If Dan Rather is going to set himself up as our last defense against corporate corruption of news organizations, he's going to have to get better writers.
Fielding softball questions from old pal Larry King about his $70-million wrongful dismissal suit against CBS on "Larry King Live" on Thursday night, Rather dutifully trotted out enough boilerplate to raise the eyebrows if not the suspicions of much less seasoned journalists than he.
"It's not about the money," he said as so many big-ticket litigants have before him, "it's about getting at the truth."
The story that started the chain of events that led to Rather's departure from CBS concluded that strings had been pulled to get a young George W. Bush into the Texas Air National Guard, where he was protected from serving in Vietnam and had a spotty record of service. It relied on documents allegedly from Bush's late commander. When critics suggested these documents were forged, the story was discredited and Rather apologized on national television.
Three years later, a subdued and suspendered Rather, looking strangely like King's doppelgänger, is now ready to stand by his story, which he repeatedly told King was true.
"The facts of the story were true," he told King. ". . . No one has proved those documents were a forgery."
What really happened, he seemed to say, was that the pro-Bush leaders of CBS and its parent company, Viacom, angry over the piece, as a well as a "60 Minutes" look at Abu Ghraib, put Rather on the chopping block to appease the White House.
Not that he quite came out and said this. Rather came off at times too choked by indignation to be clear, at others as if he were reading from a legal brief.
Positioning himself mostly as a longtime loyal CBS employee rather than iconic news anchor, Rather said he had been persuaded to take one for the team.
"The corporation did not back us up," he said.
Rather, though verbose, seemed at a loss for real talk- ing points, lapsing instead into self-indulgent and maddening asides rather than sticking to the story.
"You're saying that the network copped out on you in trying to appeal to the Bush White House?" King offered helpfully. "Yes," said Rather. "That is the short answer."
Alas, he was not content with the short answer, continuing: "What I'm trying to do in my wee small way is to say to people . . . big government and big corporations have far too much influence and are intimidating."
And you could see him trying to redefine himself right before your eyes. At times, he was one of the few newsmen large enough to take on what he sees as a widespread corporate attack on journalistic integrity, at others just a working stiff whose contract had been broken.
Whether his cause, and case, is just or not, you'd think a man with as many years in front of the camera could do a little better than that.