Give Him a Peabody

Dan Rather is 69 years old, the anchor of “CBS Evening News” for the past 20 years, probably one of the most famous men in America and a political liberal. He is in trouble this week after a front-page story in the Washington Post reported that he recently appeared at a Democratic Party fund-raiser in Texas. This is considered scandalous because . . .

Wait. Why is it scandalous? Because America didn’t know he’s liberal? But we know that; we’ve almost always known it. Because America never guessed that he was a Democrat? We knew that too. When he reports the news, he practically wears a straw hat and sings “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

Why is it scandalous that he went to a Democratic Party fund-raiser? For only one reason. Because it formally and officially gives away the game. The game is pretending that he and most of the rest of the American broadcast-journalism establishment do not have strikingly uniform political views.

But it’s about time that game was given away. Dan Rather at a Democratic fund-raiser is not a scandal but a public service. I say give that man a Peabody.

*   *   *

Mr. Rather has formally apologized for what he called his mistake, and this disappoints me. I called twice yesterday to talk about it, but his assistant, a person with an English accent who was veddy veddy busy, far too busy to be polite, told me that he will not be commenting on the story beyond the apology he released Wednesday. I asked if he could make an exception for me, as we are old friends. But he didn’t.

Too bad. All I wanted to say to him is, “Dan my man, you went as the main attraction to a Democratic fundraiser! That is terrific, why did you apologize? Why not just be what you are? Come on, break through the old ways and inaugurate a new era of candor and honesty in broadcasting!”

I guess at that point he would feel forced to insist he’s not a Democrat and not a liberal, and then we both would have started to laugh. Maybe that’s why he didn’t call. It makes you feel silly when you try to spin people who know you and know better.

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I worked for Dan Rather from 1980 until 1984, and I thought, and still think. he is a great guy. But most people don’t change as they grow older, they just grow more so. Dan has grown more so. He was a political liberal. Now he’s even more liberal.

I never thought his biases sprang from a naturally political nature. I thought and think he adopted a particular political point of view as a matter of protective coloration.

Back in the ‘60s he made his name covering hurricanes, a bright, young, handsome guy who’d stand waist-deep in floating rats to get the story. He came to the attention of CBS News, which brought him to New York and offered him a job. He took it, but at first he wasn’t comfortable in the CBS culture. He felt like a hick from Texas, untutored and un-Eastern; he had an accent and a funny haircut.

He was patronized by the snooty CBS of William S. Paley and his erudite executives. One of Mr. Paley’s men turned to me one day in 1980 and told me he’d known Dan since they covered Vietnam together for the network.

“Oh,” I said, “what was he like in those days?” I figured he’d tell me stories of late nights and derring-do.

“He wore yellow socks with his suits,” the exec sniffed.

I don’t think Dan started out caring too much about politics. I think he cared about reporting and stardom, appropriate interests for a young broadcast journalist in the 60s. I think he adopted a political philosophy to fit in, to rise. He wanted Mr. Paley’s men to think he was sophisticated. He wanted to be like his hero, Edward R. Murrow, Mr. Paley’s old friend. So Dan cloaked himself in liberalism, and it worked just fine. (In fairness: He also covered the civil rights movement in the ‘60s and would have had natural sympathy for the good guys working for equal rights, and they were liberals too.)

And as happens often in life, when you pretend long enough to be something, and the pretending is not onerous, you can become what you pretend to be. In time he wasn’t wearing liberalism; he was liberalism. When he got in a little trouble for being an administration tormentor during the Nixon years it made him very famous—and very attractive to half the country, including his bosses at CBS, who were themselves hostile to Nixon and energetically supportive of his demise.

They won. They were gracious. They told their on-air personnel not to gloat. They made Dan heir apparent to the great Walter Cronkite, who had established his extraordinary importance in American journalism by becoming a major force against the Vietnam War. “If I’ve lost Cronkite we’ve lost America,” LBJ is supposed to have said, and if he didn’t say it was true anyway.

So Dan is a longtime liberal. And as Murrow’s greatness rested on certain iconic moments—rallying support for beleaguered England during the blitz with radio reports that are still journalistic classics, first-person reporting on revelations of the Nazi concentration camps, battling Joe McCarthy—Dan went in search of iconic moments too. That is how greatness descends; one pulls it down from the air of history and puts it on one’s head like a hat.

Nixon provided one iconic moment for Mr. Rather. “No sir, are you?” he famously shot back when Nixon asked him if he was running for something. Nixon, in a news conference, was making fun of the applause that greeted Dan’s taking the microphone. “No sir, are you?” was not, strictly speaking, a witty thing to say, but it had the tone and quickness of wit, and was misunderstood as such. Anyway, it made him a star.

George Bush—the first one—was going to occasion an iconic moment, too. When he ran for president in 1988, Mr. Rather and his producers tried to ambush the vice president in a live evening-news interview. They were going to fry him, as you remember, on the griddle of their deep and fearless probing on Iran-contra. But Dan pressed too hard, and was rude, and Mr. Bush decked him by asking if he’d like his entire career to be judged by the time he walked off the set in a huff because his broadcast was momentarily delayed.

I will never forget Dan Rather’s face at that moment. He looked like he’d just taken a hard right to the face. He seemed to flinch, and angrily went to commercial. It was an iconic moment all right, but not the sort Dan was looking for.

*   *   *

When I worked with Dan Rather in the early ‘80s, I wrote his daily CBS Radio commentaries. He was politically on his side, and I was growing more conservative. I went to him one day and told him it was starting to be a problem for me to write his point of view well. He was terrific; he said that on every issue we would give a full airing of the views of both sides, but then at the end we’d call it the way he saw it because it was his show. That was fine with me, and we put together a broadcast that I still think was distinguished in that more often than not it was balanced. Each side got its say.

Conservatives seemed to appreciate the approach, to judge by our mail. They didn’t mind that Dan’s views were often liberal, because they were so glad that he aired their views. (That’s all conservatives ever really wanted out of the media. They never expected broadcasters to be conservative. They just wanted them to report conservative arguments honestly and without a slant. They thought broadcasters almost never presented their views with fairness and without bias. And they were right.)

Dan wasn’t always political. He has a lovely patriotic sense, a natural respect and affection for the fighting men who put themselves on the line for America. We wrote about heroism, too. Once we did a piece on the USS Intrepid, the old Unlucky I, which had barely made it out of the Leyte Gulf during World War II. I think the story got the most mail he ever received. Dan was moved by the subject of family, and the perennial attempt at all holidays to be closer to loved ones.

So I always thought he was a great guy and I still do. He wore his heart on his sleeve and he was no intellectual, but he had a nice instinctive skepticism toward government pronouncements and official stands. At CBS we treated him like a god. He was one of the big three anchors, and the one who was No. 1. He got used to being treated like a god. He could be imperious, strange. I would go to his office each morning to confer on that day’s commentary and I would ask his bright assistant, Terry Belli, “And how is King Baby today?” And she would laugh, and give me a report. Dan was what all network anchors were, and to a lesser degree still are: He was a 20th-century prince, more powerful than a senator, more lasting than a president, and as glamorous as a movie star.

*   *   *

But—have I made this clear?—he was and he is politically of the left. If you didn’t notice that over the past 25 years there is no way you would not have noticed it during the last presidential election, which I think he tried to make into his last iconic moment.

Last night on Fox News (idiotic disclaimer: I am a contributor there) Brit Hume, breaking as he so often does with the pack, reported the Rather fund-raising story at some length and then played a video compilation of Dan Rather’s comments on Nov. 26, the night Katherine Harris certified Mr. Bush the winner of the presidency. Mr. Rather’s comments make his anti-Republican agenda clear:

“Florida’s Republican Secretary of State is about to announce the winner—as she sees it and she decrees it—of the state’s politically decisive 25 electoral votes.”

“The believed certification—as the Republican Secretary of State sees it.”

“She will certify—as she sees it—who gets Florida’s 25 electoral votes.”

“The certification—as she sees it—as the Florida Secretary of States sees it and decrees it—is being signed.”

The Media Research Center notes that on Dec. 13, reporting the Supreme Court’s decision on the vote counts in Florida, Mr. Rather actually began the evening news by suggesting an “ideologically motivated” court had “in effect handed the presidency to Bush.”

Yet this Wednesday, even with the storm over his appearance at the Democratic fund-raiser, he devoted all of 23 seconds to the Miami Herald/USA Today re-re-recount that showed if the hand counts had continued Mr. Bush’s margin would have grown. Needless to say, he didn’t correct his November comments.

*   *   *

Dan Rather’s politics inform and give shape to his reporting—to his choice of a lead, his use of words, his allocation of the time a story deserves.

And this is not new. And it is not peculiar to him.

Now he’s in the middle of a storm over the embarrassment of a major American journalist speaking at a party fund-raiser. Not a journalist who declares up front his philosophy and biases—a columnist or essayist like Bill Buckley or Anthony Lewis or George Will or Tom Friedman (or me)—but a journalist who is supposed to be a reporter—a dispassionate teller of what is new, of what has happened and what it may mean.

And so of course he was wrong to help the Democratic Party raise money. But in a way he was right, too. He was honest. He acted on his instincts. What scandalizes his fellow journalists, after all, is not that people can now fairly infer that he is of the left and not the right. It is that by doing what he did, he gives the game away.

His peers will no doubt criticize him. They will go into great high harrumph about how reporters just don’t do such things. But their real, unvoiced complaint will be that he screwed up by illustrating the real problem with broadcast journalism, which is that it’s slanted. They all, almost all, slant it, and they do it deliberately. Because they have views they wish to promote and advance.

Last summer at the political conventions, a person long respected on Capitol Hill, a former Democratic operative, told me that conservatives all complain about liberal bias in the networks, but we don’t know the half of it. He told me that I couldn’t imagine how closely the Democrats work with the media. “I’m a socialist, I don’t give a damn,” he said. (He didn’t actually say “damn,” but this is a family newspaper’s Web site.) But he was amazed that conservatives complain so much and know so little.

*   *   *

Charging the news media with liberal bias is like charging the rain with being wet. It is of their essence, it is what they are. And pretending this is not so is a dull and stupid game. It’s also over. It is a fiction that has been overtaken by events.

The “CBS Evening News” was once a behemoth, the premier news show in a three-network world. Now Mr. Rather’s show competes with more and newer networks, with cable news, with hundreds of channels. The hegemony of the old elite networks has ended, as we all know.

In the new, more competitive era, with scores of stations competing for viewers, with everyone looking not for a broad base but a solid niche, it’s foolish to force highly opinionated reporters to act as if they don’t have opinions. After all, it’s not as if they are fooling the audience. It would be more practical, and probably better and less infuriating for everyone, if all the TV news shows and networks would admit the truth, declare one’s bias.

The British newspapers do that. The Guardian is the authentic voice of bland Blairism, the Telegraph the grunter of conservative critiques. It doesn’t make them less honest; it makes them more candid, less able to or willing to fool. This is refreshing. In a niche universe why not declare that your news show is informed by liberal values or conservative ones? Why continue the charade? It’s not as if anyone believes it.

That’s why I was so happy when Dan Rather went to the fund-raiser and it was reported. It was an honest thing to do, a declaration of a stand that would surprise no one. And that’s why I’m sad he apologized. He should have bragged about it. It was one of the most honest actions of his career.

It was a real iconic moment.

May there be more.