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Emotional Rather blasts ‘new journalism order’

September 19, 2005

By Paul J. Gough

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) – Former CBS News anchor Dan
Rather said Monday that there is a climate of fear running
through newsrooms stronger than he has ever seen in his more
than four-decade career.

Rather famously tangled with President Nixon and his aides
during the Watergate years while Rather was a hard-charging
White House correspondent.

Addressing the Fordham University School of Law in
Manhattan, occasionally forcing back tears, he said that in the
intervening years, politicians “of every persuasion” had gotten
better at applying pressure on the conglomerates that own the
broadcast networks. He called it a “new journalism order.”

He said this pressure — along with the “dumbed-down,
tarted-up” coverage, the advent of 24-hour cable competition
and the chase for ratings and demographics — has taken its
toll on the news business. “All of this creates a bigger
atmosphere of fear in newsrooms,” Rather said.

Rather was accompanied by HBO Documentary and Family
president Sheila Nevins, both of whom were due to receive
lifetime achievement awards at the News and Documentary Emmy
Awards on Monday evening.

Nevins said that even in the documentary world, there’s a
certain kind of intimidation brought to bear these days,
particularly from the religious right.

“If you made a movie about (evolutionary biologist Charles)
Darwin now, it would be revolutionary,” Nevins said. “If we did
a documentary on Darwin, I’d get a thousand hate e-mails.”

Nevin asked Rather if he felt the same type of repressive
forces in the Nixon administration as in the current Bush
administration.

“No, I do not,” Rather said. That’s not to say there
weren’t forces trying to remove him from the White House beat
while reporting on Watergate; but Rather said he felt supported
by everyone above him, from Washington bureau chief Bill Small
to then-news president Dick Salant and CBS chief William S.
Paley.

“There was a connection between the leadership and the led
. . . a sense of, ‘we’re in this together,”‘ Rather said. It’s
not that the then-leadership of CBS wasn’t interested in
shareholder value and profits, Rather said, but they also saw
news as a public service. Rather said he knew very little of
the intense pressure to remove him in the early 1970s because
of his bosses’ support.

Nevins took up the cause for Rather, who was emotional
several times during the event.

“When a man is close to tears discussing his work and his
lip quivers, he deserves bosses who punch back. I feel I would
punch back for Dan,” Nevins said.

Rather praised the coverage of Hurricane Katrina by the new
generation of TV journalists and acknowledged that he would
have liked to have reported from the Gulf Coast. “Covering
hurricanes is something I know something about,” he said.

“It’s been one of television news’ finest moments,” Rather
said of the Katrina coverage. He likened it to the coverage of
President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963.

“They were willing to speak truth to power,” Rather said of
the coverage.

Rather sidestepped the question of what should happen to
the evening news in the expected makeover. “Not my call,” he
said. And he said he hadn’t been asked, either.

“I gave it everything I had, I didn’t hold anything back. I
did the best newscast we were capable of doing,” Rather said.

Nevins, who almost single-handedly has kept the art of the
independent documentary on television, said the HBO
documentaries show real life and do it with as little damage to
the subjects as possible. She said the producers and directors
“respect mostly the people on the other side of the camera.”

Nevins said she didn’t shy away from such R-rated topics as
“G-String Divas” and “Taxicab Confessions” but noted that sex
and passion have been topics of literature since Chaucer’s day.
“The most R-rated is a body bag, not a naked body,” Nevins
said.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter