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The Sunday Conversation: Dan Rather is optimistic about change

Journalist Dan Rather has a new book titled "Rather Outspoken."
(Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times)

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.

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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?

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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.

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Yes, it’s what I call “the echo chamber.”

So how would they see through that?

I can only hope that they will. But I do agree that that is and has been for quite some time now a trend. I don’t think it’s a trend that helps the country. I don’t want to be preachy about this, and I don’t think I am, but we understand, at least since seventh-grade civics class, that a free press — truly independent, fiercely independent press — is the red, beating heart of freedom and democracy. That’s in some peril now. I think the public is beginning to recognize this. This is not a Democrat or Republican issue, not a conservative-liberal issue. On this I think we all agree: We don’t want a few mega-corporations working in concert with the powers that be in Washington, having enormous influence on what we see, read and hear as news. On that, I think there’s a national consensus.

How do you see the November election shaping up against the backdrop of the corporatization of the news?

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I worry about it. The No. 1 concern is money. You’re looking at a $3-billion presidential campaign. I think people ought to be concerned, and I think people are beginning to understand that the most important question in this presidential campaign is, who is giving what money to whom, expecting to get what?

Aren’t a lot of big donors protected by the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision?

Yes. The best we can hope for in the short to medium run is, OK, the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have the same rights as people and that they and multibillionaire individuals can give unlimited sums. What we should demand is at least transparency, which we do not have to any large degree at the moment. OK, if you’re going to give enormous sums as a corporation or as individual big money daddies, your name should be attached to that giving. And that’s not the case at the moment. They use shell entities to protect the real source of the money.

You write about all the presidents you’ve known. You’re very kind to Reagan in the book, even though he was a key player in the rise of corporations and the corporatization of news, which you decry. How do you reconcile that?

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Not very well. I think that’s fair criticism. I’ve interviewed every president since Harry Truman, and I thought once about writing a book on that, which someday I may do. But I have no excuses. I’m not the vice president in charge of excuses. But I tried to keep [the chapters on the presidents] reasonably short and, in the case you mentioned, probably too short.

So how did George Clooney help you resurrect your career?

I want to emphasize, I don’t know George Clooney well. But at the time I was arguably at the lowest point of my career, having been forced to leave CBS News after 44 years, he invited me to be a presenter at an awards ceremony — I think it was the Writers Guild. [Later,] I was trying to decide what I was going to do. I was baffled and disappointed, to say the least, and a bit lost. He suggested that I call an acquaintance of his in Los Angeles, and that acquaintance suggested that I call [HDNet cable network Chairman] Mark Cuban, and that resulted in my working for the last six years on a one-hour news program for HDNet [“Dan Rather Reports”], over which I have total, complete and absolute creative and editorial control. So he helped in a seemingly small but very important and key way.

calendar@latimes.com

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