A candid Dan Rather on his new assassination special, "airbrushing" him out of CBS News' history and the difference between Benghazi and "Memogate"
11/15/13 10:05 AM
By ED BARK
@unclebarkycom on Twitter
Dan Rather and Dallas. They became inseparable in November 1963, even if CBS News keeps filing for divorce.
The network’s initial publicity release on its plans for this month’s 50th anniversary coverage of President Kennedy’s assassination made news by making no mention of Rather, who wasn’t invited to participate. After the fact, CBS said that clips of Rather’s reporting would be used, even if he won’t be. His fallback position is My Days in Dallas: A Remembrance with Dan Rather. The one-hour special premieres Monday, Nov. 18th at 7 p.m. central on AXS TV (formerly HDNet).
“This follows the pattern that they’ve had for some years of in effect trying to airbrush me out of their history,” Rather says of the CBS snub when asked about it by unclebarky.com during a Thursday teleconference. “That doesn’t bother me all that much, nor should it.”
But he’s not finished. “It’s one thing for the corporation, for their own purposes, to say, ‘Look, we just want it to seem as if Dan Rather was never here.’ But I think the news consumer might want to question whether you want large corporations trying to change history for their corporate interests. It’s not a big issue. It may not be an issue at all. But if there’s any concern about how they handled it, that would be it.”
CBS’ treatment of Rather is not entirely surprising. His unsuccessful $70 million breach of contract suit against CBS has made him pretty much a non-person at the network that made him famous. The suit alleged he had been made a “scapegoat” in the aftermath of a Sept. 8, 2004 story questioning George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. Rather subsequently apologized on-air after documents used in the 60 Minutes Wednesday story were called into question. It all became known as “Memogate,” with a subsequent in-house CBS investigation lashing Rather and other contributors for their “myopic zeal” in putting the story together.
Rather, now 82, has soldiered on and arguably is in a much better place after leaving CBS News in June 2006. Some might see AXS TV as the hinterlands. But it also can be viewed as a Sherwood Forest from which an exiled anchor/correspondent has been emboldened to do some of his best work on the weekly Dan Rather Reports, which premiered in November 2006. His boss is Dallas Mavericks owner and Shark Tank star Mark Cuban, who unflinchingly hired Rather when many considered him radioactive. Cuban since has given him “complete, total creative and editorial control,” Rather says.
My Days In Dallas is in large part a personal memoir with the added goal of providing “context and historical perspective to not just the assassination but to the time and place in which it happened,” Rather says.
It might seem like there’s a lot of that going around this month on networks large and small. But Rather is increasingly unique as one of the few network reporters who have survived to re-tell their eyewitness assassination tales 50 years after the fact. He hadn’t returned to Dealey Plaza in a decade or so and still considers it “sacred ground.”
“I remember the emotional earthquake that it was for me personally . . . It’s not a happy occasion for me to go back,” he says. “It’s uncomfortable, which is probably the reason in more recent years I haven’t gone all that often.”
Initially assigned to coordinate President Kennedy’s visit to Dallas -- White House correspondent Robert Pierpoint was to be the on-camera reporter -- Rather had been waiting for a film bag drop just beyond the motorcade route when the presidential limousine “sped past in a blur.” The resultant scene in Dealey Plaza “was a shock to me,” he recalls. His next steps were a feverish run back to the studios of CBS affiliate KRLD-TV (which later became KDFW). The next four days provided one shock wave after another, with Rather making his mark as CBS’ principal on-camera correspondent after Pierpoint was sent back to Washington.
“I don’t remember sleeping any time at all,” he says. “Your instinct kicks in and you say to yourself, ‘I can’t afford to get emotional. I’ve got to laser beam, zone in, focus on the story.’ I was so busy for so long, trying to be at or near my best on what I thought was maybe the greatest story I’ll ever cover. I just pushed my emotions down inside myself and refused to listen to them.”
Seven or eight days later, “the full emotional impact hit me,” Rather says. “I wanted to weep, I wanted to curse, I wanted to kick the wall. I wanted to, you know, hit somebody who was responsible for this.”
He went on to fame, fortune and finally no small degree of infamy at CBS News, which lately has its hands full with a 60 Minutes Benghazi investigation that went badly awry and led to two on-air apologies by correspondent Lara Logan. CBS had to admit that its chief source for the story, security contractor Dylan Davies, had misled if not outright duped the network. An in-house “journalistic review” is now underway. Sound familiar?
Asked to compare and contrast, Rather is adamant about one thing.
“The Bush story, for which I eventually lost my job and other people lost theirs, was a true story,” he says. “One can argue about the process by which we got to the story but ours was a true story and has never been denied by the president (George W. Bush).”
In the Benghazi report, “they have now acknowledged their key witness was caught in what appears to be lying and they’ve apologized. So there is a great deal of difference, but there is no joy in saying that.”
But there’s one overriding similarity, he adds. “Whatever happened and whatever if any blame there is, the tendency always is for the corporate leaders, and for that matter, the leaders of the news division to put all the blame on the correspondent. Common sense tells you that’s not the reality. I don’t know whether this story goes away quickly or not. But it doesn’t, I think part of it will lead away from the correspondent to others who were involved in the decision-making process. Including those high up in the corporation.”
One never-ending story is whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in killing President John F. Kennedy. In that respect, television is regurgitating virtually any and all conspiracy theories while Rather sticks to his story. After prominently participating in several CBS News investigations that sought to prove otherwise, he believes that the Warren Commission presided over a “flawed” investigation but “reached the right conclusion.” And after 50 years of he said/she said, “it’s highly unlikely that anybody now is going to be able prove there was a conspiracy. It’s my believe that it was Oswald and Oswald alone who was doing the shooting that day.”
Others will continue to heatedly disagree. The more the merrier, Rather says in so many words: “Everybody who wants to should get a crack at it, even what I consider to be the most outlandish of the conspiracy theorists. This is America. Let them have their say.”
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