Dan Rather: "Too Many People Want To Advance Their Own Partisan Agendas" As "News"

Via Orbusmax, some odd words from Dan Rather in the Portland Oregonian, produced from softball questions by the paper's Jonathan Nicholas.

NICHOLAS: The rise of cable and the explosion of the Internet have resulted in the Balkanization of the national conversation. Just so many voices. Many people these days actually seem to believe there's no such thing as actual news. It's all just attitude. How is this affecting our civic life?

RATHER: Call me what you want, but I firmly believe there is such a thing as news. From where I sit, too many people want to advance their own partisan agendas and cast it as "news." A surprising number of people are willing to accept it as such. Three people sitting in a room shouting at each other may be interesting, it may be entertaining, but it's not news.

NICHOLAS: Are journalists today better at destroying heroes than creating them?

RATHER: Probably yes, and we have a lot to answer for on that score. It follows the national political trend. It's not enough today to beat your opponents; you must destroy them.

Even as he too generically bashes the state of today's politics, Rather is also sounding a tiny bit confessional (with the "we" phrase), bracing for a tougher question. It doesn't arrive.

NICHOLAS: You've had time, now, to reflect on the broadcast that caused such a firestorm of controversy. Was it as simple as CBS' competitive instinct overriding its judgment?

RATHER: I've already said all I want to say about that.

The beginning of the interview focuses on Dan's take on world events as he returns from an Asia trip for "60 Minutes," including some perhaps pandering conversation about how important the Pacific Northwest is on the world stage. The goofiest part is this exchange, where Nicholas suggests Saddam is evil or crazy, and Rather avoids picking either one:

NICHOLAS: Twice you met personally with Saddam. Evil genius or utter madman? What was your take?

RATHER. Number one: He is cunning. He is smart. He equates survival with triumph. In his mind, he won Gulf War I. He really dreams of being the new Saladin. I'm absolutely convinced that to this day, when his feet hit the floor each morning, he dreams of leading a victorious Arab army through Jerusalem.

So he's "cunning" and "smart," and he thinks he won Gulf War I? Rather seems to be saying that as long as you believe someting insane with great tenacity, you still get to be "cunning" and "smart"? When Nicholas brings up Vietnam, Rather displays his sense of what is holy territory: "I've been back only once. I was uncomfortable the whole time I was there. Somewhere deep in my id, I consider that sacred ground." Is Dan an Eastern mystic? Or was the evacuation of American forces a soul-cleansing event? I'll plead to being mystified.

Orbusmax also found a story in the Seattle Times, by TV critic Kay McFadden. She's a Rather fan -- see the line about how he's her "first choice lunch partner" -- and is impressed with his busy schedule on liberal-sounding stories. "Our interview was delayed because he's been crisscrossing the country on a story about how health-care providers gouge bills to uninsured Americans." McFadden explains: "On Tuesday, Rather will bring it all to Seattle. He's appearing at McCaw Hall as part of the 'American Voices' series. The program, whose past speakers have included Gore Vidal and Ambassador Joseph Wilson, aims to foster public dialogue about issues of the day." (For more info, she says, see foolproof.org.) But he's again very generic when discussing why people don't trust the press.

Rather is known for distrusting surveys no matter how scientific, a position reinforced by the 2000 exit-poll debacle that led news organizations to prematurely declare George Bush a winner.

In fact, Rather once emphatically stated, "Journalists should denounce government by public-opinion polls." Thinking of how journalists themselves rank low in public these days, I ask if we also should ignore these dire statistics.

Surprisingly, he says no.

"You never met anyone who was more skeptical of polls than me, but it isn't just the polls," he says. "Anyone who talks to people — not people in power and authority, but construction workers, bus drivers, waitresses — the consensus almost unanimously is, 'Hey, you guys aren't doing it.' "

He attributes the slide in public perception to several causes: the collapse of international reporting; the failure of today's press (Rather hates the word "media") to challenge authority; and television's drive to cater to young and/or wealthy viewers.

"TV news is filled with really smart, hard-working, idealistic young people who have the potential to be a heckuva lot better than I ever was." The problem, however, is, "It's no longer what happened today that's important, it's what can I find that's entertaining to the viewers that advertisers want?"

Rather also perceives the Internet as having caused tumult, largely because nobody has figured out how it fits into TV news.

The Internet, of course, played a big part in where Rather is today. Memogate became Memogate largely due to the aggressive efforts of bloggers, who preceded the mainstream media in challenging the authenticity of documents used in the "60 Minutes II" report on Bush's military career.

Thinking of sites such as ratherbiased.com and rathergate.com, I ask Rather if he's been tempted to start a blog along the lines of rathergetseven.com.

"I'm not interested in vengeance," he quickly says, then accepts the joke and elaborates: "I'm not sure I'm going to blog, but I'm still looking for new opportunities."

The mention of anything to do with Memogate still causes Rather to tense up. He's enormously charming in person — people are often surprised when I name him a first-choice lunch partner — but he's almost curt when asked if he and fired "60 Minutes" producer Mary Mapes are in touch.

"I have spoken with her," he replies. "Spoke over the holidays." It's the shortest answer in our 40-minute conversation.

Tim Graham
Tim Graham
Tim Graham is Executive Editor of NewsBusters and is the Media Research Center’s Director of Media Analysis