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Dan Blather in a Lather

Dan Blather can manage to become the drama instead of the news. But it's not as if he was some kid just out of a high school journalism 101 class.
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I see where Dan Rather is making headlines again. The legendary anchorman, who was thrown overboard in the wake of his network finding him guilty in the Memogate Flap of 2004, is now making a splash of himself, as some critics see it, by suing CBS and Viacom for $70 million, claiming damage to his reputation and other crimes.

The original CBS news story, reported by Rather, which is a major part of the suit, had created the biggest firestorm since the Chicago Fire of 1871. Dan had always been the media equivalent of Mrs. O'Leary's cow. He managed to become the story in covering the news, whether it was leaving the network in the black by walking out of the news studio because the tennis match ran too long or somebody on the street asking him "What's the frequency, Kenneth?"

The shock waves caused by the unprecedented suit reminded me again of the debate that erupted following a report on the Sept. 8, 2004 edition of 60 Minutes II about the authenticity of the documents that Dan Rather said indicated the president received preferential treatment during the Vietnam War. It was a scoop that made Dan Rather the most disgraced journalist since Jayson Blair.

Not since Congressman Richard Nixon found the Woodstock typewriter that Alger Hiss allegedly used in passing secrets to Whittaker Chambers had the fate of the free world seemed to depend on a typewriter font.

The casting doubt and threat to the Republic grew so bad in the two weeks after Rather's "exclusive," I was afraid to turn on the radio in the afternoon. Ann Coulter was going ballistic in her newspaper column. There must have been 10,000 websites attacking Dan Rather and CBS News. The not-recognizing-that-the-fon- in-the-1973-electric-typewriter-wasn't-invented-until-after-the-war proved conclusively that CBS' initials stood for the Communist Broadcasting System, as some people knew all along. Any minute I was expecting additional documents to turn up inside a pumpkin on Dan Rather's Texas ranch.

After 10 days of swearing for the authenticity, Rather and CBS finally began swearing at those who gave them the documents. They couldn't prove their authenticity. Everybody concerned said they were sorry. The apologies evoked the memory of my favorite news commentator, Emily Litella on Weekend Update, saying "never mind."

It wasn't CBS News' 60 minutes of glory.

"We're going to thoroughly investigate," said CBS News President Andrew Heyward, while appointing an in-house committee, as CBS did during the Westmoreland documentary case, the network's other major Vietnam War setback.

The report by the CBS News panel of experts, which Rather in his suit claimed was biased, exonerated the people at the network who had appointed the panel. This wasn't the first time in the history of investigative panels appointed by the people who should be under investigation that this has happened.

The report served another function. It was the banana peels the network news division needed to make its star anchorman walk the plank.

Rather had been an anchor so long (since 1982) he had barnacles. The scandal gave Heyward the excuse for giving Dan a push. In the back of his mind, he was plotting how to save the evening news, mired for the last 10 years in third place in the network news ratings race. His secret weapon was Katie Couric, who he admired as a journalist.

Heyward himself was fired before he could see that Couric is now on the way to being the biggest ratings disaster since Howard Stringer fell in love with Connie Chung as anchorwoman of the century, making Dan sit with her briefly on the Chungadan evening news.

Personally, I think Dan Rather got snookered. He had the chance to nail the president in the scoop of the election year, which could have been as big as the Swift Boat story that sank Kerry. Instead of checking out the typewriter vs. word processor issue, he goes with it.

He wasn't the first great journalist to be snookered. Remember "The Hitler Diaries" scandal that snookered Rupert Murdoch and his once prestigious Sunday Times of London?

Peter Arnett of CNN got stung in the famous documentary Tailwind, which claimed we were using nerve gas during the Vietnam War. The New York Times got snookered with all the news that Jayson Blair thought was fit to print.

Rather fell into the old Nixon trap of stonewalling. A day or two after the true facts were becoming known, he should have stood up and said, " Hey, folks, I think I made a mistake. This guy lied to me."

He could have blamed it all on his not bringing his reading glasses to work that day.

He could have even written an op-ed piece in The New York Times explaining he was only following the basic TV journalism principle of why let the facts get in the way of a good story? After all, if a story is too good to be true, then it also was to good to verify endlessly because it might be disproved before it could be aired. Then what would you have for all your time and money?

Whatever. I made a mistake. That's all he had to say. America is one of the most forgiving countries in the world. Everybody has been lied to by used car salesmen, real estate agents, TV commercials endorsers, even presidents.

All of this was ancient history, until Dan Rather shocked the TV news business by raking up a story that somehow seemed to have gotten buried like it had been sealed up in a coal mine in Wyoming.

The fascinating thing about the original hysteria about the Memogate Flap is what kind of scoop was it anyway? Was there anyone who didn't know the president wasn't exactly John Wayne during the Vietnam War? Was it a shock that George W. Bush might have been an irresponsible rich young man? Didn't we know years ago that he was a party animal as a young man? Didn't we know that connections might have gotten him a sweet spot in the Air National Guard? And would anybody have been surprised if his attendance record was probably not the greatest in the history of the weekend warriors in the National Guard?

The thing that amazed me is the way the story was treated as if anybody who touched it would get the bubonic plague. Why weren't other networks, especially those who are the most trusted name in TV news, whichever network that may be (I lose track), nailing down the story? Why was the focus totally on Dan Rather? Wasn't Dan just the fly on the horse's ass, as Dan himself might have put it, coining one of his phony folksy sayings?

Okay, Dan Blather can seem like a jerk sometimes, managing to become the drama instead of the news. But it's not as if he was some kid just out of a high school journalism 101 class, Where there's fire, as Dan might say quoting an old Indian saying, there must be smoke.

Once again, Dan has become the story. Still not Smiling George, the poster boy of the Air National Guard.

Let's all hoist a few brewskis to the invincible Red Baron von Richtofen of the Air National Guard, who we in the media allowed to fly away from the dog fight as Hurricane Dan went down in flames.

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