Norman Solomon: This Is Your Life, Dan Rather
Mr. Rather, your departure from CBS has certainly stirred up a tornado of media hot wind — including plenty of accolades and no shortage of nostalgia, criticisms and laments that the network’s top executives were graceless as they pushed you out of the network.
The CBS News website reported that during your 50 years in broadcast journalism you “braved hurricanes, waded through flood waters, dodged bullets, comforted wounded GIs, mouthed off to presidents, wept on camera” and became “a lightning rod for conservatives.” The site’s long list of “memorable events” in your CBS career provided details on how you were “a witness to modern American history: the assassination of President Kennedy, the civil rights movement, Watergate, wars in Vietnam and Iraq.”
But in the retrospective media coverage of your career in recent days, I noticed that certain aspects of your professional behavior received notably short shrift.
Despite your reputation for speaking truth to power in Washington, your baseline seemed to be very different. For instance, in December 1985 — when the Kremlin again extended a unilateral moratorium on nuclear bomb test explosions despite rebuffs from the Reagan administration — you began the CBS coverage by scoffing: “Well, a little pre-Christmas propaganda in the air, a new arms control offer from Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.”
After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, your coverage from that country could hardly have been more enthusiastic about the U.S.-backed mujahedin rebels. Analysts at the media watch group FAIR (where I’m an associate) noted that “CBS coverage of Afghanistan often resembled artisan war propaganda more than reporting.”
In fact, Mr. Rather, it seems fair to say that — in a fashion typical of prominent TV news correspondents — you routinely treated wars as catalysts for patriotic greatness. At the close of the Gulf War, on Feb. 27, 1991, you wrapped up a broadcast interview with the 1st Marine Division commander by shaking his hand and declaring: “Again, general, congratulations on a job wonderfully done!”
Six days after Sept. 11, you went on David Letterman’s show and served as a role model for automatically obeying the man behind the desk in the Oval Office. “George Bush is the president,” you told viewers, “he makes the decisions.” Speaking as “one American,” you added: “Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where. And he’ll make the call.”
Sometimes, after the passions of war have cooled a bit, you’ve sounded briefly self-reproachful about journalistic excesses of zeal for the U.S. war effort. That was the case eight months after Sept. 11 when you told BBC Television on May 16, 2002, that fear of being labeled unpatriotic had caused American journalists to engage in “a form of self-censorship.” And, to your credit, you added that “I do not except myself from this criticism.”
But less than a year later, in April 2003, you went on CNN’s “Larry King Live” and proclaimed: “Look, I’m an American. I never tried to kid anybody that I’m some internationalist or something. And when my country is at war, I want my country to win, whatever the definition of ‘win’ may be. Now, I can’t and don’t argue that that is coverage without a prejudice. About that I am prejudiced.”
Well, Mr. Rather, I realize that no career can be summed up with just a few examples. Occasionally you were willing to go out on a limb to function as an independent-minded journalist and confront top U.S. government officials. More often, you were extreme in your fawning treatment of the powerful.
But most of all, you succumbed to the pattern that you aptly described back in a 1989 interview, pointing out that you — like so many other journalists — kept going back to “a shockingly small … circle of experts [who] … get called upon time after time after time.”
While you’re leaving broadcast news, that kind of over-reliance on official sources and conventional wisdom seems to be more entrenched than ever.
Norman Solomon’s latest book, “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death,” is now available in paperback. To find out more about Norman Solomon and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate website, www.creators.com.