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In Defense of Dan Rather

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My first thought when I read the NY Post's latest Page Six item on Dan Rather was that Dan must have missed a hush money payment or something. Reading on, I realized this was actually an opening publicity volley for a new book, one that is probably guaranteed a small but ready readership. Hardcore conservatives will rush to buy it since it apparently echoes their deeply held biases about Dan. CBS employees will buy it, as well, just to see who is mad at whom. Of course, that is not necessarily great news for the author since so few people are still working at CBS News.

I know. I used to be one of them.

For 16 years, I produced reports for the CBS Evening News and 60 Minutes II. I was the producer on Dan's team when we broke the story of prison abuse at Abu Ghraib, an investigative piece that won the Peabody last year. A few months earlier, I had been fired for my work on a report about George W. Bush's military record.

Page Six restates the conservative canard that our report "was found to be based on forged documents." That is just not true, no matter how many times Page Six or the Washington Times or some bitter conservative blogger repeats it.

The Bush National Guard story is a fascinating and terribly under-covered topic, full of Texas-style intrigue, privilege and political skullduggery. I mean, talk about selective service. At the height of the Vietnam War, the future president was able to select where he served, how he served and when he served. He even got to select his departure date.

When our story aired on September 8, 2004, it was savaged in an unprecedented outpouring of political vitriol. The Bush administration was then at the height of its ability to summon a terrifying whirlwind of criticism from right wing bloggers, hate talk radio yackers, FOX News "reporters," conservative columnists, and those hollering people whose heads always appear in little boxes on cable discussion shows. None of these critics cared anything about the facts of the story, only about their politics.

They claimed that CBS used forged documents and they repeated that lie so often that it stuck. The mainstream media picked it up, repeating bloggers' criticisms without making any serious effort to investigate the story. But then that would have required real legwork, something that very few were willing to do on this subject.

As for document analysis, it is a mind-numbing and arcane discipline, an imperfect undertaking reserved for courtroom use, not for headlines or Internet political battles. Document analysis is certainly not meant to be done at 11 o'clock at night by someone with no training or experience sitting in front of a glowing computer nursing a grudge and spoiling for a fight. But that's precisely how the right's attack against Dan Rather and CBS News was launched.

That first anonymous analyst (who turned out to be a Republican activist lawyer) raised questions about the memo using only a single shot of a faxed document digitally transmitted to his computer screen. Those kinds of transmissions radically change the way a document looks. His analysis was worthless.

The laundry list of problems that critics claimed they saw in the memos has turned out to be bunk. There never has been any definitive proof that they were forged or falsified in any way, despite a multi-million dollar investigation into the story by Viacom. The reasons we put them on the air remain valid: the content of the memos was corroborated by people familiar with Bush, his unit and his commander; the dates, times and details intricately matched what we know of the record; and two experienced and respected document analysts, who examined copies that had not been faxed or digitally recreated, concluded that the papers showed every indication of being real.

I don't believe we will know the truth about the memos until after the Bush team is out of office and people with information are no longer afraid to come forward.

Viacom, CBS's parent company, never did care whether the story was true or not. They just wanted rid of it. Among other things, they had multiple issues pending before the FCC and various other arms of the administration and our story was no help to the company in its quest to squeeze every last dime out of what used to be the public airwaves. Firing longtime employees in an attempt to get back into the administration's good graces was simply a business decision. It had nothing to do with journalism or the crucial role that critical reporting is supposed to play in American democracy.

The whole incident also opened the floodgates on criticism of Dan Rather, inside and outside of CBS.

In this upcoming book, Morley Safer recounts a 40-year-old anecdote in which Dan reportedly told a group of Marines that Morley "should have been shot dead" for his controversial reporting on the burning of a Vietnamese village. I have no idea if the story is true, but it doesn't sound right to me. Of course, I have no real insight because I was in grade school at the time. What amazes me is that apparently Morley doesn't know whether it is true, either. He says he has never talked to Dan about it. But he has been steaming over this since the days when women wore go-go boots. Still, he describes his relationship with Dan as "polite". Apparently this kind of public sniping is what passes for "polite" in certain corners at CBS News.

This is what I know. There are decades-long blood feuds still going strong there, ancient hatreds triggered by big egos, big salaries and sometimes, big emotional problems. 60 Minutes Sunday is not only an important news broadcast, it is also something of a comedic cross between a retirement home and a small town high school cheerleading squad. There is a lot of hair tossing and skirt flipping, along with brutal competition and vicious gossiping. The squad members are self-absorbed and self-obsessed. When one girl falls or trips, the others snicker with delight. There have been resentments left simmering for so long in the CBS News offices that they have become part of the furniture.

Frankly, I loved working there. It was entertaining as hell. But I don't miss it.

My own theory about why Dan seems to drive some of his colleagues so crazy is pretty mundane. I think he is a hard-working, ambitious, driven individual who committed the great sin of reaching the peak of his profession. Dan wielded his influence and made decisions in ways that some didn't like, but then that happens in every workplace in America. Only at CBS do high profile employees turn up constantly in public openly attacking someone who has for years had the grace to keep from answering in kind. You never see this kind of internal fighting explode at ABC or NBC or even FOX. It's a shame that no one in leadership at CBS has ever had the guts to tell these guys to grow up and shut up.

Sadly, CBS has a tribal ritual of making a rough transition from one anchor to another.

Rough, that is, on the anchor being replaced. Even old Uncle Walter was "disappeared" for years after leaving the anchor chair. At least he didn't have to dodge spears as he left the village.

The political types who have treated Dan Rather as their own personal voodoo doll for decades are just as bad. To them, Dan is the personification of big media and they resent everything from his coverage of the civil rights movement to his work on Watergate. They still seethe about his attempt to get then-Vice President George H.W. Bush to answer a question during a live interview that dissolved into a shouting match in the late 1980s. To me, that was a fascinating face-off between a hardnosed reporter and an evasive politician. To his political enemies, the confrontation was further proof that Dan was a Communist. Good grief, he's from Texas.

For what it is worth, here is my take on Dan Rather, after years of dragging our tired selves through hurricanes, war zones, prisons and political battles.

I have never seen Dan Rather behave in a cruel way. I have never heard him trash a fellow reporter at CBS in anything approaching the way he has been talked about publicly. I have seen him work his butt off in terrible conditions, stay up all night to get the facts right, and help younger, greener reporters struggling with tough stories. I have seen him give away his coat in freezing weather to someone whose teeth were chattering. He is a good guy and a great reporter, simply one of the best, as tireless and true blue as this country has ever seen.

To me and to many, many others at CBS News who have worked with him over the years, Dan Rather is a kind and honorable man. We are not the Morley Safers, Don Hewitts, or Mike Wallaces. We are just a bunch of producers and cameramen, associate producers and editors, researchers and soundmen, lighting directors and makeup people who worked with Dan rather than competing against him. Frankly, I would hate to compete with him. He's tough.

CBS News is filled with wonderful and talented people who take their jobs rather than themselves seriously. Then there is this handful of boldface names quoted repeatedly in tabloids, always taking a swipe at someone. It is sad.

A quote many at CBS News attribute to Charles Osgood sums up the sometimes brutal atmosphere in the news division. Years ago, he supposedly described the tension there by saying that "things have gotten so bad, people are stabbing each other in the chests".

Reading the New York Post's snarky item from this new book, all I could think of was how little things have changed. Good luck, Katie.