Dan Rather Didn't Know Racism, But Knows the Power of Crack?
The night after Christmas, the PBS show "Tavis Smiley" reran the Smiley interview with Rather from October when he was plugging the launch of his show on HDNet. Aside from his boast that he found reporting from the field "more addictive than crack cocaine," (and, um, how would Dan know that?), the interesting part was that Rather made it sound like he didn’t seem to discover the injustice of racism until he was 31 years old, and then professed that seeing racial hatred face to face made him a different media professional.
"When I came to the civil rights movement, covering it for CBS News, when I first came to work for the network in 1962, I had no idea. I was dumb as a fence post about civil rights. I'd vaguely heard of Dr. Martin Luther King, heard some things about sit-ins. But it became my first major responsibility for CBS News was to cover Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, just as it was beginning to really take traction. They'd been trying to get it to take traction for a long while. And the education that was for me, if I hadn't been before, and you can argue that I already was, that I became addicted to field reporting. And once you get addicted, trust me, it's more addictive than crack cocaine."
Smiley asked what this "white kid out of Texas" learned covering "black folk in the South" then, and Rather professed that Martin Luther King set him straight:
"I grew up in a segregated society. Texas was segregated. I was born in Wharton, grew up in Houston. It was a segregated society. However, when I began covering the civil rights movement, Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, I had never seen race hate to that extent. I was in shock and awe when one would go to, say, a Klan meeting. I never saw a Klan meeting till I got to Mississippi in 1962.
"But the depth of race hatred, and the fact that it was not just below the surface, it was on the surface at that time -- I know this will strike many people in the audience as sort of strange, because they're not of memory age [sic], they weren't there at the time -- but the savagery, the bestiality of Americans toward Americans, I've never gotten over it. I didn't come out of covering the civil rights movement the same person or the same professional that I was when I went into it."
The civil rights movement in the South became one of the real reference points for liberal bias in the news media, that in seeing racial injustice, the network news reporters decided that some ideas and causes were too important for even-handed reporting. That same belief can remain long after the original 1960s controversies led to real civil rights, from coverage of Jesse Jackson to Jesse Helms to the Willie Horton ads of 1988, all the way into today's news.