Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

March 9, 2005

Is Rather lying on his way out the door?

Filed under: — Different River @ 1:55 pm

Dan Rather is leaving the anchor chair at CBS news tonight, exactly 24 years after taking over from Walter Cronkite. His departure is marred by the fact that he was widely discredited after broadcasting a report based on forged documents purporting to related.

So, you would think that in the retrospective festschrift CBS is putting together honoring Rather’s career, that they would try to focus on things that highlighted Rather’s integrity, rather (no pun) than reminding us of other lies he’s told (and CBS has told on his behalf) in the past.

But no — they are repeating an old claim of Rather’s that not only has been discredited, but that Rather has admitted is false — and bringing to mind another story, in 1963, when Rather also broadcast a story based on a false information from a politically-motivated informant in Texas.

From the opening page of the web version of the retrospective:

Below are some memorable events in his CBS career:

  • Nov. 22, 1963: Reports live from the scene of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Not only was CBS the first network on the scene, but Rather was also the first to report Kennedy had died.

And on the page specifically dedicated to Rather’s reporting of the assassination:

Correspondent Dan Rather reported the story from “the corner window just below the top floor, where the assassin stuck out his 30 caliber rifle.”

Rather was the first to report Kennedy had died, before the official confirmation of the president’s death.

Trouble is, it’s not true. Dan Rather wasn’t the first to report that Kennedy had died. He wasn’t even the first to report it on CBS! Eddie Barker of CBS’s Dallas radio and TV affiliates (KRLD 1080 AM and what was then KRLD-TV) was the first to report Kennedy’s death, on a live broadcast carried by CBS nationwide. Here’s Eddie Barker’s account, in a PBS interview:

INTERVIEWER: At what point did you realize something had gone wrong?

EDDIE BARKER: Our truck — and back to our truck, our big old mobile unit — was parked outside [the Trade Mart building, where the motorcade was originally headed], and one of the engineers down in the truck, called me on the headset and said, “Something has gone wrong. They’re headed for the airport. They didn’t stop.” And you know, because that was the way they would go back to the airport. And I, you know, said, “Well, what else? What else?” He said, “Well, just the whole thing, the police cars and everything else are going by.”

And so then I got a call from the newsroom, and they told me that there had been shots fired down there, and that was what was my first inkling that anything like a shooting had taken place. And so we just immediately took air, because we were the only setup that, you know, that we had, and so I just started ad-libbing, you know, what little I knew and tried to make what little I knew into sounding like a heck of lot more than I knew. (Chuckles)

I had nobody to interview because I was up on the balcony and all of the dignitaries and luncheon guests and all were downstairs. And so we just, you know, filled air, and just with things that from my knowledge of, you know, why he was in Texas, what you know, what had gone on before all of these things. And then as we got a little more involved was when this doctor that I knew came up to me and whispered in my ear and told me that he was dead. And that — you know, I did a double-take, and I, we were using a big, old long mike. Remember that big, old long one? And I held that mike under my arm and said, “What?” He said, “He’s dead.” I said, “How do you know?” He said, “I just called the emergency room, and he’s DOA.”

Well, I knew this doctor, and he was big out at Parkland, and so what he had done, he just went to a phone and called the Emergency Room, and they said, “Yeah, he’s dead.” And so he told me, and then I went on the air and said that I’d just been told by a source that I would trust implicitly that the president was dead. And so that started causing a little furor at CBS, because, I did not know it, but CBS had picked up our, our broadcast, and we were, I was doing this, Cronkite was doing his thing in New York, and so I remember they gave me a lot of credit for being the local guy saying that he’s dead. It’s not official.

Meanwhile, according to Dan Rather’s account, Rather was on the phone with the hospital trying to get somebody to talk to him:

Rather had been out waiting for a film drop along the motorcade route. He saw in the distance something seemed to be wrong. “Among the first lessons I learned in journalism, as taught by Hugh Cunningham at Sam Houston state, had been: No story is worth a damn unless you can get it out,” he wrote. He ran the five blocks back to the CBS bureau at station KRLD-TV. On the police scanners, it appeared Parkland hospital was the focus of some action.

Here is a brief excerpt of his story:

Instantly, I looked up the number and dialed it. The switchboard jammed almost immediately. I sensed at the time that I was lucky to get through. The operator wasn’t hysterical, or panicky, but she was clearly busy.

I found myself blurting out that I was a reporter and don’t hang up on me. I got that out right away. She cut me off and said, “The President has been shot. I don’t know anything else.” I repeated myself. “Please don’t hang up. You say the President has been shot. Are you certain of that?”

She said, “That’s what I’ve been told. I don’t know anything else.”

I said, “Is there anyone around, anyone else who can talk to me? Is a doctor around?”

She said, yes, hold on, and the next thing I knew a male voice was on the line.

“Sir, are you a physician?” I asked.

“Yes, I am.”

“The lady on the switchboard says that the President has been shot and I’d like to verify that with you.”

[Anyone near the switchboard who'd been to medical school would have been able to verify that? That's the standard of a professional journalist? --DR]

“Yes,” he replied, “the President has been brought in and it is my understanding that he’s dead. But I’m not the person to talk to about it.”

I said, “Would you repeat your name for me, Doctor?”

He said, “I’m not the person you need to talk with,” and there was a click on the line.

I dialed right back, and as I did I shouted to the people in the newsroom, “He’s been shot.” I didn’t add that a doctor at Parkland Hospital had told me he was dead. If you have covered enough police beats and emergency rooms, you tread very gently with that kind of information. At the moment the fact that the President of the United States had been shot was compelling enough. A reporter learns not to jump too fast.

Rather had to dial twice, but was able to reach the switchboard again. He asked to speak to someone who could verify that Kennedy had been shot. The operator replied that all the doctors were busy, but there were two priests standing in the hall.

I said, “Would you ask one of the priests if I might speak to him?” There was a mumbled conversation in the background, then a man’s voice came on the phone.

I said, “Father, the operator tells me you just happened to be there. I’m Dan Rather, with CBS News, and I’m trying to confirm whether the President has been shot.”

With a matter-of-factness that stunned me he said. “Yes, the President has been shot and he is dead.”

I said, “Are you certain of that?”

He said, “Yes, unfortunately, I am,” and he left the phone.

And in the next paragraph, Rather confirms, perhaps inadevertently, that Barker had already broadcast what Rather had just learned:

The News Director of KRLD, Eddie Barker, had spoken with the chief of staff of Parkland, at the location where the President was supposed to give a speech. The doctor said Kennedy had been shot and was dead. Rather soon was on several phone lines at the same time. One line went to Barker. Another went to CBS radio in New York. Barker repeated what the hospital official had told him.

When Barker said again that he had been told the President was dead, I said, “Yes, yes. That’s what I hear, too. That he’s dead.”

A voice came back, “What was that?” I thought it was Barker again. It wasn’t. The “What was that?” had come from a radio editor in New York. I responded to what I thought was Barker with “I said that’s my information, too. That he’s dead.”

Rather repeated this, thinking he was still talking to his local colleague. Suddenly, he heard someone in New York saying Rather said the President was dead. The network went to its standby procedure. CBS’s Alan Jackson announced the president was dead. “The Star Spangled Banner” was played. Rather shouted to New York that he had not authorized a bulletin or any other kind of report.

Of course, with all his phones on at once, Rather may not have realized at the time that CBS had already broadcast Barker’s initial report — though he clearly acknowleged that Barker had the information before he (Rather) told him. Perhaps the CBS people in New York viewed Rather’s report, since it was second, as confirmation, or perhaps they were already in the process of going into their “standby procedure” based on Barker’s report.

But it’s clear that Barker had the information first, and both Rather and CBS in New York knew that. Still, CBS today is publishing a falsehood, something they knew to be false on the day it happened in 1963. And they have been doing so years, according to this article in the Weekly Standard, which also recovers an even more important story — last September’s broadcast with the forged memos was not the first time Rather broadcast a story based on a false information from a politically-motivated informant from Texas:

It was a different lie–one delivered on national news, and at the expense of children–that caused Rather trouble at the time. As reporters from around the world descended on the Texas city, Rather went on the air with a local Methodist minister who made a stunning claim: Children at Dallas’s University Park Elementary School had cheered when told of the president’s death.

The tale was perfect for the moment, reinforcing the notion among distant media elites that Dallas was a reactionary “City of Hate.” It slyly played to a local audience, too: The school named was in upper-income University Park, one of two adjacent municipal enclaves that shared a school district and a reputation for fiercely protected, lily-white privilege. Finally, for the ambitious Rather–a native Texan and then a Dallas resident–the account represented the very sort of revealing, local dirt that the throngs of out-of-town competitors would have to work far harder to get.

Except that it wasn’t true, and Rather knew it, Barker says.

Approached earlier by the same minister with what was a second-hand account, Barker himself had run the story by the school’s principal and some teachers, all of whom denied it outright. Because of the shooting, which took place at 12:30 p.m., the principal had decided to close the school early, though without telling the students why. The children at the school–including three of Barker’s own–were merely happy to be going home early, he was told. There couldn’t have been any spontaneous cheering at the news of Kennedy’s murder, because no such news had been announced.

Undaunted, the dogged minister–”a very, very strong liberal and a very, very strong Kennedy supporter,” Barker says–moved on to Rather.

“Rather came to me, and I said, ‘My kids are in school there, and I checked it out, and there’s not a darn thing to it,’” says Barker. “He said, ‘Well, great–I’ll just forget it.’ But instead of forgetting it, he went out and did this gut job on Dallas and its conservatism,” with the preacher’s story at the center of his report.

With the discredited account likely to be challenged by the local affiliate’s editors before being fed to New York, Rather sidestepped a customary film-editing session with Barker and arranged to file the report live instead, Barker says. “And so here’s Dan with the preacher, telling this story about kids at UP cheering when told the president was dead.”

Livid at being lied to, Barker laid into Rather as soon as he returned to the newsroom, expelling the reporter and all his national-news colleagues from the building on the spot. “I said ‘Get the hell out of here–you and this whole damn bunch!’” he says.

Barker’s local TV and radio crews scrambled to arrange on-air interviews with teachers to rebut the story, but the lie had already traveled halfway around the world and would become an enduring part of JFK assassination lore. In the meantime, CBS was threatening to pull its affiliation with the two local stations for having given Rather and his colleagues the boot.

By the way, that last sentence is very informative: CBS threatened to pull its affiliation with two local stations because those local stations tried to stop CBS from broadcasting a false story.

Is that what they call “journalistic ethics”?

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