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What's the Frequency, Dan Rather?

June 21, 1998|Irene Lacher

Leaks can be tricky business. If you don't keep your eye on the tap, you can find yourself standing in a pool of hot water.

Take Kenneth W. Starr. No less an accused leaker than the independent prosecutor may be tempted to grab for a towel, now that the White House is calling for the investigator to be investigated.

To do our part to keep the White House away from any door where Out & About makes its pleasant Sunday landing, we now offer a lesson in leakage from one of America's prime leakees, Dan Rather.

Let's start with the landscape. "It's right now a leak-a-rama in Washington," says the longtime "CBS Evening News With Dan Rather" anchor.

Reporters have always relied on leaks to root out bureaucratic bad guys, but not all leaks are created equal. The ones that may not hold water are "orchestrated leaks," Rather says, "leaks that are deliberately done" to manipulate public opinion.

Here's a real one. The leak subject is guess who. Monica Lewinsky emerges from FBI headquarters not long ago and walks the plank, the great gantlet of cameras and microphones jabbing at her personal space. Then CBS News gets a call.

Turns out she could have gone out the back door.

"The Starr side--I'm not saying Starr himself--says, 'We're putting the squeeze on her, and we've really got her in a vise, and we want to turn that vise an extra turn by hauling her into FBI headquarters to get from her what we could have gotten in other ways. But it might look brutal to make her run that thing, so we'd better offer her a back door.'

"Now the Monica Lewinsky side is, they don't want to go out the back door, because their message is 'Starr's outrageous by hauling us down here. So we're going to walk the gantlet because we want to be seen walking the gantlet, and we're going to stop at every microphone while Mr. Lewinsky says "This is outrageous." '

"This is in microcosm how the game is now played," Rather says, "and I don't see it getting better."

In the spirit of full disclosure, we should tell you that this is a leak. We thought we'd dribble some of Rather's comments from a chat with Robert Batscha, president of the Museum of Television & Radio, before a recent dinner there honoring the folksy eminence grise of TV news.

"I can be dumb as wall paint about a lot of things," said Texas native Rather, "but I'm not dumb enough to think, in a room this large, anything will stay off the record. And I have no complaint."

Whew! In that case, we'll tell you that Rather seems to have taken the baton from his former boss and conscience-of-broadcast-journalism Walter Cronkite, and he's rapping us all on the knuckles with it.

The problem is this Lewinsky Thing. It's turned otherwise respectable journalists into a pack of not-so-respectable journalists.

"It still stuns me how quickly it happened, but we went from reporters of integrity who check it out--hell, even back in deep east Texas, we knew you trust your mother but you check it out--to 'We don't check anything out.' You hear it, you rush to air, because who knows? You might be right."

Even Rather's knuckles are stinging from that one.

"In our organization, someone called and said, 'Brand X is reporting the stain in the dress.' You say, 'Well, I think I know where that came from, but it's one source, and the source is three times removed from anybody who even claims to have seen the dress.'

"But this is a new day. You don't have time to make a phone call. We need it live and we need it now because we're having our heads handed to us by the competition. Don't misunderstand me. We've made our mistakes, and I'm not pointing at the other fellow. . . . But where we go from here is very important. Because we have lost tremendous hunks of our credibility, and we deserve it."

One culprit has been the worship of the golden calf of ratings, which has prompted broadcast news organizations to, in Rather's words, "rush it out, sleaze it up and go to entertainment." CBS News did many things well, but sleazing it up wasn't one of them. So Edward R. Murrow's alma mater has gone back to focusing on hard news.

"Let's try," Rather says, "to run up a little tattered banner that says, 'OK, our demographics are not the best in the world. We're a serious news broadcast for serious people.'

"But the verdict is still out. A lot of people believe we're limiting our growth, that there is a limit to hard news, that we can survive, but we can't thrive with it. Our bet is to the contrary, and we shall see."


Shearer Madness: Sheesh! Does a guy have to have hundreds of people gather in a hotel ballroom in his honor to get some tasty catered eats in this town?

A good meal was had by heavy-metal bass player-actor-KCRW "Le Show" mainstay Harry Shearer when he was feted by the Liberty Hill Foundation recently. But when "The Truman Show" had its sumptuous premiere the week before, it was strictly McDonald's takeout for Shearer, despite his role in the film as an oily TV news guy.

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