Just as the insistent MoveOn.org lobbying campaign for PBS tells you something about just whom PBS is pleasing, disgraced former CBS anchorman Dan Rather being sympathetically profiled for Mother Jones tells you that all Rather's patter about corporations ruining the integrity of the news has a ready audience on the hard left.
Mother Jones insisted "At 79, the former CBS anchorman is still kicking ass and winning Emmys." (Dan Rather Reports actually won a news Emmy in 2008, so someone is still trying to reassemble Rather's shredded reputation.) They also notice almost no one watches his HDNet show, but suggest that's a terrible shame. Freelance writer Jim Rendon recounted how Rather worked on a story about electronic voting machines, a favorite of the paranoid Janeane Garofalo left, that thinks both Gore and Kerry beat Bush:
The former CBS News anchorman is recounting a story he'd reported in 2007 about problems with electronic voting machines. "We found out that these wonderful, electronic, technological marvels were manufactured in what amounted to a sweatshop in the Philippines—the Philippines, exclamation point!" he says, in that ascending tone so familiar to generations of Americans.
That sounds a little insulting to Filipino-Americans, perhaps?
"The equipment wouldn't fit in its boxes, so the workers, two of them, had to put their feet on the thing and shove it into the box. They've got to get it in there, it's got to ship, and so they've got four feet in there pushing this thing." He lets out a laugh. "In some cases, the company's explanation of why ." these things are good fell into the category of 'If bullshit were music, these guys would be a full symphony orchestra.'"
That's rich. Dan Rather was a full symphony orchestra of journalistic fakery with the phony documents in the George Bush Texas Air National Guard "expose." If there were a shred of journalistic professionalism in that story, his colleagues would have stuck with him. Instead, he's exiled at HDNet. Rendon acknowledged the debacle, but sticks to the violins and sympathy:
"He was incredibly hurt and angry," says Jim Murphy, then his executive producer. Rather nonetheless agreed to stay on with the 60 Minutes crew. That, he says, is when he realized he was in trouble. He proposed dozens of stories but few were approved, and the handful that he completed aired in the worst slots. He believes that Viacom, which acquired CBS in 2000, was trying to push him off the show to curry favor with the Bush administration.
"The fact that he keeps making these claims is outrageous," says Jeff Fager, the show's executive producer, who keeps pictures of Rather on his office wall even though the two have barely spoken in years. (Rather sued CBS, in part to unearth evidence of Viacom's political meddling, but his case was dismissed in January 2010.) "I think he was distracted, and it was hard for him to focus on just doing stories," Fager adds. "There might be something to his crusade, that the conglomerates in media don't want to take the chance of investing in reporting because it is risky. But not this company."
"These are people that I worked with, I trusted, who came under extreme pressure," Rather responds when I bring up Fager's comment. "I'd like to think they did things they preferred not to do, such as say that I wasn't working hard or that the quality of my work was low. Jeff knows better than that." He pauses for a long time. "He'll have to live with his conscience."
Despite the troubles, it came as a shock for Rather when, in June 2006, the network declined to renew his contract. Even today, it takes considerable prompting to get him to open up about it. While invariably warm and polite, rushing to open doors for a reporter half his age, Rather harbors an old-school journalist's reluctance to color stories with personal sentiment, even when the story happens to be about him. "I felt like hell, of course I did," he finally admits. "I particularly feel bad for other people who lost their jobs." He adds that he was never bitter; he had a supportive family, freedom from financial worries, and a career that had long since surpassed his wildest hopes. But Mapes, his old producer, says Rather felt betrayed. "When you work for a company for that long," she told me, "when you cover everything from the Kennedy assassination to the Vietnam War, and then to find out that the company was not loyal back—that was really painful to him."
This is not the kind of parade Dan Rather would get from Mother Jones if the target of his phony-document story was Al Gore or Ralph Nader. But it is required for Rendon to get access to Rather and cash his freelance check.
New York Times media reporter Brian Stelter is brought on late in the piece to lament that he has never written about Rather's show, since HDNet not only has few viewers, but are lame at public relations. Does Stelter really mean to tell the public that he doesn't write about anything unless publicists push him hard enough? It's more likely that unlike Rendon, he thinks Rather is damaged goods and doesn't deserve any puffery. That would also be the journalistically honorable position.
For his part, Rendon is still selling how Rather somehow isn't being exploitative by doing a story with an alleged victim of childhood sex abuse from a Catholic priest. (No sensationalism in that subject.)
BACK IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, Rather is interviewing Don McLean, a real estate developer who was molested by two priests when he was 10 years old. Faced with lawsuits from dozens of abuse victims, the Catholic diocese in San Diego filed for bankruptcy protection. But a judge caught the church hiding assets, and Rather's reporting had uncovered a similar pattern in other dioceses. With McLean's wife and children looking on, Rather asks him about the church's response to his accusations, the property that the church had neglected to reveal, and how the abuse changed his life. But he avoids asking about the exact nature of the abuse. "He did come close to tearing up," Rather muses to his crew when we're all back in the car. "I hoped that he wouldn't. We've all seen, all provoked the archetypal tearful breakdown. We were not after that today."
Rather tends to avoid the cheap sensationalism driving today's news cycle. His story was fundamentally about accounting—and the church acting more like a big corporation than an institution of faith. That tension, not the titillating detail, is what interests him.
As if it isn't "titillating" to insist that the world's largest church tolerates pedophilia. It sounds very generous for Rather not to ask the alleged victim for specifics. But doesn't that suggest that he automatically believes the subject? And doesn't that suggest the usual anti-church bias? This is Mother Jones, so no one asks. Instead, we get sappy tributes to how hard Old Man Rather still works:
I heard his alarm sound at 6 a.m. through the thin hotel wall. He was on camera by 8 and then drove from interview to interview all day, never slowing down until 10:30 p.m., when he capped off dinner in Newport Beach with two scoops of ice cream and a yarn about crash-landing in a small plane in Alaska. It was an easy day, he quipped. "He's 79 years old and he's working at the same pace he did when he was 18," Peyronnin marvels.
Whether he's creating a symphony orchestra of BS apparently doesn't matter....as long as the symphony pleases the hard left.