Friday, September 21, 2007

Dan Rather: The Six Million Dollar Newsman

A few thoughts about Dan Rather's heroic (Quixotic?) assault on CBS.

The recent $70M lawsuit brought by Dan Rather against CBS is being billed as a violation of contractual obligations, but it actually stems from a change in broadcast journalism standards that moves the audience's focus from the news story to the news reporter.

I worked at CBS News in the early 1980s when it was tolerated as a cost center but was still the jewel in the corporation’s crown. More specifically, I worked indirectly for Dan Rather as a budget analyst for CBS Reports before it was axed as a non-revenue producing program by new CBS owner Lawrence Tisch. Prior to 1982, the reportage of CBS News was based on a print model where certain standards of journalism were acknowledged, if not always adhered to. Tisch believed the new information environment of broadcast journalism required a subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) change in journalism practices. This is to say that CBS News, under William Paley, aspired to the print model of journalism, while CBS since Lawrence Tisch has adopted broadcast standards that have more to do with ratings than with writings. Along with Rupert Murdoch and other media moguls, Tisch decided to exploit the gap between what the public wanted to know and what the public needed to know.

My son, a graduate of the New York University Film School (formally known as the Tisch School of the Arts - no kidding), recently pointed out to me the differences in the narrative biases of print vs. broadcast media. Print allows the author to create a scene, to develop a narrative based on complex situations and subtle character interactions. Film and broadcast narratives don’t have time for this. Instead, they focus on creating a hero.

Dan Rather, who once was featured on the cover of Time Magazine as CBS News' "Six-Million-Dollar Man," ascended to the CBS anchor chair during this "print to broadcast" transition period. While he almost always tried to stay true to print journalism standards, the pull of broadcast narrative biases was strong. His early work on CBS Reports adhered to the earlier standards of print journalism. His stint as a highly paid anchorman often descended into personal heroics.

Rather once walked off the news set when his time was pre-empted to carry the end of a sporting event. He thought he was making a stand for journalistic standards, but it was generally interpreted as a celebrity hissy-fit. The stress of working under new broadcast assumptions led Rather to end his nightly broadcasts with the admonition "Courage." Compare that with Edward R. Murrow's "Good night and good luck" or Walter Cronkite's "And that's the way it is."

It is ironic, though not unexpected that, in being pilloried by the CBS brass, Rather has followed the path of the hero (see Joseph Campbell) and now returns to tilt at the corporate windmill.

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