We seem to be a nation that puts high value on journalism and the folks who do it - people like John Peter Zenger, Horace Greeley, Nellie Bly, Ernie Pyle, Tom Wicker, Woodward and Bernstein and these are just the print folks. Add early radios' Norman Brokenshire, H.V. Kaltenborn, Robert Trout, TV's John Cameron Swayze, Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, Peter Jennings, Barbara Walters, Dianne Sawyer, Katie Couric - stop me, please. The point is, we seem to iconize these newsies which is maybe why we have two new biographies in audio and print about veteran television newsfolk: Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather.
For now, let's deal with Dan Rather and his new engrossing new biography, Rather Outspoken, My life in News. He became anchor of the CBS Evening News following the 19-year reign of the warm and comforting Walter Cronkite, the man we called the most trusted man in America. Tough act to follow if you're Dan Rather because, while you do have terrific broadcast credentials and skills, the warm and comforting notes are not often heard on your keyboard. You're the guy critics derided as Gunga Dan because your on-camera Afghanistan reports included getting dressed up in traditional Afghan garb. More Lawrence of Arabia than Edward R. Murrow.
Rather's seven Peabody awards indicates the respect he receives in the TV news community. If there was drama or trauma anywhere in the world, the man was there.
But he also seems to provoke jeers with a style that's hovers near the intersection of pompous and earnest. Sounding a bit like King Richard to his troops, he used to signed off each broadcast with the word 'courage' causing some to gag. NBC rival David Brinkley may have summed Rather best, "Walter Cronkite got up every morning knowing who he was. Dan Rather woke up every morning trying to decide who he'd be that day. As a result Rather didn't have a clue." Ouch.
The juicy bits here include what Cronkite biographer, Douglas Brinkley calls the dysfunctional relationship between Rather and Cronkite - and Murrow. The competition and insecurity was so intense that during one political convention, Anchor Cronkite actually locked Murrow out of the CBS democratic convention booth. Years later Rather did the same to Cronkite. Hsssss.
Rather spends a good deal of time detailing his very public firing by CBS. You may remember it was over the authenticity of documents related to George W. Bush's military reserve duty. The anchor goes into way more detail you ever wanted to know but he uses it to make one of his key points: for-profit corporations make lousy custodians of serious news gathering and reporting. Or, corporate bean-counters yielded to political pressure from the Bush White House. As a result, Rather was fired and journalism suffered a serious blow.
Writing about CBS Owner Sumner Redstone and the executives who fired him, Rather believes the Tiffany network "ambanded it's priniplces on which it was founded" He waxes generously over CBS Founder, Williaml Paley and his news chief, lawyer-trained Richard Salant. They were the golden men of broadcast news. It was an era, he says, when the evening's news shows were about reporting, not ratings. He credits that CBS with helping to end the Vietnam War, the first live television war when CBS and others brought the war's gruesome horrors into our living rooms seven nights a week.
The anchorman has strong elegantly articulated opinions thru ought the book. Example: "A blunder of historic proportions" is what he calls George W. Bush decision to take resources and manpower off of Afghanistan and the Taliban and put them into Iraq.
Imbedding journalists in war seems like a good idea, but, in fact, not so good, he writes, because it restricts where reporters can go to cover a war because they have to go only where the unit goes and the military authority control that. Rather also thinks the imbeds tend to become cheerleaders for the combat teams they live and bond with.
Jimmy Carter was as tone deaf about the levers of power in Washington as Lyndon Johnson was adept, says Rather. He brought in his Georgia posse, loyal but inexperienced campaign people who remained outsiders throughout his term. He should have brought in a insider a "beltway pit bull' as Chief of Staff.
Another take-away from this very well-told personal history is a stark reminder that office politics, petty jealousies and big personalities are rampant at CBS as they are in any other organization. The problem is, because TV news IS America's primary source, who owns the company, who gathers it, how they gather it, who edits and reports it, matters a whole lot. Think MSNBC and FOX.
This is a tale well told by a man who knows how to tell it. Hachette's audio edition of this engrossing story is the first choice by far. It runs about 12 hours and nobody speaks for Rather better than Rather.