Rather full of it

The documentary Rather made its appearance yesterday on Netflix. Directed by Frank Marshall, the film premiered last year at the Tribeca Film Festival. It now becomes generally available via the streaming service. I watched the documentary twice in order to comment on it here. As it turns out, Star Tribune media critic Neal Justin fairly describes it and nails its shortcomings in 114 words, but there is more to be said.

Rather celebrates the career of Dan Rather in television journalism. It is the kind of thing CBS News would have prepared for Rather on the occasion of his retirement from the network had he voluntarily retired at the end of his tenure with the company.

Gathering testimony from family, friends, former colleagues, and admirers, the film treats Rather hagiographically, as one naturally would on the occasion of retirement. CBS itself would have broadcast the documentary and sent Rather off to let him bask in its warm glow. It is one step up from a home movie, or it is Frank Marshall’s version of a home movie on Rather’s behalf. It is a vanity production. Rather, of course, approves.

However, Rather’s career at CBS News ended in disgrace. CBS involuntarily terminated his employment as a result of Rather’s participation and defense of the fraudulent September 2004 60 Minutes II story on George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard — the episode known as Rathergate. Rather himself bitterly recounts his termination at length in Chapter 10 (“Rather v. CBS”) of his 2012 memoir Rather Outspoken (written with Digby Diehl).

The movie arrives at Rathergate at minute 75 of its 95 minutes and does not tarry for long. The six or seven minutes it devotes to the episode amount to a confused jumble that is disgraceful in its own way. Anticipating the appearance of Rather on Netflix, I have recalled the true history of Rathergate this week in “Rathergate: 100 proof fraud,” “The Mapes miasma,” and “Rather not.”

Despite its manifest deficiencies, the film is worth pausing over. It could be used as a brilliant teaching tool illustrating the techniques, the limitations, and the partisanship of the mainstream media as well as the need for alternate outlets such as Fox News and News Nation.

Rather depicts the mainstream media as a source of light and truth. Rather himself is its hero. Every epic story requires a villain as well as a hero. Rather supplies one in the person of Roger Ailes and in the institution of Fox News. Rather longs for the days of old when the mainstream media determined the approved narrative without dissent or opposition. It is nostalgic for the days before the debut of Fox News in 1996. In substance it laments the coming of opposition to the truth according to CBS News and its broadcast colleagues.

Before it arrives at Rathergate, the film covers Rather’s career with a series of clips illustrating its chapters. Those of a certain age may recall Rather’s on-air encounter with security at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. A related clip appears. It made me reflect that it might be the last time Rather was sideways with a room full of Democrats. On this point, however, the documentary is entirely evasive. It portrays Rather only as a seeker after truth. Rather — he’s a modern Diogenes with a Texas twang.

The testimony to Rather’s character as a lonesome seeker after truth comes both in Rather’s comments and in the comments by talking heads that are interspersed among the clips. Rather himself is one of the talking heads. Here are the other talking heads I noted in order of their appearance (I have marked the names of former CBS/CBS News executives, producers, and bureau chiefs with asterisks):

Douglas Brinkley (insufferable liberal historian)
Soledad O’Brien (former CNN anchor)
Margaret Sullivan (former Washington Post media columnist)
*Jim Murphy
*Tom Bettag
Robin Rather (Rather’s daughter)
Andrew Young (civil rights activist and former Carter administration UN ambassador)
*Howard Stringer
Martin Rather (Rather’s grandson)
*Susan Zirinsky
Rick Perlstein (leftist historian and journalist)
Ronan Farrow (described as “investigative journalist”)
*Dana Roberson
*Larry Doyle
*David Buksbaum
Andy Cohen (described as “TV host and producer”)
Samantha Bee (described as “comedian and producer”)
*Wayne Nelson
Shepard Smith (former Fox News and CNBC anchor)

The talking heads all testify to Rather’s greatness and integrity. Neither Rather nor the multitude assembled to testify on his behalf gives any hint of his politics. The truth is his thing. He has no politics of his own. That is the given one must accept to enjoy the documentary.

Rather’s politics are nevertheless not difficult to detect. He is a liberal Democrat with a view of Republicans as misguided at best and loathsome at worst. Rather’s impartiality is a ridiculous pretense. See, for example, Rather Outspoken. The talking heads serve as an embarrassing mouthpiece for this pretense.

Conspicuous by their absence from the list of talking heads are former CBS News President Andrew Heyward, former victims of Rather such as, say, George W. Bush, and any critic of Rather. What we have here is a chorus singing in unison. Although Rather disparages Roger Ailes and laments the coming of Fox News in 1996, it illustrates the crying need for an alternative to the mainstream media. As I say, the documentary could be valuable as a teaching tool.

When it arrives at Rathergate after 75 minutes, the documentary becomes an incoherent mess. It portrays the 60 Minutes II story alternately as true, a set-up, “fake but accurate,” a “mistake” (Susan Zirinsky), but, if so, faulty only in its “process.”

Former CBS News producer Wayne Nelson weighs in: “Was it planned [i.e, planned to disgrace CBS News] — we’ll never know.” According to Douglas Brinkley, those wily Republicans have become adept at coming up “with schemes.” In the world of Rather, we are to kneel down and give thanks for the innocence of Democrats, left-wing historians, and reporters such as Rather.

Rather ends with Rather’s current incarnation as a social media star. He has garnered 2.6 million followers on X/Twitter and a generation of fans that knows not Rathergate. It’s ancient history — beyond their ken, where Rather means to keep it. How the opinionated man of the left who has emerged on social media comports with the impartial seeker after truth portrayed in Rather is a question that the documentary leaves untouched.

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