Rather: CBS 'Doesn't Want Me to' Pursue Bush Guard Story

In a televised interview with former CBSer Marvin Kalb, retired CBS anchor Dan Rather stated that his network will not allow him to continue to pursue the story of President Bush's Air Guard service.

"Straight-up, no Chaser, no," the exiled anchor said when asked if he would consider filing a story about it on the "60 Minutes" news magazine since he continues to believe in it.

"CBS News doesn't want me to do that story. They wouldn't let me do that story," Rather said, declining to elaborate further.

Rather also expressed suspicion about bloggers' role in publicizing CBS's mistakes in the Memogate affair.

"There are some strange, and to me, still mysterious things, certainly unexplained things that happened about how it got attacked and why, even before the program was over," Rather said, adding that his network was derelict in not "knowing enough of how quickly bloggers could strike."

The anchor appeared to have softened his attitude toward some (unnamed) web authors, but remained suspicious about those involved in the exposition of the document scandal. Rather expressed wonder that professional journalists immediately looked at blogger accusations that CBS had run with phony documents.

Full story and large transcript after the jump. Video of Rather's comments which were broadcast on C-SPAN, compiled by the MRC's Brent Baker: Windows Media, Real. An MP3 audio file is also available.

"There are other bloggers, and I'll go ahead and say it, that some of the quote, 'mainstream press' seemed to take, if not delight in our dilemma, uh, they picked up pretty quickly on those bloggers who were partisan politically affiliated and/or had ideological axe to grind with us," Rather said.

"And instead of saying, well they've raised these questions, for example, about the documents, are these questions true? Next thing I know, they were in mainstream newspapers, and away it went."

Asked about his long-time fascination with the word courage, Rather said it was his father's favorite word and also one of his own.

"Sometimes saying it, giv[es] me my best chance to mount maybe just a wee, small part of it," he said, adding that "there's a part of me" that wishes he'd not bowed to ridicule for signing off "CBS Evening News" broadcasts with the word in 1985.

Rather also said CBS was not prepared for the fast response from bloggers.

During the scandal, "instead of saying, we have to be prepared to respond quickly to any and all criticism, we were remarkably unprepared for that." CBS News has tried to fix this situation with its own blog, designed to let the news division finally have a forum to "strike" back quickly. See Public Eye.

MARVIN KALB: People react to journalists in a different way. I mean, for example, let me jump ahead weeks are discussing differences between, in a way, old media and new media, and we're very much old media.

DAN RATHER: You are Marvin, of course. I am not out there on the cutting edge of new media as you well know.

KALB: Every now and then it even looks as if the new media is at war with the old media. I want to go back to the National Guard story of last year. It was the blogger, the internet blogger who instantly went after you and CBS with an effect that was very damaging all the way around. And played an impact, indeed, on the presidential campaign.

I have always been astonished that even before the program ended, it was still on. A blog site called FreeRepublic.com run by an active air force officer blasted the program. Four hours later, another website called Buckhead ran a detailed critique of the document that you used in the report. [sic]

Now, I have always wondered to myself. That's an amazingly swift bit of research. You watch something on air, four hours later, you are prepared to run pages and pages of detailed criticism of the document. How does somebody do that that quickly?

Now, the Los Angeles Times identified Buckhead as a Republican lawyer in Atlanta named harry McDougal. I don't know if that's true. What happened then was dozens of other bloggers joined in. Then the mainstream media joined in, and then everything shifted, and the focus was on you, the focus was not on the substance of your story. The national guard aspect of the whole thing sort of dropped to the side and this media focus was on you. [...]

RATHER: One of the things I learned about the bloggers... is not to overgeneralize about bloggers in going down the list of things that happened to us. And, yes, there are some strange, and to me, still mysterious things, certainly unexplained things that happened about how it got attacked and why, even before the program was over. But I try not to bog down on it. What I learned is there are bloggers who have as much integrity as I or the most integrity-filled people I know have, and who feel that it's their mission in life to ask questions and keep on asking questions.

There are other bloggers, and I'll go ahead and say it, that some of the quote, "mainstream press" seemed to take, if not delight in our dilemma, uh, they picked up pretty quickly on those bloggers who were partisan politically affiliated and/or had ideological axe to grind with us.

And instead of saying, well they've raised these questions, for example, about the documents, are these questions true? Next thing I know, they were in mainstream newspapers, and away it went.[...]

We dealt with a story that had thermonuclear potential for reaction. And instead of saying, we have to be prepared to respond quickly to any and all criticism, we were remarkably unprepared for that. I think it's fair to say and again I just speak for myself but I believe it to be true of CBS and I think it was true of a lot of news organizations, unaware or not knowing enough of how quickly bloggers could strike. And strike is kind of an emotionally-laden word, I guess. But both those who didn't wish us well and may have been organized for their own partisan political purposes but others who were saying hey, I don't believe this. You just don't want to overgeneralize, but we were not prepared to meet that thing.

Now an independent panel that was appointed, headed by a long-time Republican, a man -- Thornburg, who's former Attorney General of the United States and is a distinguished American, but a good friend of the Bush family headed this independent panel [whose presence Rather opposed] and the independent panel , what did they conclude?

One, that what we did, whatever anybody thought about it was not born of political bias. Number two, that with three to four months, and many millions of dollars to spend on trying to determine, they could not and did not determine whether the documents in question were what they purported to be or not. And, the third thing that was said by the panel was that the major, the main reason that a panel had to be appointed and what they were most critical about is how we defended the story after the story had run. And I'm paraphrasing here but I think it's an accurate paraphrase, and I want it to be said in my own case that my principal ah, -- I don't want to say crime, my principal problem was that I stuck by the story, I stuck by our people for too long. I'm guilty of that.

I believed in the story. The facts of the story were correct. One supporting pillar of the story, albeit an important one, one supporting pillar was brought into question. To this day, no one has proven whether it was what it purported to be or not. In terms of [unintelligible "myself"?] it was he stuck by the story, I stuck by the story because I believed in it. He stuck with my people. Listen, I've made nearly every mistake in the book. But my attitude when we go into stories--we go into them together, we ride through whatever happens and we come out the other end together. And I, you know, I didn't give up on my people, uh, our people, I didn't and I won't. [Applause]

KALB: Dan, thank you. You said, I believe you just said that you think the story is accurate.

RATHER: The story is accurate. [...]

KALB: You have an opportunity now, you're a reporter for "60 Minutes," that's a very important program. Would you go now and go back to that story and do it again? And find the documentation that would, in fact, prove what you believe to be the accuracy of the story?

RATHER: Straight-up, no Chaser, no. One, CBS News doesn't want me to do that story. They wouldn't let me do that story.

KALB: Why?

RATHER: That's a question you'd have to ask them. But I've moved on from it. And I've done my best to put it behind me. I've taken my licks, taken my shot.

KALB: OK.

More of the transcript, as transcribed by the MRC's Brent Baker:

I have always been humbled and I recognize that's not a word generally associated with anchor people and the egocentric world of television news, but I've always been humbled by how much the audience gets it. That is, if you do something wrong, if you try to fool them, they pick up on it right away. And never more than what this last year has said to me that the public at large did not, as you put it, 'feast' on us. The public at large, they got it. They knew exactly what happened. Nobody had to spend much time explaining it to them. We had a story, you can argue that we shouldn't have, might of, could of, shouldn't have handled during political camp-, but they understood that what we reported as the central facts of the story and there were new insights into the President's, were correct and to this day, by the way have not been denied which is always the test of whether-. They understood that on the documents, as I said once, I wish we had done it better. No excuses. Not a matter of we didn't have enough time or were crashing, no excuses. They get it. And that gives me a lot of hope.

I don't want this to sound like some sophomoric journalism but I really believe it inside that something is turning in the country when it comes to journalism. I think that people have begun to understand there are pressures on journalism. Again I'm not complaining about it. It goes with the territory. You have to be able to face the furnace and take the heat if you're any good at all.

But the public's now beginning to understand that because a number of things have happened. This whole business of, get the picture, we have a reporter who didn't print a story in jail when somebody somewhere fairly high up had exposed an undercover intelligence agent, and is still running around, now, however that turns out, and wherever you stand, the public has a sense, you know, there's a lot that goes on when it comes to pressuring reporters, and a lot of games are played in there, and when a reporter handles a difficult story, when a reporter faces the furnace and says, 'okay, I'll take the heat,' the public understands it.

Now, if you're wrong, they're going to nail you. You don't have to wait for the politicians or the political operatives to do it, the public will nail you and they'll nail you solid. But if you are out there every day trying to do a good job and you make a mistake, or it's a little unclear whether you made a mistake or not, they get it. I have more confidence in the audience today than I have ever had and part of it is because I think something is beginning to turn. People understand that many of the politicians in both parties and of all persuasions have gotten so good at what I call 'hidden hand pressure,' the public is waking up to it and if we're to have an increase in integrity-filled journalism it will start with the public demanding it."

Rather was also asked about his fascination with the word courage:

KALB: You have often used the world courage in your broadcast, right?

RATHER: Yes. Not often, but i went through a short period where i wanted to close the broadcast with that.

KALB: Why that word? What does it say to you? Why do you want to say that?

RATHER: First of all, it was my father's favorite word. My mother's favorite word was meadow. Somewhere back in the, you know, catacombs of my mind as a child I know, God rest her soul, my mother's favorite word was meadow. She liked the ring of the word, she liked what it conjured up in her mind and what she hoped it would conjure up. And my father's favorite word was courage. Again he liked the strength of the word. He liked the definition of the word so it begins with that. That's part of it.

The other is I came to like the word a lot, sometimes saying it, giving my best chance to mount maybe just a wee, small part of it [chokes up]. But it was no big deal and I became convinced that it was not a good idea to end the broadcast with it when I made an effort to do so one time. But for you alone, and for you alone today only I'll reveal something to you: There's part of me, it says, you know, 'damn I wish I hadn't caved, I wish I'd stuck with it.'

KALB: Do you think your network showed courage last fall?

[Rather silent for seven seconds.]

KALB: Okay.

RATHER: No, I don't want that silence to indicate an answer. I think that's something each person has to judge for themselves. I was then, and I have been ever since then, and I am now really proud to work at CBS News. I've been mightily blessed and really lucky. I like the people and, yes, I think there are all kinds of courageous people inside CBS News.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013