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Friday, June 22, 2012

Dan Rather- Rather Outspoken

Rather Outspoken- My Life in News by Dan Rather with Digby Diehl
Published by Grand Central Publishing ISBN 978-1-4555-0241-7
Hardcover $27.99
Source: book provided by the publisher for review

Dan Rather has been a news reporter for over 50 years and in all those years he has made a few enemies, from the KKK during the civil rights movement to President Nixon to members of George W. Bush's administration. He covers the reasons why in Rather Outspoken- My Life in the News, co-written with Digby Diehl.

There are several events in Rather's life that had a lasting impact on him, beginning with a bad case of rheumatic fever when he was a child that left him trapped in his home, unable to play with his friends or even attend school. The radio became his best friend and he grew up listening to reporters like Edward R. Murrow, Eric Sevareid and Charles Collingwood in the run-up to WWII.

When he was a child, a few teachers took an interest in Rather, encouraging him in his love of writing. Although Rather acknowledges that he is not the best writer (and in fact a bad speller), or the smartest man in the room, he credits his dogged determination for much of his success.

One of his biggest strengths is his ability to ad-lib, which he learned working at a Houston radio station.  He had a lot of air-time to fill, and he also covered play-by-play in high school sports, which gave him a leg up when it came time to move into television.

He got his dream job of working for CBS News, one of the most prestigious news organizations in the world. On his first day, one of his idols, Charles Collingwood offered to show him around and invited him for a drink.

The book gives a terrific overview of Rather's career, and he covered many of the most important stories of the last fifty years. He spent a lot of time covering the civil right movement, and that section of the book is fascinating, especially for those who were too young to remember that period.

He covered Vietnam, and I liked his analysis of the difference between reporters working in Vietnam, where they could just tag along and grab a ride with a helicopter pilot to cover whatever story they wanted, to today's embedded reporters, who can only go where the US military allows them.

His chapter on Afghanistan, which Rather covered back in the 1980s by sneaking into the country then at war with Russia, is very interesting. I can remember watching Rather on CBS at this time, never imagining how important that country would become to our nation twenty years later.

The best chapters in the book cover the end of Rather's career with CBS News. He and his news team did a story on President George W. Bush's National Guard service during the Vietnam War. They found evidence that Bush went AWOL from his unit for more than a year, and when they tried to run the story, they were stymied at every point by corporate executives at CBS.

Rather's most important point in the book, and one that I think he makes very well, is how the corporatization of the news has changed what news the American people get. The big three networks are now owned by huge corporations- ABC by Disney, NBC by Comcast/Universal and General Electric and CBS by Viacom.

All of these corporations have vast holdings, and as such, they are constantly lobbying government for legislation favorable to their companies. Because of that, the news divisions are pressured to not report on anything that may hurt their lobbying efforts. The days of the news divisions having the freedom to cover the stories they think are important to the American people sadly seem to be over.

Rather ends the book describing his new job at HDNet, owned by billionaire Mark Cuban. Rather and his news team create 42 hours of investigative reports per year (unheard of!), and he lists some of their most honored reports, including a story on a British bank that launders money for Iran, the horror of underage sex trafficking in Portland, Oregon, and a problem with Boeing's new Dreamliner plane that endangered lives. I definitely will be checking out HDNet and Rather Reports, they are doing the reporting I want to watch.

Rather Outspoken is a fascinating look not only at an interesting man, but also at the most important news stories of the last fifty years. The book is really written in Rather's distinctive voice, with many of his Texas-isms, like his description of the very small office for Dan Rather Reports, running it as a "Hong King hot-pillow joint."

He is a somewhat polarizing person with a big ego, and those who do not like Rather will probably not have their minds changed by this book, but for those looking for one man's story of his place covering the history of the past fifty years, this is an enlightening book.

I had the pleasure of hearing Rather interviewed at this year's Book Expo America, where he talked about his childhood, gave a quick overview of the presidents he has covered, and the most moving was when he cried describing the women and children being fire-hosed and set upon by dogs during the civil rights demonstrations.  He left the audience speechless with that emotional recollection. While walking back to his publisher's booth, he was inundated by people and he graciously signed autographs and posed for pictures.
Dan Rather being interviewed at BEA

rating 4 of 5

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