On the Upper West Side, Dan Rather finds an audience for his campfire tales
Speaking to the audience at the Barnes and Noble bookstore on 82nd Street and Broadway last night, Dan Rather said it was important to be humble, do justice and give mercy and kindness.
"I know there are people who will read this book and say, boy, Dan, there's not a lot of kindness in this book," Rather said. "I would beg to differ."
But it's really his humility that has been questioned in the days leading up to Tuesday's release of Rather Outspoken, a look back at his 60 years in journalism. And the reason his book has been awaited eagerly, in some quarters at least, is at least in part because of Rather's career-crushing dismissal from CBS News, after a report he aired on George W. Bush's National Guard service that relied in part on documents that an internal investigation later found must have been forgeries.
Rather is quite aware that the media interest in him since his ignominious 2004 exit from network news has largely been about his battle with CBS (against whom he filed a losing law suit that he has said cost him well upwards of $5 million to pursue), an account of which takes up roughly a quarter of the memoir. That figure has been used to show that Rather is dwelling on the topic; a quarter of a book on 60 years of reporting devoted to an episode in 2004 does seem like a lot. But Rather knew his crowd last night, and reminded them that the book spent "only" that much time on the circumstances of his dismissal from CBS.
And this crowd of about 100 people, skewing mostly above the 50-year mark, had plenty to remember him for besides Rathergate.
"What I've tried to do, as I've said to you, is tell you stories that I tell my friends and family when we're around the fireplace or outside around the campfire and just tell stories," Rather said. "Yes, I do include the circumstances under which I left CBS News, a low time in my life, but let me say it to you directly, I'm not complaining and I'm well past it. But I've seen rain I've seen fire, I've seen sunny days, and yes, starry nights. And life goes up and down and I fully understand that."
(At the end of the evening, an audience member would ask him where he got his homespun similes and metaphors. Rather explained that they come from his time growing up among the oilfields of Texas. People there would compare, for example, the unrelenting heat to a Laredo parking lot. It helped him as he anchored marathon sessions on election nights.
"So, I had things like this race is tighter than the lugnuts on a 1955 Ford, or this race is hotter than a Times Square Rolex," he said.)
Several years ago, Rather went to anchor a smaller, but still authoritative perch on Mark Cuban's network, HDNet. On the media circuit, he told Joe Scarborough that he'd moved on from being angry at CBS and Politico that Mitt Romney could win against Obama. (He'd told one outlet, apparently, that he felt there were no evil presidents, which became a point of dispute for one woman in the audience who insisted that, in fact, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Paul Ryan were evil.)
But this audience wanted to hear more of Rather's homespun campfire tales of being a reporter in Texas in the early ''60s. He touched on the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and life in the media during Watergate before bemoaning the condition of contemporary news.
"I am not anti-corporation, certainly not anti-capitalist, but I've been around the business long enough to see the effects of this constant consolidation," Rather said. "Each company gets bigger and bigger, news gets to be a smaller and smaller part of the overall business."
One woman asked the newsman which news sources he would recommend, and Rather wouldn't commit. After he said the web had replaced television in its former role, he said those things change too fast to stick to any one set of sources.
"That kind of information gets dated very quickly," he said. "It can change in a week, it can change in a few months. What I do recommend, and I touch on this in the book, is that these days news consumers need to be more alert and spend time deciding where they spend their time."
"Much of what passes for 'news' on television these days is not news," he said. "It's designed to be entertainment, to be called a news program but to be actually an entertainment program."
Investigative reporting, he said, suffered because of its cost and the trouble it attracts. Someone asked when he thought the downward spiral of news-quality began and Rather said it was in the introduction of satellite and cable in the late 1970s, which increased competition, created the demand for news 24 hours a day, and gradually lowered the bar for any one program on any single story. He also believes that news organizations today find the idea that public service is a part of the mission toxic.
"If you talk of public service and the public interest, one of two things will happen. They will either call someone to take you off to a mental institution or they will accuse you of smoking something very expensive."
Rather had some hope that American-style journalism was still the international standard, even if it had slipped some in recent years.
"I do not except myself from that criticism," he said, without elaborating.
Then he signed books for the rows of people in the audience. One of those leaving was Jean Chow, a doctor from the Bronx. She walked away from the table with four copies of the new book, one for her husband and two as gifts. She said that as an Asian, she was interested in how Rather dealt with the tension between him and one-time co-anchor Connie Chung.
"I think down deep, I think he's a really nice person and I think he says what's on his mind which I think sometimes, you know, what went down with CBS and everything, there's such a fine line between what's right and wrong isn't it?"
Asked if she paid attention to the media hype surrounding the book and said she had, but was waiting to read it herself.
"It's like my daughter always says whenever I read criticisms and critiques of movies and everything, 'you know mom, you should watch it yourself and make up your own mind'. So, I think I'll make up my own mind when I read this book."