Book Review: Rather Outspoken

The news matters.

This is the central tenet that runs throughout Dan Rather's Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News. Woven through stories of 60 years working in the news, Rather has written a passionate argument for keeping the news independent and unbiased. And then he tells you why this is an important topic, but does so in such an interesting and entertaining way that you don't notice you're learning something crucial.

The book starts with his version of the events that led to him leaving CBS news. Namely, the reporting about Abu Ghraib and his report about George W. Bush's time serving — or, more to the point, not serving — in the Air National Guard. These are the stories that put corporate interests right up against reporting the truth and the truth lost. Rather offers up his side of the story and even if you subtract some of it to account for personal bias, it's a doozy. If you assume that just half of it is true — allowing for an exaggerated amount of personal bias — you'll come away completely disillusioned about news today.

After these first two chapters, Rather takes you back to his childhood, listening to Edward R Murrow on the radio and dreaming of becoming a newsman just like him. He started small in public school and took it from there, eventually ending up at CBS news in New York. Listening to Rather read the story of his life on the audio book is like a living and very interesting history lesson. Two chapters are devoted to "Presidents I Knew" and take you on a personal tour, much of it behind the scenes, from Eisenhower to Obama. This alone is worth the price of the book. Can you imagine spanning 50 years of covering the top dog in the US? It gives Rather a unique viewpoint on power and government that's very educational.

The book also covers a number of different stories plucked from his decades in the news. His time in Vietnam, what happened during Watergate, 9/11 and his career after CBS. I was especially fascinated with… well, all of it, but particularly his detailing of the investigative reporting that went into covering the Bush story and the extents to which Republicans went to discredit him. However, it is not just a story of an abuse of power, but also the story of how the corporatization and politicization of the news removes the integrity of the press. CBS, previously a very independent organization, is now owned by Viacom, a huge conglomerate that owns a wide variety of businesses and whose corporate interests sometimes need protecting from the truth. Rather takes you through a damning indictment of what has happened to the state of the news and how it has changed over the time of his career.

Rather sees news as a public service, one that was developed to serve a watchdog role as part of the checks and balances against corruption and abuse of power. There's this wonderful quote in the book: "news is what people don't want you to know. The rest is publicity." He goes on to quote Chris Hedges, saying that "a democracy survives when its citizens have access to trustworthy and impartial information" in the form of reliable and unbiased reporting. These days, six or fewer giant corporations control 80% or more of the national distribution of news in the US. Due to the corporate interests of these large organizations having a say in what gets reported and what doesn't, we're in a situation of having censorship masquerading as good business. That pretty much makes trustworthy and impartial information a thing of the past. News has become a ratings getter and a profit generator, something which trivializes this very important part of keeping the powerful honest.

I could go on (and on and on). Instead, I recommend you read the book yourself and if possible, get the audio version. Give yourself the treat of listening to Rather narrate the story of his life in the news. Not only is it entertaining and interesting, but it will also make you look at the news with the skepticism it deserves. Because the news matters.


Leslie said…
Exactly why I listen to my news on NPR rather than FOX or MSNBC - more news, less biased.
AlisonH said…
When my grandfather-in-law was chairman of the FCC, there was a law on the books: one owner could only control so much of the news market. If you owned the only newspaper in town, you couldn't buy a TV station there too. Diversity of ownership was a requirement, no matter which party was dominant politically.

We are learning what it's like not to have those rules anymore. I'm glad that at least someone's begun to investigate whether Rupert Murdoch violates the old rule about moral bankruptcy on the part of a news owner, wherein you cannot present as news that which is patently, demonstrably false. ("Or is this just your Republican math?")