By Helena Rodriguez
One could sum up Dan Rather’s sad departure from CBS news on Wednesday night in his own words: “It’s way past the witching hour at this point in the game.”
Since his controversial story on President Bush’s military service, Rather’s own career began to, as Rather said of Gore during the 2000 presidential election, “melt faster than ice cream in a microwave.” This one story took Rather’s legendary career as the longest running anchor on network news much farther back than the 5-yard-lline to the 3-yard-line, as he said of Bush during that infamous too-close-to-call race.
Consequently, this one bad story not only messed up the rather impressive career of Rather, which spanned more than two decades — from coverage of the Kennedy assassination to the Clinton impeachment — it was a big blow to journalism as a whole, a profession that my life has revolved around for the past 15 years.
This is my first semester teaching news writing classes as a graduate assistant at Eastern New Mexico University and, as I’ve told my students several times, “My how the world of journalism has changed” since I got that first dose of ink into my veins. It’s a reversed world where not only Journalism 101 students need a constant reminder of the five Ws (I’m not talking about the Bush family, but the who, what, where when and why) of journalism.
Even more important than the five Ws, of course, is ethics in journalism, something my classes just spent two weeks talking about. We watched the movie, “Shattered Glass,” about a rookie reporter named Stephen Glass who climbed his way to the top by fabricating stories in The New Republic magazine. We also talked about Jason Blair, the young reporter who turned The New York Times into a joke with his fabricated quotes and then became a fiction writer.
In the case of Rather, though, we’re not talking about a rookie. We’re talking about an American institution in journalism, the man chosen to fill the shoes of Walter Cronkite in 1981, just about the time I became aware that journalism was my life calling.
As a journalist, I can empathize with Rather. I’ve had more than my share of stupid mistakes over the years, but I like to think that I’ve also had more than my share of opportunities to make a difference in the stories that make and shape the news.
The saddest part about Rather’s unsmooth sail into the sunset is that it was the actual putting together of the story he was working on that became the story, rather than Bush’s questionable military record. Granted documents were flawed and Rather and his production team made an even bigger boo boo of accepting them at face value, which resulted in career suicide and a slap in the face to Journalism 101, the original story, with still unanswered questions today about Bush’s military records, got lost in the controversy.
Rather won’t completely disappear into the sunset though. He’ll be a reporter for CBS’ “60 Minutes,” but it will not be the same. I really grew to like Rather’s sometimes laid-back, sometimes colorful delivery of the nightly news and always flipped past Brokaw in search of his familiar face.
With Rather’s departure comes a tough lesson in life we can all learn from: Just one act of carelessness, just one breach of standards, can forever leave an unwanted mark on an otherwise picture-perfect career.
Helena Rodriguez is a columnist for Freedom Newspapers of New Mexico. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org