Dan Rather remembers
Journalistic icon Dan Rather came to Port Arthur this week for the Distinguished Lecture Series at Lamar State College-Port Arthur. The event at the Carl A. Parker Multipurpose Center was originally scheduled for October, but was rescheduled due to Rather’s illness. The 82-year-old whose career has spanned the history of the post-war world was spry and erudite as he made his appearance on campus.
Rather is known worldwide for his long tenure as anchor of the television programs “60 Minutes” and the “CBS Evening News.” His beginnings, though not as auspicious, gave an indication of the hard-nosed, investigative approach to reporting that would catapult him to national journalistic acclaim. He once famously said, “I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a reporter.” Similarly, most Americans would be hard-pressed to remember a time when they didn’t know Rather as the face of television news.
Before he delivered his lecture to a large crowd, Rather sat down with local reporters while a group of journalistic students looked on for a no-holds-barred interview.
When you were at KHOU in Houston, did you ever get over here to cover any stories?
The answer is yes, but I don’t remember specifics. We’d get up to Beaumont, Port Arthur, Orange – the so-called Golden Triangle – very often but I – believe it or not – lived in Beaumont for about two or three weeks when I was 14. I was a member of a brush-cutting crew. We cut brush for a pipeline survey running from Houston up here and over to Louisiana. We lived in Liberty, Texas, for about two and a half weeks and cut our way up and eventually made it to Beaumont. I remember going to Beaumont Exporters baseball games; they were in the Texas League at that time.
We’ve just gone through massive coverage of the assassination of President Kennedy. You were in Dallas that day. Where were you when the shots rang out?
Yes, I was in Dallas at the time of the Kennedy assassination. I’d been put in charge of the CBS coverage of what was expected to be – quote “a routine political visit.” Frankly because I grew up in Texas was the reason they assigned me to it.
That’s why I was in Dallas. It turned out to be a pretty day; it had rained earlier. I know it seems archaic in the video age but well before videotape, film had to be processed. The norm for us and other networks was you had film drops along the motorcade route, designated places where the camera crew could throw their can of film off to you so you could get a jump on processing. Remember, I didn’t expect to be on the air; my job was to prepare the piece for that night’s “CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite” for their White House correspondent, the late Bob Pierpoint, but we had these pre-designated places where the camera crew would throw off the film. Since it was a pretty day, the motorcade was to end just past the Schoolbook Depository at the underpass. I thought positioning myself on the other side of the underpass was the last place before they went on to the Trade Mart …
Did you see the three hobos (photographed that day and the subject of much speculation)?
No. I didn’t hear any shots; I didn’t know what had happened. But I thought I saw the presidential limousine but it went by in such a blur that I thought it took a wrong turn because it was supposed to go to the Trade Mart … but when the rest of the motorcade failed to follow I knew something was wrong, so I thought I better get back to our broadcast facility about two blocks from there at KRLD. By the time I got back to the station, which took only two or three minutes, maybe four, it was obvious that shots had been fired at the president, that he probably had been hit, and he probably had been hit very badly.
Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone in assassinating President Kennedy?
This is something I remain open-minded about but my own opinion – and I’m very tolerant of people that have other opinions – I think there was one gun, one shooter and the shooter was Lee Harvey Oswald. I don’t think there was a conspiracy, but about that you can’t say the facts demonstrate there wasn’t. It’s one of those things that’s very hard to prove or disprove, so I want to be clear. I’ve investigated this continually and I remain open-minded about it, but on Oswald being a shooter, I think there’s practically very little if any reasonable doubt that he was a shooter. He killed police officer J.D. Tippit just after the president was killed. I consider that to be the Rosetta Stone of the case that Oswald did the shooting. But that’s where I stand on the facts as I know them. … Part of what’s complicated it is that neither the FBI or the CIA – particularly the CIA but both of them – gave the Warren Commission all the information that they should have given and therefore the Warren Commission’s process was flawed. I think they reached the right conclusions but I do understand how so many people can have doubts about it because those two agencies withheld so much information from the Warren Commission about what they knew about Oswald. … My opinion, clearly labeled, is they were fearful if they acknowledged what they knew about Oswald, they would somehow be blamed. But it is a big leap from that to saying they were part of a conspiracy to kill the president.
You mentioned the digital age. In your day, you had to find a phone to get the news out.
This is one of the things — for context and perspective, it was a different era. No cell phones, no portable telephones of any kind, and that’s one reason I hightailed it back to the station. I didn’t realize what had happened but I knew something had happened and I was out of position. As the person that was supposed to be in charge of logistics for our coverage, anything that happened was obviously a big story. … There were no cell phones and no cell camera. The Zapruder film – I was among the first journalists to see the Zapruder film – it’s a reminder how few people had home movie cameras in that day. Today everybody would have a cell camera and there would be all kinds of pictures of the assassination.
You were part of what is called the golden age of TV news when it was very highly respected; now not so much. Your take on what the public feels about what we do?
You’re talking about news in general? I want to be careful because everything changes. The pace of change has accelerated in our society, in our country, in almost everything. So you talk about something as relatively recent as six or seven years ago, there have been so many changes it’s difficult to compare. I am concerned about what I’ve called the politicization, corporatization and trivialization of the news – and I don’t exempt myself from that criticism. You know, I’m still a working journalist; I work full-time and I’ve made my mistakes. I have my wounds, some of them still open wounds, some of them self-inflicted. … Most of us in journalism understand that we’ve had something of a loss of nerve. I’ve said before and I say now we need a spine transplant and we need some grit, and yes, some courage to do quality journalism of integrity and to see journalism in any form as a public trust, to be operated as a public service. I’m accused of speechifying about that and I take that criticism as probably true, but I passionately love the news and passionately believe in the importance of quality news. …
What is your take on the recent “60 Minutes” controversy with Lara Logan and the Benghazi story that was highly criticized?
First of all, I want in no way to add to CBS News difficulties. They have questions to answer; they have problems, and I know what it is to be in the vortex of controversy. And I’m not going to pass judgment on them or criticize them in any way. I still have many friends at CBS News. I have respect for Lara Logan who was a younger correspondent when I was there, so I don’t want to add to their difficulties in any way.
Let me follow up on your incident at “60 Minutes” in 2004 on the George W. Bush military service record. Your producer, Mary Mapes, was fired, the authenticity of some documents was challenged, but the essential truth of your story has never been disproven. … When you go around today, do people ask why you reported something that was not true when in fact it was true?
Thank you for raising that. I want to make clear that whatever one thinks about our story on a younger George W. Bush and his military service, our story was true. We reported a true story and the best evidence of that is that up to and including this moment, the president never denied it nor have members of his family denied it. There was no joy in reporting this but we reported a true story. One, that a young George Bush, his father had used his influence to get him in the Air National Guard so he didn’t have to go to Vietnam. Plenty of other people did it, but that’s a fact. Second, while he was in the Air National Guard, unfortunately – and again, there’s no happiness in saying it – he disappeared for a long period of time. Anybody whose ever been in the military knows that for most people in the military, you can’t disappear for two hours, much less weeks, and that’s what we reported and it was true. Some people, some for ideological and political purposes, thought that we got to the truth but the process was faulty, and they succeeded in keeping the focus on the process. … Our story was true and it remains true to this day. The process by which we got to this truth was so attacked that the corporation – CBS and Viacom at the time – they folded to the pressure and that’s what happened.
Finally, is there one story you reported that you remember as especially meaningful to you, either in your career or a broader sense?
I’ve really been lucky and mightily blessed that I’ve had a lot of big stories – the Kennedy assassination, Watergate, Afghanistan, 9-11 – it’s always hard for me to pick one story but if I’m forced to pick one, covering Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement. The early stages of the movement in the early 1960s changed me as a person, and it changed me as a professional, and I learned so much on that story and it remains a story with far-reaching consequences for the country and, for that matter, on a global basis. It inspired such people as Nelson Mandela and others, so if I had to pick one, I would pick that story.