Dear Dan Rather: Be a Stand-Up Star And Step Down Now

Dear Dan,

Courage.

Remember when you took over the anchor chair for the CBS Evening News and you tried signing off your broadcast with that word? Just “Courage.” Walter Cronkite signed off with “That’s the way it is.” You changed that to “Courage.” Until you dropped it-as a sign-off, anyway. Kind of a would-be, wannabe Churchillian thing which many people found a little … overreaching. I was there.

And remember the “Theory of Moments”? Remember two decades ago, shortly after you took over the anchor chair, how you made all your senior producers wear badges that read “Moments”? I was there for that, too. I doubt you remember me, but the story I wrote created some flak for you and your boss. Especially the stuff about “Moments.”

Well, Dan this is your Moment. This is the Moment you’ll be remembered for, and so far you’ve blown it, and unless you listen to my advice, one thing you won’t be remembered for is courage.

The way it looks now, you’ll be remembered as the craven boss who let all his underlings get fired because they went the extra mile to please you. You’ll be remembered as the Nixonian character who hid behind a screen of “My underlings made mistakes, not me; I wasn’t in on it.”

While everyone in the world knows they rushed the “story,” skipped steps, rushed the verification process for the greater glory of you, Dan. What if the bloggers hadn’t blown the whistle, and you and your crew never learned how pathetically you were gamed by your “sources” (“Lucy Ramirez,” come on down!)-and you succeeded in putting one over on the public? Who would be getting the credit? Mary Mapes? No it would be Dan (the President Slayer) Rather.

You’d be happy to claim the credit, but look at you now-hiding under the covers of the “outside report,” clinging to your official position while your credibility as a journalist and as a stand-up guy is shredded.

You say, of the outside report that covered up for your responsibility, that you will “keep its lessons well in mind.”

Yeah, one lesson those four people learned is that they don’t have jobs and you do-while you toss them a bone in the form of meaningless praise for their “dedication”; while you use them as a fig leaf to cover your own dereliction.

After all, Dan, you made your reputation as a reporter, as a personality, as a high-profile candidate for anchorman when you took on Richard Nixon, who was blaming Watergate on his underlings and disclaiming responsibility for himself. It was a lie, Dan, one that you were vociferous in pursuing.

What would you call the stance you’re taking now? How does it differ from Nixon’s?

But it’s not too late, Dan. Not too late for you to seize the moment, make this your moment, turn the moment around, make it a moment in which you’ll be remembered for your courage, not its opposite.

The thing is, Dan, I always felt that, as a correspondent and often as an anchorman, you had courage. You had courage as a White House correspondent in calling Nixon on the Watergate cover-up. You had courage as an anchor in calling then–Vice President Bush on his knowledge of the Iran-contra scandal.

This is what you have to do, Dan. You’ve got to go on air, let’s say at the beginning of your Evening News broadcast, and say something like this:

“While I accept the findings of the outside commission on the failings of our vetting process, I still believe the underlying facts we reported on were correct. Nonetheless, mistakes were made in the process of vetting the documents. I am responsible for what goes out over the air in my name, and I accept responsibility for those mistakes, including-and let’s stop mincing words here-passing off forged documents to the American public.

“Therefore, after thinking over the process in the last few days, I have decided to resign and to ask the network to reinstate the employees who were fired or forced to resign for mistakes that are my ultimate responsibility, because they knew I wanted this story and wanted it in too much haste.

“I have given this some thought after my initial reaction to the outside report to CBS on the matter, and I think my initial reaction was in error. I shouldn’t have defended the forged memos. Even though I believe our investigative unit was on the right track, this doesn’t excuse my having allowed an inadequately vetted report of this explosive nature to go out under my name in the midst of a Presidential campaign.

“And I realize that only a gesture such as offering my resignation might succeed in restoring the jobs and the honor of the people who essentially were fired for being loyal to me.”

Think of it, Dan, think what a sensation it would cause! CBS would probably not go along with it, but even so, you’d be defining and framing the moment, defining and framing yourself as a brave leader who took a bullet for his crew-not one who hid behind their skirts.

Think of how it would transform you-from the ultimate craven corporate suit, clinging pathetically to his job, to a hero who sacrificed yourself for your men (and women).

You’ve always maintained that you’re a down-home Texas populist who stands up for the little guy against powerful and irresponsible corporate bosses. Admirable if true, and if it doesn’t turn out to be a pose. So why not go out taking a stand for the little guy? Why do you think Ms. Mapes rushed this story through an inadequate vetting process? Yes, she believed too much for her own good, but she knew you believed in it, too. She knew credit would go to the greater glory of Dan. Because it was your kind of story: privileged big shots taking care of a “fortunate son.”

And here you are, Dan, acting like a privileged big shot.

But I guess that was always the question about you, Dan: Was the folksy populism heartfelt, or part of your act, or both?

That was the question I had when I was hanging out backstage at the CBS Evening News shortly after you took over. I was reporting on the change in the concept of news that the Cronkite-to-Rather switch betokened.

I witnessed the birth of the “Theory of Moments,” which changed the very nature of broadcast news. And I witnessed the embarrassing badge moment. And I also witnessed you, Dan, and another typewriter mystery that uncannily foretold the one that would effectively end your career.

I’ll get to the typewriter mystery shortly, but first I want to recall, Dan, the Theory of Moments, which was devised by then–CBS News President Van Gordon Sauter. Mr. Sauter believed that broadcast news, the evening news, should reconceive itself from an anchor, like Mr. Cronkite, reading descriptions of events accompanied by illustrative film to a broadcast that offered us visually dominated emotional “moments.” Moments in a filmed report that wordlessly reflect the emotional depth left out of news-reading reportage. Feelings. That TV news had a mission not just to give us Mr. Cronkite’s “That’s the way it is” but something more, something that only the camera can communicate: “That’s the way it feels.”

Mr. Sauter is long gone, and you, Dan, are half gone, but the Theory of Moments, in one form or another, has-for better or worse-redefined news. Indeed, some, like Presidential historian Richard Reeves (in a column he wrote a year ago), have argued that Mr. Sauter’s Theory of Moments has redefined how we experience Life Itself these days. How the culture defines itself in snapshots (think of the overemphasis on the so-called Dean Scream).

Anyway, I hung out a lot around the Evening News command center-the glass-fronted “fishbowl,” as it was called-watching your talented crew of executive producers therein as they searched to reconcile news with Moments. (Among the fishbowl crew, one, Howard Stringer-now Sir Howard-went on to become the head of CBS News and now of Sony’s American division; another, Tom Bettag, became a much-admired executive producer at ABC’s Nightline; and a third, Andrew Heyward, is the current president of CBS News).

One of the things that I couldn’t help notice: Every evening outside the fishbowl, there was Dan Rather banging away at his Underwood-type old-fashioned manual typewriter. Now I knew Mr. Rather had been a correspondent, and I knew that he’d made an issue of assuming the title of “managing editor” of the CBS Evening News to further remind people that he was no mere talking head, that he was still a hands-on working-press kind of guy. Just look at him banging away at that typewriter.

But what was he typing? I knew the Evening News had writers for him. Was he rewriting? Was he retyping “ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKES DAN A DULL BOY?” over and over, à la The Shining? Was this a real reporter at his craft, or was it a TV guy making a show of being one while a reporter was around?

Still, the typewriter question-it turned out to be subject of some internal controversy at CBS-didn’t preoccupy me. It wasn’t until a typewriter of another kind-a phantom typewriter, a virtual, forged typewriter-seemed to bring an end to the Rather era that it occurred to me there was a kind of connection between the typewriter mystery at the beginning and the one at the end. Let me explain.

There was a time, back in 1982, when the Rather ratings were faltering but the new head of CBS News, Mr. Sauter, declared that he would have no talk of a replacement, that he was a Rather man. “I’m married to Dan Rather,” he proclaimed. (“The Man Who Married Dan Rather” was the title Esquire gave to my November 1982 story.)

Less noticed was the way Mr. Sauter’s marriage vow was reciprocated by Mr. Rather in going along with “reorienting” the Evening News to fit into Mr. Sauter’s Theory of Moments. It went far deeper than adding fancy graphics.

I think, in fact, it might be worth dwelling on the origin of the Theory of Moments, since it plays an often-unacknowledged role in the way broadcast-news stories are structured: reaching for Moments- moments of feeling, moments of visceral emotion-no matter how manipulative.

As Mr. Sauter explained it to me, it first came to him as an epiphany when he was a print reporter covering the 1964 murders of civil-rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner, which have recently been in the news again. (Someone was finally indicted for the actual murders.)

At the time, Mr. Sauter said, the bodies hadn’t been found and the Mississippi governor was denying that the men had even been murdered, saying they had probably fled to Cuba and that it was all a trick. As Mr. Sauter told it: “I was driving over a bridge in Neshoba County and I spotted a black man in a boat, this old black man out in a flat-bottom rowboat, and he was dragging the bottom for bodies … and you just knew from looking at the expression on his face that he knew those kids had been murdered. So I started writing right there and I devoted my first six paragraphs to depicting that situation, the color of the water, the total ambiance. I was feeling absolutely elated until suddenly I turned around and there, at the other end of the bridge, was a TV crew with a mobile truck getting film of that same guy in the boat, and I suddenly realized that no matter how good a writer I was, that TV crew possessed that moment in way I never could.”

His conclusion: TV news didn’t have to represent the dumbing-down of journalism, but rather could deepen it, offering more truth than mere words.

Is this true? It’s hard to dispute it in that case, but so much depends on the selection and framing of the Moment, doesn’t it? It’s a deeper subjectivity, but not necessarily a deeper objectivity.

Nonetheless, the frozen moment, the poignant close, the dying fall, the expression that lingers and seems to say so much-these have become the signatures of broadcast news and a certain kind of TV-magazine show.

It was a time of transition in broadcast news, and “Moments” was just one of the ways in which Mr. Sauter defined the reorientation of the Rather broadcast: “We moved the broadcast out of Washington. We emphasized stories from across the country where we could tell national stories through human experience and human perceptions more than through statements of bureaucrats and politicians. We tried to find the stories which responded to what the aspirations and apprehensions of the American people were. We emphasized storytelling, both verbally and visually.”

Ah, “storytelling”: It seems to be the new self-congratulatory mantra of TV news. As if storytelling were some purely neutral process, as if, like Moments, storytelling didn’t involve selection, point of view, not to mention the introduction of narrative techniques such as dramatic and emotional structuring. As if there were a “pure storytelling” without context-without the context of what is omitted and why. As if storytelling equals truth. Storytelling often, for instance, offers a false closure that reality never does.

In a way, it was storytelling that got Mr. Rather in trouble: He and his people were so convinced of the “essential truth” of the Bush National Guard–dodging story that they didn’t realize the documents looked too good to be true. Proved their “story” too perfectly.

As the outside report on the Memogate scandal concluded: “Mapes and her team were not focussed on any particular topic, [they] were trying to identify a viable story line regarding the President’s military service.”

Good storytelling is almost always a virtue in fiction-but in nonfiction? It requires someone to select what stories are the stories that America will hear every night and why, as well as how those stories will be shaped and how much those values derived from fiction-drama, narrative drive, closure-will affect them. Not to mention emotion, so easy to manipulate.

Back then, I criticized Mr. Sauter’s “Moments” and “storytelling” theories for the uniformity of emotion that typical Evening News pieces aim for: the “man must prevail,” reach-out-and-touch-people-struggling-nobly-with-their-suffering aesthetic. Moments that both register human tragedies and yet make them occasions for the uniform celebration of the “human spirit.”

My story on Mr. Sauter and his Theory of Moments caused some embarrassment for the Sauter-Rather regime. A former CBS person told me, “Rather came out looking like [a jerk] with his ‘Moments’ buttons, so you didn’t hear much talk about [‘Moments’] for a long time after that.”

But the Theory of Moments lives on. In his December 2003 column, Richard Reeves wrote that Mr. Sauter left CBS “saying he was just ahead of his time. For better or worse, he was right.” Mr. Reeves believes that the Theory of Moments helped to create a culture in which issues-and people-live and die on the overemphasized, decontexualized content of a single moment, as we’d learn from the Dean Scream or Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction.”

But there was one insider criticism of Mr. Rather himself that fascinated me. Someone who was on the scene when I was doing the reporting told me, “I’m glad you didn’t fall for Rather’s typewriter act, the whole ‘I’m the big writer’ thing.” In fact, I kind of had fallen for it, but fortunately I didn’t write about it.

Fortunately because, this guy assured me, it was a sham designed for use when reporters were around-to show off the rolled-up-shirtsleeves, hands-on, ink-stained managing-editor type that Rather liked to be portrayed as, one still true to his writer’s roots. Was Mr. Rather’s typing for show? Was he trying to game another reporter?

It goes to the perennial question about Dan Rather: How much of a newsman is he really, and how much is he someone who plays a newsman on TV?

I can’t say for sure that I know the answer to that question; the criticism could have come from an internal enemy trying to spin me to the Rather-is-a-sham side. That’s the problem with pure storytelling: It doesn’t exempt journalism from investigating the agendas behind the stories.

Cut to the end of Mr. Rather’s career, and yet another typewriter. Or alleged typewriter, the alleged Texas Air National Guard typewriter. And another question of what, if anything, was typed on it. Were documents faked on a simulated typewriter? Did somebody play Dan Rather-alleged sham typist-using a sham typewriter? Would Mr. Rather have been more suspicious if his own typing were not a charade? And, indeed, was it a charade? Irony (or karma), anyone?

Because, as it turned out, the sham-or-real-reporter question was at the heart of the National Guard document scandal. Mr. Rather wants it both ways: He wants to be credited as a hard-nosed, hard-charging newsman, which in many ways he is-but when something goes wrong with his storytelling, with his hard-charging investigative “hunches,” and he pushes his staff beyond the limits of credulity (and alert bloggers expose him), suddenly, no, he’s not involved with the details, he’s too busy with other important stuff, like the Florida hurricane. And if you read his defense by the CBS outside panel, he’s basically a heavily made-up face put on other people’s work. He’s a stuffed shirt, a talking head; he’s not responsible.

You can’t have it both ways, Dan. But you can go out with class-still, I think, even considering your classless, clueless behavior to the four who got the ax to save your job.

Follow my advice: After reconsidering your original intentions, announce that you’re resigning and calling for the reinstatement of the four who are on the streets because of you. Take a stand for the people who worked so hard for you. People will respect you. Cry on air if you want to; indeed, walk off the set if you want to. You’ve done it before. Seize the Moment!