Danny, ye hardly knew ye

Posted: Mar 11, 2005 12:00 AM

In a perfect world, Dan Rather would have left his CBS News studio, and with his crowd of well-wishers and supporters in tow, walked up to the roof of CBS headquarters to board a helicopter to whisk him away from the national stage. Perhaps he could have even offered one last Nixonian gesture, a wave and two-handed victory sign?

But his farewell comments at the end of his last broadcast as CBS News anchor will do just fine.

A mere 215 words, it certainly wasn't verbose, even by the economical standards of the nightly news. And, on the surface, it was fair enough. The guy's gotta say something, right?

But, on a deeper level, his parting thoughts tell a lot about the man, and about the thing that made his broadcasts - and the mainstream media generally - so controversial.

One can forgive Rather for thanking of the "hundreds of professionals" at CBS News he worked with, even if it was a wry reminder that he let a few fellow professionals get the axe for a story he was in charge of.

No, what was most revealing in his farewell was the way he decided to take the word "courage" back down from the shelf.

"Not long after I first came to the anchor chair I briefly signed off using the word 'courage.' I want to return to it now, in a different way," he said, punctuating his sentences with oddly long pauses. "To a nation still nursing a broken heart for what happened here in 2001 and especially those who found themselves closest to the events of Sept. 11; to our soldiers in dangerous places; to those who have endured the tsunami and to all who have suffered natural disasters and who must find the will to rebuild; to the oppressed and to those whose lot it is to struggle, in financial hardship or in failing health; to my fellow journalists in places where reporting the truth means risking all; and to each of you: Courage."

Now, I don't have a huge problem with the sentiment behind Rather's comments, but the fact that the sentiment is there reveals the basic flaw with Rather's lifelong insistence that he was a purely "objective" reporter.

In 1992 Dan Rather told the Los Angeles Times: "I walk out every day trying to have a big 'I' for independence stamped right in the middle of my forehead. I try to play no favorites, pull no punches." He told NBC's Tim Russert: "You know, my job is to be accurate, be fair and, insofar as it's humanly possible, to keep my feelings out of every story. . I do agree that one test of a reporter is how often he or she is able to keep their emotions out of what they are doing and keep their own biases and agendas out of it."

Well if he's got that "I" on his forehead and he keeps his emotions out of it, why should he express any concern for Americans "nursing" broken hearts?

Sentimentalism about the victims of society may be an admirable trait in a man, but in a journalist who claims to prize objectivity above all else it's a betrayal. How do you define "victim"? How do you define "looking out" for him? For Rather's critics it was always clear that he saw the government as the protector of the little guy. And that meant anyone who favored reducing the role of the federal government was automatically the bad guy.

"The new Republican majority in Congress took a big step today on its legislative agenda to demolish or damage government aid programs, many of them designed to help children and the poor," Dan Rather began one typical segment. That these programs didn't do what they were designed to do wasn't an important part of the story for Rather.

Rather could always be counted on to elevate certain facts, certain experts, certain arguments as more important than others. Perhaps that's an inevitable feature of all media - but especially of TV and print, where a few players have enormous influence. One needn't be a postmodern relativist to understand that journalistic objectivity - the ideal of reporting the facts without prejudice or favor - is an unattainable goal.

I have no objection to journalists having biases, much as I have no objection to two plus two equaling four. One may choose to accept the fact or not, but it is a fact nonetheless. Dan Rather, however, always insisted his reporting was bias-free, that he was calling the facts, and just the facts. His career as anchor ended in large part because he couldn't accept that something he had reported wasn't true and that he had rushed to report it because of an agenda that wasn't stamped with an "I." The irony is that that's what his career was always about.