In Depth

Rather’s Still Making News at HDNET

‘Toxic Trailers’ Piece Among AHCJ’s Reporting Honorees

On March 29 the Association of Health Care Journalists will present awards for the best health reporting of 2007. Among the winners in the television category is legendary newsman Dan Rather, who since leaving the CBS News anchor chair in 2005 has resumed his bulldog investigative reporting as managing editor and host of HDNet’s newsmagazine “Dan Rather Reports.”

Mr. Rather, Chandra Simon and Resa Matthews collaborated on a report called “Toxic Trailers.” In the report, which will be honored at Health Journalism 2008, they investigated the portable homes the Federal Emergency Management Agency gave people displaced by Hurricane Katrina and why the trailers made those living in them ill.

In an in-depth talk with TelevisionWeek correspondent Allison J. Waldman, Mr. Rather spoke about that award-winning story, the current state of health care journalism in America and television news as it was before and as it is in 2008.

TelevisionWeek: When you approach health care stories like “Toxic Trailers,” what’s your responsibility?
Dan Rather: I see my job as a journalist as being an honest broker of information. My first responsibility is to be as accurate and as fair as possible. Our job is to acquire the information and put it out to the public. Now, there are a lot of interpretations, but I ascribe to this: There’s a particular way of doing investigative journalism. Use what is important to the public to know, and if someone in a position of power doesn’t want the public to know, that’s news. Nearly everything else is advertising.

TVWeek: Advertising—in what way?
Mr. Rather: If the head of FEMA comes out and holds a news conference to talk about the wonderful things they are doing, that’s advertising. FEMA does do some good work, but that’s basically advertising for FEMA. What’s news is what they don’t want the public to know or what the public needs to know. That’s news. That’s part of what we’re dedicated to doing on our weekly program on HDNet. There are a lot of different kinds of programs, but our hearts and souls are in investigative journalism at “Dan Rather Reports.”

TVWeek: What do you think of the quality of health care journalism on American television today?
Mr. Rather: You’re going to be sorry you asked me that. Well, I’ve said it before and I’ve been saying it for 15 years or more. I said it in a speech in 1994, and the point of it is—and I realize I have a healthy amount of cynicism because I’ve been in network news for over 30 years—that what’s happened to reporting on health matters in general is that the overall tendency is to let entertainment values swamp news values. The pressure is on to do stories about the Britney Spearses and Paris Hiltons instead of real news, what I would call hard news of any kind. That would include foreign stories and health stories. That lowering of standards for news in general, in particular television, is prevalent. Maybe not as much in health care journalism as much as other stories. If you really want to look on the television dial, there are some people doing some excellent work, excellent health reporting. I think I get something like 300 television channels now, so finding the good work is sometimes difficult, but there are some people doing really good work. But overall, in the main, and simply because of the pressures, it’s not. There are, first of all, the demographics and then the ratings that affect the foreign and health news. They are suffering as a result of that.

TVWeek: What is the importance of demographics and ratings as you see it?
Mr. Rather: Demographics have replaced ratings as the No. 1 imperative for these large, international conglomerates that own about 80% to 85% of American major media. Demographics is now No. 1. Ratings, which used to be No. 1, is now No. 2. But the pressure is on, be it a local news station, cable news or during the evening news, the pressure is on to produce demographics, which is the reason you see all the celebrity news, Britney Spears, etc., and that’s followed by ratings. The pressure is enormous on your average local-station news director. I don’t think the public fully realizes the pressure they are under. Overwhelmingly, they are good men and women. They want to do the right thing, and I’m frankly surprised and pleased and proud of them how often they try and succeed in doing the right thing. But the pressure is on them to produce demographics and ratings.

TVWeek: What about the national news and cable?
Mr. Rather: There’s similar pressure at the network level, whether it’s cable or over the airwaves. Nobody likes to talk about it. It’s the dark side. But I think increasingly that those of us who are in the press—I prefer the word press to media—have to level with the public about why there’s so much tabloid kind of stuff, so much lowering of standards, so much dumbing down in the sort of celebrity kind of reporting. The reason is that the pressure comes from above to produce that, and that’s the reason you get so much of it, because the belief runs strong that if you go downscale, if you go downmarket, you’ll increase your demographics and your ratings.

TVWeek: Do you think that in health care journalism there’s a tendency to do the miracle drug, latest breakthrough stories, instead of more substantial pieces?
Mr. Rather: I have a different view on that. I think the public has a hunger for the less sensational health news. I think they have a hunger for real news about prevention. All too often the health news coverage is too sensational at the expense of the bread-and-butter, meat-and-potatoes health news, particularly in the prevention area. When I’m talking to experts in the field and individual doctors, they say the great need in this country is information about how to prevent health problems. There’s a scarcity of that kind of reporting.

TVWeek: Preventive health care journalism is not as sensational as scientific breakthroughs and medical wonders?
Mr. Rather: Yes, it’s not sensational enough, and there’s always somebody up above to argue that it’s a downer in demographics and ratings. I want to make clear that I believe that good, solid journalism over the long haul does get demographics and ratings, but I’m in the minority. Not among working journalists, but among television executives and station owners and managers.

TVWeek: In your long career, which stories are you most proud of?
Mr. Rather: It’s hard because I can be as dumb as a brick wall about a lot of things, but I am smart enough to know that I’ve been mightily blessed and very lucky to be in journalism as long as I have and to have had the opportunities to do a lot of investigative journalism. I’m not perfect. I have a lot to answer for when there have been times when I wasn’t at my best. I’ve been a working reporter for 59 years. You’ve asked me about things I’ve taken some quiet pride in, and any time we can do the kind of work we’ve done with these formaldehyde-laden, health-care problem-causing toxic trailers…

TVWeek: I’m sure there were some in your years at CBS.
Mr. Rather: Among the stories of the ilk we’re talking about, I did a documentary report in 1975 about cancer. It turns out that it was ahead of its time about environmental causes of cancer, everything from plastics to things that are poured into the air and water. I did a story in 1979 for “60 Minutes” on a manufacturing plant where the product that the workers were manufacturing made the workers sick, and we exposed it. Again, it was a story that powerful people in powerful places didn’t want out. The plant changed and the workers were compensated. Now, this formaldehyde story is right up there for me. [HDNet] did a long investigative piece last year on what’s wrong with electronic voting machines. It took a long time to do it. It took a lot of Mark Cuban’s money to do it—by the way, he never flinched. The story exposed that there are a lot of problems with a lot of these electronic voting machines. People didn’t know about it and it took years to do the research for the story, but we finally exposed that and asked what I think are the proper questions about these electronic voting machines. In a list of stories, those are some of the ones I point to with pride.

TVWeek: What about Abu Ghraib?
Mr. Rather: We broke the story of Abu Ghraib on a worldwide basis on CBS. But I want to emphasize that all of these things are a team effort. Nobody does these things alone. It takes a team. This toxic trailer formaldehyde story had five or six people working at or near full-time. There are people who do very good investigative work, but the reason that there is so little genuine investigative journalism done is that, No. 1, it takes a commitment from the people at the top. A commitment not just to do it, but also to back it. The No. 2 thing is that investigative reporting usually is more expensive than other kinds of reporting. And No. 3, it takes longer—that’s one of the reasons it’s so expensive. No. 4, it also takes dedication because you get a lot of doors slammed in your face, a lot of telephone hang-ups, that kind of thing.

TVWeek: Is the reward then when you’ve done a report that results in change?
Mr. Rather: Yes, that’s true. To me, the reward comes in having done a public service. I grew up in journalism with people who taught me that a public journal—and by journal they meant a newspaper, magazine, radio station or television station—is a public trust. To fulfill the responsibility of that public trust, you must see yourself as performing a public service. The reward you get is the sense that you’ve contributed. When it works, when your report is successful, then that’s the reward. You take a deep breath and say, ”Maybe I contributed a little something to the public good and maybe I met the responsibilities of the public trust.“ I won’t kid you; it doesn’t always work. Nobody can do it with perfection, but if you’re not out there trying, you never can get it done.

TVWeek: Who have been your heroes and mentors in the TV news business through the years?
Mr. Rather: My No. 1 hero has always been and continues to be Edward R. Murrow. He set the platinum standard for gutsy, fearless reporting. Of the people I have worked with, and I have worked with some really terrific reporters along the way, the list is long. Charles Collingwood, who was a CBS News reporter and was one of the original Murrow boys, was a mentor to me. The late Eric Sevareid, who was also a mentor to me. My list of heroes is long. Anyone who has taken the heat and done the hard work of investigative reporting, I give them a tip of the Stetson.

TVWeek: Getting back to “Dan Rather Reports,” how did you get onto the “Toxic Trailers” story?
Mr. Rather: We caught on to there being something wrong with the FEMA trailers, that there was something making people ill, in the summer of 2006. We did an investigation and our first story was in late 2006. As is often the case with investigative work, it takes time. We dug into it and we were told officially, as were the people in the trailers, there was nothing wrong with them. But there was a lot wrong with them, as we now know.
I believe we’ve done five stories, maybe six, on the trailers. This is a story we got onto early and it’s taken a lot of digging to do it. A young woman named Chandra Simon was our original lead investigator. The arc of this story is that the people in the trailers were at first glad to get into the trailers because they had no place to live after Katrina. By the way, we’re talking about trailers that were specifically made for Katrina relief. These trailers were made to “help” hurricane victims; they weren’t made for sale to the public. After getting in them, people started to notice that their children had an unusual number of illnesses and other members of the family got sick. At first, they thought it was just something going around, but fairly quickly suspected that the trailers themselves were the problem. So the arc of the story goes that they were complaining, nobody was listening and they weren’t getting any attention. The attitude was, “Be glad you got a trailer.”

TVWeek: How long before FEMA realized there was something wrong?
Mr. Rather: It took months, many months. FEMA finally said, “If there’s a problem, you need to open the windows and open the doors to let air in and blow away whatever is bad.” People can make their own opinions about that; I have mine. Now it turns out that people have been in these trailers two and a half years. Our last story—and this was not in the program that won the award—we discovered that one of the world’s ranking authorities on toxicity had told FEMA. He works for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, a scientist. He said to FEMA, “Look, there’s formaldehyde in those trailers and no level of formaldehyde is safe.” Frankly, he couldn’t get through.

TVWeek: Did FEMA acknowledge that there was formaldehyde there?
Mr. Rather: FEMA kept asking what is the safe level of this kind of formaldehyde? The scientists kept saying that there is no safe level of formaldehyde. Long-range health problems come from formaldehyde. This scientist, Dr. Chris De Rosa, was telling the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who were supposed to be telling FEMA, but FEMA kept saying what’s the safe level. De Rosa, quietly—he wasn’t telling the outside world—kept saying, “Folks, for long-term health, there is no safe level. It can cause miscarriages, respiratory problems of all kinds, and it can cause cancer.” For whatever reason, what he was sending out—and it was all documented—neither the public nor the people in the trailers knew about it.

TVWeek: When did FEMA respond to the problem?
Mr. Rather: Not for a very long time. Finally, after we did the original story on TV, and others followed us in the press. Basically, FEMA … didn’t want to hear that there were serious long-term health dangers from formaldehyde. Two, they did not want to hear that those people had to get out of those trailers. Very recently, they finally gave in and said they would move people out of the trailers. That’s been in the last two or three months. Their solution for people in the trailers was to offer them another trailer. The first question has to be, who was responsible for the quality control of these trailers? Nobody at FEMA has resigned because of this; nobody’s been asked to, nobody has lost his job. Where was the product control? For the people who manufactured these trailers—and we’re talking about some of the biggest trailer manufacturers in the country—where was their quality control? Who was responsible for turning out these trailers, at considerable profit, and turning out trailers that were a health hazard? Who in the upper reaches of FEMA made the decision not to tell the people in the trailers that one of the leading authorities on toxicity—and it wasn’t just this one guy—said that there was something wrong in the trailers?

TVWeek: And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention?
Mr. Rather: I want to make clear the center in Atlanta is a national treasure. Their job is to control and prevent disease, to help in health care. Who at the center and at FEMA consistently ignored this scientist, Dr. Chris De Rosa? Finally, after we worked on him a very long time, he agreed to go public. He’s a real public servant. This man is not angry about anything. When I finally interviewed him, he told me that he was glad that someone was listening to him. For years, nobody was paying any attention to what he was saying. He was grateful to be able to go public with it.

TVWeek: What is your reaction to winning this award from AHCJ?
Mr. Rather: Naturally I’m very glad, especially for the people I work with. I work with some of the best journalists in the world. We have people who especially like to do investigative journalism. That’s not all we do, but it’s the core of what we do. I was also very pleased for Mark Cuban, who’s given us complete, total, absolute creative and editorial control. He backs us in what we do, especially the tough stuff. So I was very pleased about it. We always like it when somebody recognizes our work, but we don’t start out saying that we want to win awards. We want to do good work.