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It's news to him

In suing CBS, his old network, Dan Rather pulls back the curtain on the cult of the anchor.

September 21, 2007

Whatever its legal merits, Dan Rather's lawsuit against CBS -- in which he says he wasn't clued-in on the details of a 2004 report he narrated about George W. Bush's Texas Air National Guard record -- dispels the myth of the omniscient news anchor. Who knew, when Rather was giving "60 Minutes II" viewers the straight scoop on questions about Bush's service, that he was relying on the assurances of his production team as to the authenticity of damaging documents?

Actually, anyone familiar with the inner workings of TV news might have guessed that Rather's report, which the network eventually disavowed, wasn't a one-man show any more than his "CBS Evening News" broadcasts were. But for many viewers, Rather and his avuncular antecedent, Walter Cronkite, were more than mere "news readers" (the term used in Britain). They were also, even in advanced middle age, reporters and editors. Never mind that much of the reporting was done by invisible producers and researchers. The cult of the news anchor -- reconsecrated every time an anchor leaves the desk for Iraq or New Orleans -- has survived because star-struck viewers heed the injunction of the Great Oz: "Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!"

But now Rather himself, in suing his former employers for $70 million, has pierced the curtain. If the documents were fraudulent -- something Rather still doesn't concede -- it wasn't his fault because he wasn't really in charge. In his legal complaint, "one of the foremost broadcast journalists of our time" (if he does say so himself) alleges that CBS sought to deflect criticism from the White House by making Rather the "public face" of the National Guard story. How dare they! After all, the real work was done by others, who assured Rather that "all the documents had been vetted and were authentic."

Rather might have subjected the documents to some of that Texas-style skepticism with which he once challenged President Nixon. But at the time, his complaint notes, he was chasing down other breaking news: "former President Bill Clinton's heart surgery, Hurricane Frances and the Republican National Convention in New York." As they say in the Lone Star State, Rather's schedule was tighter than a tick.

There is more to Rather's complaint than his assertion that he was out of the loop. He also alleges that CBS kowtowed to the Bush administration in delaying a report about abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Still, the anchor (as it were) of Rather's grievance is the claim that the network pretended that he knew more than he did. Given the ridicule such a "defense" will inspire, we have one word for Rather: courage.

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