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Marvin Kitman

Marvin Kitman

Posted: September 24, 2007 04:27 PM

Where Have You Gone, Gunga Dan?


A lot of my media friends are down on Dan Rather. They think he's a silly goose for suing his former employers, CBS and Viacom for damaging his reputation and other crimes.

What surprised me is how little he's asking. $70 million? That's bubkus compared to what that silly woman Katie Couric -- did you see her reporting from Iraq? -- is getting to bring in even lower ratings at the CBS Evening News than Hurricane Dan's before he was blown out the door for opening that can of worms about the president's war record.

CBS began ruining Rather's reputation long before they used the document fiasco as an excuse for dumping him.

The search for the lost reputation of Dan Rather is the Holy Grail of TV journalism. How was it lost? As a media pathologist, I've studied this case for more than a decade. Like looking for King Solomon's mine, it's a cautionary tale.

It all began in 1982 with the so-called retirement of Walter Cronkite. Apparently, he had thrown himself from the seat of power as America's eyes, ears, nose or throat, to make room for a successor. Usually anchors do not throw themselves over board. They are assisted by someone who gives them a push. A yellow carpet is rolled out made of banana peels. Of course, Cronkite and his people had done the same thing for his predecessor, Douglas Edwards.

The lucky recipient of Uncle Walter walking the plank was Dan Rather, who later was to receive the same treatment from Katie Couric, with a pause for Bob Schieffer, who appealed to the 54-to-Dead demo that still watch the network evening news.

It was assumed that Rather would be in the Cronkite Chair of Unimpeachable Objective Journalism till the end of time, or when his ratings went south for 20 or 30 years, whichever came first.

"The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather" lost its lead among network evening new shows in 1985-6 after what seemed like a zillion consecutive weeks at number one. That was a glitch, it must have seemed to network suits at the time. All that needed to be done was call in the news doctors and cure whatever ailed Rather as an anchorman.

Now you may not like Dan Rather. But he was a good solid newsman by the standards of TV journalism. That may sound like praising with faint praise, for TV journalism itself is an oxymoron. Who was better as a newsman before he became an anchorman?

Rather had one enormous flaw. His personality was a continuing problem. He was quirky guy, always doing things that made people uncomfortable. So much was going on behind the traditional anchorman mask on TV ("What's the frequency, Kenneth?"). I was always expecting him to implode.

One of the things about being anchorman, you've got to be a little reassuring, looking like you're in control no matter what was going on in the news. Uncle Walter could tell us the world is ending tomorrow...film at 11, and you could go to sleep at night knowing that everything is okay. Rather made you nervous. He was not a guy you'd want to be stuck in an elevator with.

And then the news doctors went to work on him with their ouija boards, tarot cards, and dartboard.

Rather should wear a sweater so he would be as warm as Mr. Rogers. Rather should not wear a sweater. Rather should smile; Rather shouldn't smile. Smiling he always looked like he had just eaten something unpleasant or taken Milk of Magnesia. After a plane crash, 75 killed, Rather smiling would be ghastly.

Rather's hair miraculously overnight in the late 1980's turned from gray to black. They had Rather standing instead of sitting. Any night now I expected to see Rather kneeling, like Rev. Jim Bakker.

In June 1993, then CBS News President Howard Stringer had the bright idea of pairing Connie Chung with Dan Rather. They kissed for the cameras, but when Dan stepped back he had teeth marks on his neck. Chung's so-called popularity, added to Rather's famous charm, was the kiss of death for the show.

I can't go on... I'm running out of paper... No matter how the news brainiacs pushed and tinkered, nothing seemed to work. The news doctors drove him crazy. He didn't know who he was anymore. Neither did we.

The major crime perpetrated against Dan Rather by CBS was making him an anchorman. Of course, Rather was a co-conspirator, an accessory to the crime. He never should have taken the job.

Money is a major substance of abuse in TV news. People under the influence of this powerful drug will do or say anything.

In TV network journalism, you just can't be good at what you do, you have to go upward. Agents egg the talent on. They manipulate two networks into thinking they must have this talent or the other guy will get him. In Rather's case his legendary agent Richie Liebner played that game on CBS using Roone Arledge of ABC News as the lever.

The network that is in danger of losing the newsman in play, hits the panic button -- in CBS case, they missed.

What happened to Rather was not a blip. It was the secret behind the unfathomable success of Connie Chung and Paula Zahn. The same thing is happening to Katie Couric. It's a systemic disease.

So Rather may be a silly goose not playing the game of taking the money -- and running. As a media pathologist, though, I can't help but feel sad that Rather's Achilles heel was wanting to be the most over-paid powerful anchorman since Walter Cronkite. He may come across as a pompous horse's ass at times, but he still could have been our best and most experienced journalist. If he had stayed on the beat, he might have been the antidote to a decade of gutless reporting

If that makes me guilty of being pro-Rather, I sit so accused.