Interview with Dan Rather
It was at Wheeler Auditorium at UC Berkeley on Tuesday, April 25, 2006.
I was invited to attend a lecture by a friend, but the world, should it have been reported on at all, was offered a confession of such poignancy and such significance, that it should inspire a generation to revisit all that has been taken for granted in its lifetime. Dan Rather had a conversation with the dean of the UC School of Journalism, Orville Schell, and was able to keep from crying, but from the second row, it appeared to be a monumental battle that he waged.
For his efforts to maintain his dignity, he should not be criticized. For his recognition that tears were entirely appropriate, he deserves no praise. For the small world that listened, outrage precedes bereavement. Dan Rather has much to be sorry for; but that he was able to tell us, even at this late date, he more than seventy years old, even as sparsely confessed as the substance turned out to be, is to his credit.
The essence of his confession is that he has been too fearful and timid to do his job. That he must be compared, so decidedly and unquestionably to his disadvantage, to Edward R. Murrow, was obvious to everyone in the room, but none more than Mr. Rather himself, and that was surely the moment that provided the greatest test to his composure. He offered as explanation for his failure, among others, the lack of civic virtue among the population, and it struck a chord of truth for some of us. There was barely a significant minority of the audience who had written their Congressperson in the last month, a parlor trick performed at Rather’s instigation. When Dean Schell rose to the moment and inquired if Rather had made efforts to go to the top, as Murrow did with Paley, Rather did not hesitate in his denial. Had he written letters to the head of Viacom? €œNo€.
During the course of describing the decision to do a story, much was made of the question of ratings, and the 18-35 year old demographic. They agreed that CBS is no longer just CBS, but a subsidiary of Viacom, an enormous conglomerate whose tentacles stretch into every part of our lives and whose interests may be affected by any serious look at the injustices and inequalities of American life, precisely the mandate of Dan Rather for his entire career. In a more perfect world, a media company’s corporate charter would have to do with the provision of news or entertainment, and nothing else, and could not be owned by interests defined by a different charter, the manufacture of armaments, for example.
This nation is a long way from that world; in fact, it might be said, our makeup is the antithesis of that notion. Mr. Rather was given the opportunity to discuss the BBC. He was polite and politic. He meted out praise in conservative doses, but could not be misunderstood to prefer the British model, taking refuge in the smiling retort that they confuse being boring with being serious. What Mr. Rather appears unable to understand, or at least articulate in public, is the symmetry displayed by the government ownership of the BBC in the UK and the government de facto ownership of the media in this country. That was an opportunity devoutly to have wished for. It was an opportunity for Mr. Rather to pay homage to the countless studies that demonstrate the extent to which the mainstream media acts as a propaganda arm of the US government. It was an opportunity to discuss the last century’s history of journalists being on the government payroll. It was an opportunity to refer to only the latest scandals of government stipends to supposed independent journalists. It was an opportunity missed by Mr. Rather and Mr. Schell. Can it be that they are unaware of this history? Or do they deem it unimportant? How much time must be taken exploring Mr.Rather’s parents’ newspaper reading habits, or long ago yesterday’s laurel-earning journalism? With a guest like that at one’s disposal, mustn’t politeness give way to the fact that he on the stage is our representative in the quest for knowledge? None of us will ever have that chance to ask questions.
So, Mr. Rather, what then must we, you, do? What will come with your recognition of failure? You look hail and hearty. The room was full; you have a voice. You were weak and could not understand your duty to resign in the face of corrupt influence. You could not understand the monumental place you could have guaranteed for yourself in the annals of journalism. Was it the money you wouldn’t have had? One would have thought you had enough, if not when you were fifty, surely when you were sixty, or sixty-five. Was it ancient friendships in the world of corporate wealth that you simply could not betray even though your journalistic integrity was at stake? Were you afraid to lose your access, a topic given much time that night, but understood by Mr. Rather to be a problem more of the last ten years than of the structure of our media system as discussed by people like Chomsky twenty years ago?
Is this not the moment to seek redemption? This government lied this country into a war. As unpardonable as that seems to many, and as clear as that must be to you, it has yet to provoke you to put your spine into play. It was you who embraced the metaphor from the stage, suggesting a spine transplant for those in your position in this society. Is it not time for you to come clean about your life and times? Is it not the moment for you to evaluate what it was that led you to say €œBoom€ during the Gulf War as one supposed Patriot missile took out another Scud? Is it not time for you to rethink what it is that prevents you from explaining and thereby condemning this country’s death squad foreign policy? Is it not time to discern what kept you from informing us of the lies that covered up Gulf War Syndrome? Those of us who cared realized the weak reed upon which we were leaning when George Bush, Sr. scared you off of his criminal complicity in Iran-Contra with a cheap reference to a fit of pique to which you were most probably amply entitled.
Oh, yes, and for those of us who simply cannot put it behind us, is it not time to take an honest look at that day to which you repeatedly referred, 9/11? Is it not time for a look within to divine what allows you to say there are no eyewitness, earwitness accounts, no empirical evidence that SUGGESTS, much much less, demands the conclusion that this government was an integral participant in the crimes of 9/11? Dear Mr. Rather, the bookshelves are filling up with, and the New York Times has sued to produce, precisely such accounts and precisely such empirical data. Your opinion that a government conspiracy on 9/11 was bullfeathers is something to which you are decidedly entitled. The American people, however, are possessed of entitlement as well, as long as icons such as you profess an allegiance to the truth. They are entitled to learn the facts so that they can come to their own conclusions. Based upon your confident pronouncements on Tuesday evening, a citizen would be entitled to dismiss government conspiracy as unworthy of passing thought, not to say honest consideration. Honesty, however, has to give the scholars and investigators who have written on the subject what is due to them, a recognition that there is an enormous amount of evidence at their disposal. Your €œbullfeathers€ comment demonstrates willful ignorance or a mindset inconsistent with the search for truth that knows no preconception.
In addition, that comment requires one to stare quizzically at your refusal to state the bold truth, that the story that ushered you out of the office, probably fooled by Karl Rove or his kind, that George W. Bush had cheated his way out of military service, was, in its essence, right on the money. Your reticence to proclaim an opinion in the instance of your departure from your job, and lack of it in the case of government complicity in 9/11 is €¦peculiar. Is a line being toed?
What precisely is it about the history of the last seventy years which makes government complicity in the venality and atrocity of the crimes of 9/11 inconceivable? What was it about the firebombing of Dresden, the eradication of a rural population in Vietnam through €œOperation Speedy Express€, the machine-gunning of 200-700 villagers at El Mozote in El Salvador with US Government tacit approval if not active connivance, an important distinction that really only a Dan Rather could have gotten to the bottom of, the running of drugs into this country by our own governmental agents, a story which your brethren at €œWest 57th Street€ courageously took on in the 1980’s; what is it about any of these paltry examples that gives the apparatus of governance in this country a pass at the greatest crime ever committed on American soil?
Dan Rather has an opportunity right now to look deep within himself, something he is obviously able to do; close to tears is evidence of that. Dan Rather has an opportunity to become his promise as a journalist by recalling the particulars of his shortcomings, and by looking with a journalist’s zeal into all of the evidence concerning September 11, 2001. If he decides not to avail himself, the temptation to believe him just one more in a long and ignominious line of government-co-opted journalists will shortly become overwhelming..