?…

"The answer, we know, is, 'Not very well.' In too many important ways, we have allowed this great instrument, this resource, this weapon for good, to be squandered and cheapened. About this, the best among us hang their heads in embarrassment, even shame. We all should be ashamed of what we have and have not done, measured against what we could do—ashamed of many of the things we have allowed our craft, our profession, our life's work to become. Our reputations have been reduced, our credibility cracked, justifiably. This has happened because too often for too long we have answered to the worst not the best within ourselves and within our audience. We are less because of this, our audience is less, and so is our country."

That speech was delivered in 1993. Since then, Rather has pocketed well over $50 million from CBS. Yet his we're-all-not-worthy song has remained very much the same.

"In our worst moments, of which there have been far too many, we have all succumbed to sensationalism and triviality, to one degree or another," he told the exact same organization of journalists four years later. "About that, we should all be ashamed."

Four years later, he was still at it: "I think we have diluted and diminished our brand name," he told the Washington Post's Leonard Downie and Robert Kaiser for their 2002 book, The News About the News.

Such me-too criticism can be disarming and humble-seeming at first, especially if you look past the more foolish bits (Competition is evil! Entertainment = bad! etc.). When I saw Rather wring his own laundry at the L.A. Press Club banquet, I was not the only one there surprised to find himself charmed.

But this was before realizing Rather's been delivering the same dour State of the Union stemwinder across the nation, while pocketing his Lifetime Achievement Awards and hawking his latest autobiographies. And it was also before recognizing that the "we" he's always referring to has few of the same beliefs and fears in common with most journalists I know well.

In May 2002, Rather told the BBC that American reporters were practicing "a form of self-censorship," and then went on to uncork an analogy positively drenched in inappropriate self-regard, even while dressed in the clothes of self-criticism:

"It is an obscene comparison. You know I am not sure I like it. But you know there was a time in South Africa that people would put flaming tires around peoples' necks if they dissented. And in some ways the fear is that you will be necklaced here, you will have a flaming tire of lack of patriotism put around your neck. Now it is that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions…. And again, I am humbled to say, I do not except myself from this criticism."

Humble, my ass. Dan Rather could not distinguish between a millionaire's discomfort and a peasant's political murder; between his own compromises and the uncompromising work of his lesser-known colleagues; between media-watchdog groups and an assault on the very Republic itself. "When the Free Press is threatened—as it most assuredly is by such organizations—all America is threatened," he warned, comically, in 1997.

He's a great character in an era that could always use more, and I'll certainly miss his inspired Election Night poetry slams. But journalism standard-bearer he is not, and never was.

As a philosopher once said, "if a frog had side pockets, he'd carry a handgun."

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