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The Sunday Conversation: Dan Rather is optimistic about change

The former CBS News anchor, now on HDNet, criticizes corporatization of news and politics and says the American people will work through it.

June 03, 2012|By Irene Lacher, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Journalist Dan Rather has a new book titled "Rather Outspoken."
Journalist Dan Rather has a new book titled "Rather Outspoken." (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

Still hard-working at 80, former CBS News anchor Dan Rather talks about his new memoir, "Rather Outspoken," in which he details new revelations about his ouster from the network after reporting on alleged discrepancies inGeorge W. Bush's military service; he also reviews career highlights and how he landed on his feet.

You write extensively about your ouster from CBS News. What have you learned about it that you didn't know when it happened?

Quite a lot. This was a major reason I went to a lawsuit, even though I'd been told that the odds were heavily against it. I knew there was a big story about what really happened behind the scenes at CBS. After I left, I hired some investigators out of my own pocket, but without the power of subpoena and the power of discovery, you can only go so far.

The chief lobbyist for Viacom, who was seeking favorable legislation for Viacom and the elimination of regulation for Viacom, was giving the news division president instruction on how to please the [Bush] administration, including, "Here are suggestions we have for members of the 'independent' commission." The corporation decided they were going to have an "independent" commission investigate what we did and why we did it. So to pass judgment on how we covered the story, the names suggested included the likes of Pat Buchanan, Rush Limbaugh — a list of clearly Republican partisan political operatives. They finally chose two friends of the Bush family to head the "independent" commission, including Mr. [Richard] Thornburgh, a former attorney general. Those are two things we found out, both of which I can't say startled me but very much surprised me. I would not have believed that that was possible.

Do you think that if you knew then what you know now that it would have changed anything?

I don't think it would have changed the firing of the good people who worked with me and eventually my own departure from CBS News, but it certainly would have, I think, changed the public perception of what had happened and what had not happened. And I certainly would have wanted to know that that was happening. For example, I was constantly told, "Dan, we want to get CBS News and you through this as best we possibly can. You need to play team." And if I knew this, I certainly would not have played team, which I did, and I fault myself for doing so in retrospect.

We didn't know that the corporation eventually hired their own investigator … from a firm that was closely connected to Rudolph Giuliani. I have nothing against Mr. Giuliani, but he's clearly partisan. And that investigator told people while doing the investigation that he believed the story was correct. He destroyed all of his notes. Now this is a former FBI man, and what legitimate private investigator transcribes what people tell him and then in the end destroys all his notes?

Were you aware of the Republican blogger [Buckhead] who made the charges that sparked the Internet firestorm?

I was aware of who the blogger was. I was not aware of his connections to the chief counsel's office inside the White House. All of those accusations were false, each and every one of them. And by the way, one of the things we found out in the lawsuit, the so-called independent commission investigated every one of those — typeface, typewriter, all of that stuff — and found them to be untrue.

You identify a structural problem with a lot of contemporary mainstream journalism — the corporatization of the news. But you say you're optimistic about the future of journalism. How so?

I'm an optimist by experience and by nature. That's No. 1. No. 2, I do think when the public becomes fully aware of how dangerous this is, I hope there will be changes. I may not see them in my lifetime. But I learned when I was in the anchor chair and before to have great confidence in the audience. The American people are smart. So much is hidden from them, but more and more it's coming out. This situation of very big business, very big conglomerates being in bed with big government in Washington, whether that government is led by Republicans or Democrats, I think the public is becoming increasingly aware of it, and I think the public is getting a gut full of it. And that leads me to be at least long-range optimistic.

Although another trend in journalism is a lot of people getting their information from partisan sources that they agree with.

Yes, it's what I call "the echo chamber."

So how would they see through that?

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