Nov 17, 2003  •  Post A Comment

In the past 21/2 years my path has twice crossed that of Dan Rather, the CBS anchor who has long represented the best of professional journalism for me. Both times he was in Southern California to accept well-deserved awards. Both times a handful of pickets were nearby claiming Mr. Rather’s reporting was biased.
The first time, June 9, 2001, Mr. Rather received a lifetime achievement award from the Los Angeles Press Club, of which I was then executive director as well as producer of the dinner, and where the honor was graciously presented by CBS’s Leslie Moonves.
I never met the picketers that night. They were cordoned half a mile away by security. I did get to share a laugh with Mr. Rather, who said being picketed was a first for him.
It happened the second time last week at the Museum of Television & Radio’s annual gala in Beverly Hills, Calif. A handful of people, some in costumes, waved placards at the hotel entrance.
I asked Mr. Rather about it. “Part of being a journalist,” he said, “and trying to be a journalist who pulls no punches and plays no favorites, who tries to be accurate and fair and who knows you are going to make your mistakes, is sometimes you have to face the furnace and take the heat.”
Mr. Rather, who turned 72 on Halloween, has taken the heat throughout his world-class career. “CBS Evening News” may be in third place but his standards remain first rank. That he is among the best but not the most-watched reminded me of his remarks before the Press Club: “We take some slight encouragement from the evidence, faint as it may be, that there may be some good fight to be fought against the growing proliferation of soft news, news you can use, celebrity news … and all the other market-tested filler that is increasingly crowding out a shrinking news hole.”
Inspired to do my job as a reporter, I walked down the winding driveway at the Pink Palace (a k a The Beverly Hills Hotel). The protesters couldn’t have been friendlier. They were hungry for publicity. A tall lady swathed in white and holding a makeshift scale of justice, with a tiny girl cowering behind her skirt, told me her name was Cinnamon Girl.
I learned there were 10 of them and they were connected by a conservative Internet news site called Free Republic. The protest was organized by Gary Metz, president of the Orange County chapter of Free Republic, and Ron Smith, vice president of the group’s L.A. chapter. It was the group’s second protest aimed at Mr. Rather. The other one was at the L.A. Press Club awards.
As Mr. Metz spoke, Mr. Smith poked a Kleenex at drops of blood on his face from cuts inflicted by an oversize Saddam Hussein mask he was wearing.
“We can’t let the Left have all the fun,” Mr. Metz said. “You see all the guys from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have this kind of fun and street theater. We like to get some attention too. We figure this is a good way.”
I asked Mr. Metz if he watched Mr. Rather on TV. “I don’t actually watch TV,” he told me. “The Internet and talk radio are better sources of information.”
Do you have a TV, I asked? “I’ve had a set at home for a long time,” Mr. Metz responded. “But I don’t turn it on.”
When was the last time? “I haven’t had mine on for maybe four years,” he told me.
“Television has its uses,” Mr. Metz added. “Me personally, I’m like an alcoholic. If I get started, I’ll watch it all the time, and it’s just a bad thing for me. Especially TV news. It’s too emotional.”
He then told me you can’t believe anything you hear on the network news in any case. He said he learned that on talk radio, from Dennis Prager: “If you have to stop one thing in your life, he says, stop television news.”
The next morning, I called Mr. Prager and reached him at an airport in the Midwest, where he was on a book tour. “It’s good you checked with me,” he said, “because I have never said, `Everything you hear on the news is a lie.”’
Mr. Prager told me he does believe CBS, NBC and ABC all have a liberal slant and that he had criticized Mr. Rather for his interview with Saddam Hussein: “I thought he prostituted himself by asking serious questions of a tyrant.”
“If [Mr. Metz] had said, `Dennis Prager says it’s a waste of time to watch the evening news,”’ said Mr. Prager, “he would be right.”
Then you don’t respect Mr. Rather, I asked? “How can I comment?” answered Mr. Prager. “I haven’t watched TV news in 35 years. It relies too much on the visual. Most of what is important in the world is not on video.”
Stunned by that revelation, I soon learned the Free Republicans were abuzz about the event and my interest. In addition to some e-mail, I got a call from Matthew Sheffield, 25, an unemployed student in Virginia. He and his brother Greg, 22, operate the Web site Rather Biased, which began around the time of the Clinton impeachment. They focused on Mr. Rather, said Mr. Sheffield, who they felt “carried his [opinions] over into his reporting.”
Mr. Sheffield told me he considered Fox News Channel biased as well, but to the right. “We’re equal-opportunity,” he explained.
I asked if he ever tried to contact Mr. Rather. Mr. Sheffield said no, although he did talk to someone at CBS once. “I really haven’t thought of that,” he added. “I would interview Dan Rather [for the Web site] any day of the week if he would have an honest dialogue about bias. He hates talking about it. If he had a real honest dialogue, we’d probably go away. That’s all we want. We all want our voices to be heard.”
I was left saddened that Mr. Rather and CBS News might be hurt and the public might be misled by these silly, noisy, publicity-hungry protesters, some of whom don`t even watch TV. What a contrast with a dedicated, hard-working journalist like Mr. Rather, who has spent his life serving the public and his profession.
stranger than fiction
After the dinner in Beverly Hills I had a moment more with Mr. Rather. I told him the protesters were the same ones from the Press Club dinner. And the leader hadn’t watched TV in four years.
He laughed and said: “You couldn’t make that up.”
As he walked away, I remembered something Mr. Rather told me earlier in the evening about how journalists should act when attacked for doing their job: “Democratic, Republican, independent, Muslim, they all try to do it,” said Mr. Rather with a shrug. “It’s our job to resist it the best we can.”
No one has done a better job than Dan Rather.