The servant who thought he was king

Good grief, is there a better symbol of tradition’s death grip on the past than Dan Rather? With his $70 million lawsuit against his former employer, Rather is not only making a fool of himself and his vaunted career, he’s actually accelerating the demise of that which he claims to defend — journalistic integrity and the institution of professional journalism.

Countless media observers (including Howard Kurtz, Jeff Jarvis, Jay Rosen, and Dan Gillmor) have shared their expertise and concluded that this suit attempts to reframe the entire sad saga of Rathergate in the way that Rather wishes to be remembered, the facts be damned. If you haven’t already done so, go read their analyses.

I want to take a few moments this morning to offer a slightly different take, that Rather’s suit is all about his reputation within a closed, institutional community that really no longer exists. Rather wants to be remembered as a soldier fighting the good fight, but with whom does he wish the record be set straight, if not the family in which he once held patriarch status? As such, his action ignores those who the institution has always ignored (to its detriment), the general public. Like a giant boil on the face of professional journalism, Rather isn’t content to let it heal, choosing instead to squeeze it all over the mirror that represents the public in the false hope that a little Windex will take care of the mess later on.

Meanwhile, the contemporary professional journalism community is fighting for its life with that same public, so it will not and cannot embrace Rather’s ambition. 2004 was a very long time ago in the evolution of the press. We’ve all turned the page, but time has stood still for poor Dan. As a result, he thinks his war is with CBS, but the rejection of his actions has gone far beyond. The institution that Rather thinks still exists is increasingly turning away from the well-worn road to the tar pits, and the louder he screams about the unfairness of his treatment, the more everybody recognizes the path that he’s chosen.

The irony, of course, is that Rather wants a jury drawn from the people formerly known as the audience to exonerate him with the group that pulled him from the throne. CBS, which is certainly representative of contemporary professional journalism, will settle this suit — not because anybody there actually believes they’d lose the case — but because they know what a trial would do to journalism’s already strained relationship with the public. Dan doesn’t care what kind of fool he makes of himself, but CBS — and all of professional journalism — does.

And so the unintended consequence of Dan Rather suing CBS to get his reputation “back” is that it focuses attention on the self-centered nature of a once-proud institution, one that lost its way in the lust for significance within a culture it was supposed to serve.

This is not the kind of attention the professional press needs right now.

Comments

  1. The saddest piece of this is Rather is trying to use the all-time low of the Bush administration to shield him. If he can make enough people believe Rove and Cheney had him fired, then he can restore his legacy.

    The truth is Rather was fired because the public didn’t trust him anymore. If their journalism was really solid, there would have been no need to manufacture a memo and try to pass it off as genuine. It is functionally equivalent of Dateline putting rockets on gas tanks. Rather put his face on the story — he staked his reputation on defending Mary Mapes — and he paid the price. You’re right, this lawsuit smacks of revisionist history.

  2. When I read about the Rather suit, I thought a similar thing as you, Terry: that this is more about a man trying to clear his name and rrestore eputation with a particular group of people. Yet I think, right now, we’re in a time of great change and we may end up seeing more suits similar to this brought by people who believe strongly that they are fighting for their lives (as much as reputations.) We’re seeing something of a changing of the guard here, and on the one hand I feel for Rather, while on the other I do worry a bit about what we’re creating out here with all the new stuff. What will happen to someone who’s, perhaps, truly wronged?

Trackbacks

  1. […] Terry Heaton, another media guy, calls Rather “the servant who thought he was king” and predicts: CBS, which is certainly representative of contemporary professional journalism, will settle this suit — not because anybody there actually believes they’d lose the case — but because they know what a trial would do to journalism’s already strained relationship with the public. Dan doesn’t care what kind of fool he makes of himself, but CBS — and all of professional journalism — does. […]

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