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Book Review

"Lone Star: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Dan Rather"

by Jason Rzucidlo
americajr@americajr.com

Alan Weisman wrote a non-fiction book about legendary journalist Dan Rather and called it Lone Star: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Dan Rather. The book provides an accurate description of the highs and lows that occurred during his career.

Dan Rather grew up in the small town of Wharton, Texas. The town was also the birthplace of legendary race car drivers A.J. Foyt and Bobby Waltrip. Rather’s childhood wasn’t an easy one. He had rheumatic fever for five years, which limited his daily life activities. He wasn’t able to do everything that other kids could. Doctors weren’t sure if he was going to live a normal life.

Mr. Rather witnessed his father’s willingness to promote diversity. While at a political rally, his dad stood up with black politicians. Dan looked at his father and wondered why he would do such a thing. Ever since then, Rather has stood up for underdogs.

At a young age, he started a one-page newsletter that became a neighborhood bulletin board. He realized his love for journalism early on. He majored in journalism at Sam Houston Teacher’s College. He wrote for a small newspaper called the Huntsville Item.

Dan was very shy when he was starting out. He was actually scared to conduct an interview. He was also unsure of himself around girls. Later, he faced his fear and interviews became easier for him.

Rather’s first broadcast job was as a sports announcer for KSAM radio. The owner of the station asked him to call all the games and read the newscasts.

He failed basic training for the U.S. marines. Dan was disqualified because of his rheumatic fever which would have been interference on the battle field.

Dan met his wife while he was working for the Houston Chronicle and KTRH-TV which was owned by the newspaper at the time. He got married in April 1957 and had a daughter the very next year.

Mr. Rather arrived in New York City on Feb. 28, 1962. His first job was to cover a plane crash at Kennedy Airport. He also did extensive reporting on the Civil Rights Movement as it was unfolding at the time. He became the first reporter to accurately announce the death of former President John F. Kennedy.

Dan did a lot of moving around during his career. From New York, he was sent to the Washington bureau to cover the White House. While there, President Lyndon B. Johnson always ignored Rather during press conferences. Dan was always writing stories against the White House and most of them were negative. The President, LBJ asked Dan to submit more positive stories. Then, Rather was sent to work at the London bureau and cover the Vietnam War.

Rather was a man that wanted to work in both radio and television simultaneously. Whenever he heard a rumor about something, he would always go with it and report it like a story. Sometimes it worked and other times it proved to be inaccurate. However, CBS News was the first to make “Watergate” a national story.

The legendary journalist quickly became the face of CBS News. He interviewed numerous top officials such as Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein, among others. He traveled to Afghanistan in 1980 to cover some stories.

Not long after being named a contributor to 60 Minutes, Rather signed a contract to become anchor of the CBS Evening News. He was going to receive $22 million over the course of 10 years to do the job. Walter Cronkite signed off and Dan Rather signed on. It was Feb. 18, 1980 when Rather became the new anchor of the Evening News.

The same day Mr. Rather held a meeting in his partner. He was going to make major changes to the way his newscast was operating. He wanted to change the set, the opening, graphics and the entire look of the show. Dan had a hand in every personnel change that was related to his newscast. This was Dan’s time and he was starting to take over the show.

Dan totally changed the content of the CBS Evening News. He would never speak about Senate or House hearing. Another thing that you wouldn’t see is international news unless it directly affected Americans.

Rather’s newscast was number one in Nielsen TV ratings for 200 weeks during the 1980s decade. The Washington Journalism Review voted Dan Rather as “Best Anchorman.”

Slowly, he was trying to force Walter Cronkite out of the news cast. During the coverage of the 1982 elections, Dan would cut off Cronkite while he was speaking to report the latest election results.

Cronkite was granted an interview with Gorbachev, the former leader of the Soviet Union. Dan Rather didn’t allow Cronkite to proceed with the interview. It later went to Tom Brokaw from NBC News who conducted the interview instead.

Quickly, Rather was becoming a member of the management at CBS News. When writers at the news division went on strike, Dan joined them. The Evening News dropped to 3rd place in ratings in 1987. He agreed to change his on-camera deliver and that only lasted for one week.

One day, CBS was airing coverage of a tennis match that looked like it was going to go beyond the 6:30 p.m. start of the newscast. Dan didn’t know if the network placed a higher priority on news or on sports. He decided to go into the break room and grab a soft drink at exactly 6:30 p.m.

Meanwhile, the network decided to end the sports coverage and begin the Evening News. Well, Dan was not in the anchor chair. Producers were going crazy to try and locate Mr. Rather. For six minutes, there was dead air across the country. All you could see was black on your TV screen.

Rather finally made his way back to the anchor desk. However, network affiliates were very upset. Walter Cronkite actually wanted Rather to be fired because of this judgment error.

Richard Cohen became Dan Rather’s producer. Rather was about to do a story about the Iran-Contra scandal. The story would accuse the U.S. and blame President George H.W. Bush of selling weapons to Iran in exchange for U.S. hostages.

An interview was set up between Rather and the president. Roger Ailies, Bush’s top media expert was holding cue cards during the entire interview. Bush Sr. refused to answer most of the questions asked by Rather. The former president made references to the mishap in Miami.

This interview was agreed to be done on LIVE television. It ended up being a huge mistake for CBS. Bush Sr. could say whatever he wanted about Rather and there was no way to edit it out. It was very unfair for Dan Rather.

During the 1990’s, the CBS Evening News was back at the top of the ratings chart. Iraqis had just invaded Kuwait and the Gulf War was brewing. Rather was granted an interview with Saddam Hussein on Aug. 29, 1990. This became the first of two interviews that he conducted with the Iraqi dictator. The interview helped to rebuild Rather’s credibility enormously.

It wasn’t long thereafter until CBS landed in third place again. Meanwhile, CNN established itself as a popular news organization during coverage of the massacre in Tiananmen Square. CBS was highly understaffed during coverage of the Gulf War. ABC and NBC had 100 staffers covering the war while CNN had 130 people reporting.

Connie Chung joined Rather as co-anchor of the Evening News. She made her debut on June 1, 1973. Rather treated her good on the air. But off the air was a totally different story. You could see that he was becoming uncomfortable with her.

During the Oklahoma City bombing, CBS News made a quick decision and sent Chung to cover the event. Rather wondered why he wasn’t sent to cover the bombing. Viewers were not happy about the coverage that Chung provided. One month later, the network said she would no longer co-anchor the Evening News.

In 1996, Mr. Rather signed a long-term contract with CBS. He was served as anchor of the Evening News and 48 Hours programs. He was asked to help with the newly-created 60 Minutes II program which aired on Wednesdays.

Rather was praised for his excellent work during 9/11. He remained on air for 55 hours from Sept. 11th until 14th. That is more time than Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw spent anchoring. During this time, the author says Dan displayed his finest work. Rather was applauded for his steady, calm, reassuring demeanor during this horrific event. This was the last time that he, Jennings and Brokaw competed on a major story.

Mary Mapes, a producer for Dan Rather, was working on a story about current President George W. Bush. The story suggested that the President skipped National Guard duty because of his family history. No one wanted to go on camera to provide support for this story. Documents were provided to Mapes by a gentleman named Bill Burkett.

Burkett showed a real dislike for George W. Bush. The documents indicated that the President refused to take a physical, a commander disapproved of his transfer and that pressure was used to make his military record look better. There was no guarantee that these documents were authentic. It was seen as another way for Rather to attack the Bush family.

Two CBS lawyers actually watched the piece before it was aired. Rather stepped in the room to watch the segment but it was already half-way completed. Andrew Heyward, CBS News President, gave the approval for the story to air.

Immediately after the story aired, critics were going crazy. They flooded the internet with postings on blogs that questioned the documents. No one wanted to step forward and take responsibility for printing the documents.

Heyward ordered Rather to issue an apology stating the documents could not be authenticated. The leader of CBS News made a personal trip to the White House to apologize to the President.

Producer Mapes and three other CBS executives were fired because of this story. Heyward was able to keep his job. Rather also remained at CBS News. However, his credibility suffered another hit. He later stepped down as anchor of the Evening News.

60 Minutes II was cancelled in May 2005. Rather thanked everyone for their hard work and dedication. Many associates, assistants, producers and editors were terminated.
When Hurricane Katrina hit, Dan was left out of the coverage. CBS News decided to send other reporters to cover the damage. These reporters made huge mistakes and acted on rumors. This is something that Rather could have done better if he was chosen to do so.

Rather left CBS News but it wasn’t during his high point. You could say that Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings left during their peak. Rather left during a time of scrutiny. He late returned to his home state of Texas.

I believe the main reason for this book is to inform the public about this legendary journalist. He was a reporter and an anchor but he also made the news himself. Sometimes, the spotlight was focused on him.

I never knew that Rather was such of a demanding anchor. I always thought of him as a calm individual. I was not aware that he was slowing taking over the newscast one piece at a time. It’s hard to see that when you’re on this side of the screen.

I was very interested in this topic. Dan Rather was my favorite broadcaster when he was on. I loved all of his jokes during the election time. Not only did he get the point across, he was able to make one smile during the process.

Lone Star: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Dan Rather
By Alan Weisman

272 pp., hard cover
Wiley Publications, 2006
ISBN 0-47179217-8


 

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