In Depth

Rather: Case of the Toxic Trailers

Temporary Housing for Katrina’s Homeless Made Occupants Ill

The SEJ Awards for Reporting on the Environment are the world’s largest and most comprehensive awards for journalism on environmental topics, and one of the finalists this year in the category of outstanding beat/in-depth reporting in television is a familiar name in broadcast journalism: Dan Rather.

Mr. Rather, in collaboration with Wayne Nelson, Chandra Simon, Resa Matthews, Elyse Kaftan has been nominated for HDNet’s “Dan Rather Reports: Toxic Trailers,” an investigative hour about what happened in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

When thousands of homeless families were given FEMA trailers as temporary shelter, they became ill. “Dan Rather Reports” discovered many of these trailers were emitting toxic levels of formaldehyde, and broke the news that FEMA was actually well aware of the problem before delivering a single trailer. Thanks to Mr. Rather’s initial story and the follow-up, FEMA had to address the problems.

“Naturally I’m very glad, especially for the people I work with. They’re some of the best journalists in the world,” Mr. Rather said about the SEJ nomination. “I was also very pleased for Mark Cuban, who’s given us complete, total, absolute creative and editorial control.” Mr. Cuban is the owner of HDNet, and “Dan Rather Reports” is the net’s signature news program.

Mr. Rather, a veteran of CBS News, is more than comfortable in his current home and speaks glowingly of his boss. “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.”

The former CBS anchorman, who is currently in litigation with his former employer, hosts “Dan Rather Reports” on HDNet and acts as lead investigator. To him, environmental journalism is all about investigating.

“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,” he said. “We acquire the information and put it out to the public. Now, there are a lot of interpretations, but … there’s a particular way of doing investigative journalism. Use what is important for the public to know, and if someone in a position of power doesn’t want the public to know, that’s news.”

While Mr. Rather is the name reporter on the “Toxic Trailers” story, the veteran newsman shares the credit with his team. “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,” said Mr. Rather. “By the way, 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.”

Mr. Rather has a history of science and environmental journalism. In 1979, on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” for instance, he went after a company that was poisoning its workers. “It was a story that powerful people in powerful places didn’t want out,” Mr. Rather said. “The plant changed and the workers were compensated. And this formaldehyde story is right up there for me. It’s just like that.”

To Mr. Rather, environmental stories are an important brand of investigative journalism. “To me, it’s 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,” he said. “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.”