What's the Frequency, Dan Rather?

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.

"I've already been the recipient of one quite prestigious honor this week--the Scott Rudin Award," Shearer told the progressive Liberty Hill throng gathered at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

"This is given to whoever succeeds in pissing off Mr. Rudin at any particular time. In lieu of a plaque or statuette, what I got to show for this award was an invitation not to attend the premiere of a motion picture in which I appeared as an actor."

We can practically hear the stomachs grumbling, not to mention "The Truman Show" producer. The trouble with Harry? It might have been "The Trouble With Carrey," the headline for a making-of-"Truman" memoir that Shearer wrote for Details magazine.

Shearer had heard that Edward S. Feldman, another "Truman" producer, was upset about it, so he wrote a "very four-legs-up-in-the-air" letter to Feldman.

"I said, 'I'm amazed you're upset because I intended nothing bad for the movie and basically thought I was helping the picture.' I was a little appalled that Details had given it a headline which was totally misleading, because, as I say in the first paragraph, I never ran into Jim during the making of the movie, so I had nothing to say on the subject of Jim Carrey."

A few months later, Shearer heard that Rudin was mad at him, too.

"I had my publicist call and say, 'Look, I don't really care that much about attending the premiere, but I just don't want to be in a feud with Scott Rudin.' And the answer I got was, 'I'd rather cancel the premiere.' So I guess we're in a feud."

Rudin couldn't be reached for comment.

Not to worry. The Liberty Hill Foundation, which funds a broad range of community activists, gave bellies full of plaudits to the satirist, and to the political alternative rock band Rage Against the Machine; Liberty Hill board co-chairman Wally Marks, and Linda Marquez, leader of a neighborhood fight against a toxic concrete dump in Huntington Park.

Shearer was granted the group's top honor--the Upton Sinclair Award. The outspoken performer connected the dots between his era and that of the legendary reformer.

"It's not that long a distance from Sinclair's historic election campaign, in which he pledged to end poverty in California, to the current climate in which the parties unite in simply pledging to end the poor."

Burger King, anyone?

*

Buddies in Motion: It may have been a dog-eat-dog world out there in that cruel wasteland known as Holmby Hills Adjacent, but it was buddy-eat-with-buddy inside the palace that daytime drama built.

The setting was the home of Colleen and Bradley Bell. Bradley is a scion of the soap opera dynasty that has brought you not only "The Bold and the Beautiful" but also "The Young and the Restless," both of which were created by Ma and Pa Bell, a.k.a. Bill and Lee.

The Bells were ringing in a benefit that generated $250,000 for the SoCal chapter of Best Buddies, a national organization that helps the mentally retarded dive into the mainstream by teaming them with real-world jobs and friends in colleges and high schools.

The group is the brainchild of Anthony Kennedy Shriver, who brought along members of his own dynasty--brother Bobby, sister Maria and brother-in-law Arnold Schwarzenegger. The evening honored the Shrivers' best buddy, photographer Herb Ritts, who has been helping the family help the mentally disabled since he met Bobby socially a decade ago. Ritts also helps promote the Special Olympics for mom Eunice Shriver.

But lately, Ritts' phone has been ringing about other work--his seductive spread of Monica Lewinsky on the beach in Malibu--no, it only seems like she's everywhere--in the July issue of Vanity Fair.

"I keep getting the Monica thing," he said amid a deluge of buddies. "The pictures speak for themselves, and these are great. I like her spirit."

Ritts received the award from his buddy Cindy Crawford, who was escorted by her best buddy, Rande Gerber, Sky Bar owner and Crawford's husband of three weeks. Gerber was still beaming from their secluded lobster-bake wedding in the Bahamas that was journalist-proofed thanks to 50 beefy guys, various boats and a pack of paparazzi-sniffing pooches. Yikes! That Out & About we don't need to be.

Back at the event, Crawford applauded Ritts for adding "another F" to his portfolio--"friend, fotographer and filanthropist."

Down, kids.

"Yes, I am a model," said the model. "And I do know it's a P-H."

So there.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°