I almost quit this book several times, as I struggled to make it through the first three CDs of the ten-CD audiobook. Not because it was bad (I wouldn’t have had a problem quitting if it were just bad), but because it was very well done recounting of a couple of very hard stories. In the first two chapters, Rather recounts breaking the Abu Ghraib scandal and the Bush National Guard scandal, and having to deal with the push backs and the attempts both external and internal to CBS to squash those stories.
In my imagination, the news business is run by the type of irascible fictional news editors like J. Jonah Jameson of the Daily Bugle (from Spiderman) and Perry White of the Daily Planet (from Superman). They’re gritty and obnoxious abut are all about getting the news out there and aren’t going to put up with anyone trying to quash a story:
“I’ve got a story,” I said. “My source has leaked a lot of highly classified information, and the paper could get in a lot of trouble if we run it. But if we don’t, my source is going to keep trying until he finds someone who’ll print it.”
Jameson’s face lit up like Christmas. “That’s just about my favorite thing in the world to hear,” he said, and chomped on his cigar for emphasis. “What’s the story?”
And yes, I realize that’s a highly romanticized notion of how investigative reporting works, and yet, it is the image I have in my head. From Rather Outspoken, I got the impression that Dan Rather has a similar idea of how the news should run. News, by it’s very nature, is something new and the people who are currently in power, happy with their power, and happy with the status quo, are not going to want told. If no one is offended or angry about the news, then it’s probably not very useful news. A news organization, then, should know that it’s setting itself up to fight a series of battles, and those organizations who ignore stories and refuse to fight are failing at their jobs.*
With this vision in mind, for Rather, seeing CBS cave in to political pressure is a personal betrayal as well as a professional one and just… hard. For me, it’s painful to see that betrayal and to realize that, as a member of a very different generation, it doesn’t really surprise me at all. I have an idealized vision of news reporters, but I don’t actually believe it’s real.
Luckily, after that, Rather turns to looking with a more large-scale perspective on his life and career and goes back over events of the past. I do wonder though, if it becomes easier for me because he begins to discuss events that happened before I was born and if they would remain difficult to hear for people who had lived through them and could feel those traumas again in the recounting, of the Kennedy assassination, the civil rights movement, the Watergate scandal…
Anyway, it was a very good book, and while I didn’t always agree with Rather on his politics or his interpretations, I do whole heartedly agree with him on the importance of an informed public and the dangers of a progressively more corrupt news industry.
* Speaking of people who are failing at their jobs: I’m going to take a moment to call out the U.S. Congress: if they can’t keep the government running, then maybe we need to get a new Congress. Is there a way to make a vote of not confidence? This is the type of dirty politics that Rather managed to immerse himself in so he could report on it, but that I find so distasteful that I can barely stand to listen to.