New York Daily News
With his career ending in a crash, and on his last day of anchoring the “CBS Evening News,” Dan Rather ought to benefit from the tradition of kind, decent words being said about the dearly departed. But Rather has made sympathy or even silence impossible by adopting an exit strategy that is as unseemly as it is bizarre.
Silly me for expecting anything else.
In a string of interviews, Rather has inadvertently revealed the raging ego that took him to the top of his business, and then took him over the cliff. “I’m a big-game hunter,” he told my colleague Richard Huff. “And I’ll continue to hunt big game.”
He also told Huff that “after 43 years, I’ve got a lot of scars. They’re all from the front. I didn’t get it in the back because I didn’t run.”
Analogies to hunting and running and battles and bravery – who talks about himself like that? No journalist I know. Certainly not the best ones. They’re too busy scrounging and working to think of themselves in such grandiose terms.
Real journalists don’t regard themselves as heroes or macho veterans. They don’t think about their stories as “game” to be shot and hung on the wall like some trophy. Even after lots of beer, they don’t boast about their battles because experience has taught them to be wary of those who thump their chests. For real journalists, the story is the story.
Rather, he has now proved, has nothing in common with such people. His grasping bravado is more fitting for a fading actor addicted to applause.
Lights, camera, journalism?
He also sounds like he’s locked in a time warp, for there is a 1970s quality to Rather’s boasts. He reminds me of the generation of ambitious Americans – my generation – who were inspired by Watergate to become journalists. Bringing down Richard Nixon was the ultimate “gotcha” story, and it unleashed a generation of investigative reporters who fantasized about nailing a President.
Rather, who covered Watergate, seems to have lived his life looking to repeat the sensation.
That quest is relevant, of course, to his demise. The story he and his team did on President Bush’s National Guard service would no doubt qualify as one of his “big-game” hunts. Perhaps it could have brought down a president, or at least shifted an election. Indeed, the probe into the fiasco uncovered some chatter among the participants along those very lines.
All that was missing were the facts. But that didn’t stop Rather from plunging ahead. What do facts matter when you’re Dan Rather, star reporter? Even now, he can’t bring himself to admit the story should not have aired.
There is much talk that Rather has a liberal bias. The evidence is a long record of adversarial, even hostile incidents with Republicans and instances of fawning praise for Democrats, especially Bill Clinton.
Yet I don’t think bias is Rather’s greatest sin. There are lots of biased journalists, some of them good journalists otherwise.
No, what is really destructive, especially for young people, is the very notion that Rather is a journalist at all. He’s a performer, a stunt man, a celebrity who makes $7 million a year for role-playing.
He’s not a journalist, you see, he just plays one on TV.
Michael Goodwin is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist (c) 2005, New York Daily News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.