Everyone was dying to talk with Dan Rather. So how did Texas Monthly writer Gary Cartwright break from the pack of hungry journalists and satiate his appetite with a one-on-one interview? Common Texas roots, common friends, and common interests didn’t hurt. Now Cartwright talks about the strings he pulled, the lessons he learned, and the future flavor of broadcast journalism.
texasmonthly.com: You mention in your article that you and Dan Rather are near the same age and have known each other for years. When and how did you first meet Rather?
Gary Cartwright: The first time I remember meeting Rather was at the dedication of the LBJ Library in, I think, 1971. Student demonstrators flanked the new building, held in check by fifteen to twenty Texas Rangers in riot gear. I was covering the event for the New York Times and Rather and Bob Schieffer were both here for CBS News. I had known Schieffer from our days covering the police beat in Fort Worth in the late fifties, and he introduced me to Rather. After that, our paths crossed every several years. I remember being with Rather on some kind of literary program in Houston in 1991. He was there to talk about his memoirs, and I was pitching my book on the history of Galveston. We chatted before and after the program. He had sent me a nice note after my book Blood Will Tell was published, and he sent me another note about the Galveston book, which I still have in a small frame on my office wall.
texasmonthly.com: Because of the recent controversy and his pending retirement, Rather has been making a lot of headlines lately. How were you able to get access to him, and then get him to speak so candidly? Do you think your already established relationship helped?
GC: Everyone in the country was trying to get an interview with Rather after the Memogate story broke. CBS News had made it clear that he could grant no interviews until the independent panel made its report, which was due in early December but wasn’t released until mid-January. I kept bugging his assistant Kim Akhtar. She wasn’t being much help, so I called my pal Bob Schieffer and got him to get a message to Rather that I needed to talk. Then Texas Monthly editor, Evan Smith, got involved. He has a soothing manner in these things, and Akhtar seemed to melt in his hands. In late December, Akhtar promised that she would get me in to see Rather as soon as the report came out. So I basically waited for her to call Evan, which she did on Friday, January 14, three days before my deadline. I caught a flight that Sunday and met him at CBS News Monday morning. I’m sure my previous relationship with Dan, as thin as it was, helped me get through the door and it certainly made it easier on both of us to get through the interview. I was told that a reporter for the New Yorker was also doing a piece on Rather, but I don’t know any details about it or how long the reporter had access to Rather.
texasmonthly.com: The Memogate scandal has tarnished Rather’s stellar reporting record. After researching the incident and talking with Rather, what journalistic lessons, if any, have you walked away with?
GC: If this hadn’t been a story about George W. Bush and if it hadn’t broken during the most bitter presidential election campaign in modern history, nobody would have paid much attention. I think the chances are good that the memos represent what Bush’s commander expressed at the time, though they were not and never can be “authenticated.” Remember, the originals were destroyed; copies can never be authenticated. Journalists use a different standard than lawyers to authenticate documents. If we used the same standard they use in court, there would be no investigative reporting at all. So Rather got caught in a situation not of his making. His big mistake was continuing to blindly defend the documents as evidence emerged that they might be flawed.
texasmonthly.com: Mary Mapes, a former producer of 60 Minutes, is now living in Dallas. Might we expect to see her working in the local media any time soon?
GC: Mapes is married to a reporter for the Dallas Morning News and has lived there for about fifteen years. She was one of the best producers at any TV newsmagazine, so I doubt she’ll settle for some local station. She has been approached to write a book about Memogate, so she’s sort of feeling her way along, waiting to see if she has a legal case against CBS.
texasmonthly.com: Rather grew up, went to school, and launched his professional career in Texas. He lives mostly in New York but just bought a condo in Austin. What percent of Rather would you say is still a Texan? What facets of his personality best exhibit this?
GC: Rather certainly thinks of himself as a Texan, though his main address has been Manhattan for years. He often wears cowboy boots and drops Texas idioms in conversation and in his news reports. The fact that I was a fellow Texan helped get me access to him. Rather and his wife, Jean, own a second home on Lake Travis, which they may sell now that they own a condo near Sixth and Lamar. Jean has a problem with her hip and needs a place with an elevator. She will probably spend a lot of time here—their daughter, Robin, and a grandchild live in Austin—but Rather needs to shuffle between cities to do his work for 60 Minutes.
texasmonthly.com: Many may be surprised to learn that Rather was embarrassed of his schooling and struggled to achieve the intellectual prowess of his idol, CBS broadcaster Eric Sevareid. Would you say that Rather has closed all the gaps left by his formal education to become the type of thinker he had hoped to be?
GC: Rather is not a deep thinker, which is one reason he’s such a good reporter. But the fact that he would read every one of the books on Sevareid’s list shows his dedication to being the best he can be. A lot of us who grew up in Texas (where the public school system ain’t the best, you see) feel a shade embarrassed when we have to mingle with the intelligentsia of the East Coast. We hide behind our Texanness as a shield. It has always worked for me and seems to have worked for Rather too. Once a reporter reaches a certain age, education, or lack of it, is no longer a big deal. Experience trumps book learning.
texasmonthly.com: You refer to Rather as a “hot” journalist. Can you give a definition of this term?
GC: By “hot” I mean emotional. It’s the opposite of cool and detached and ironic. It also means being unafraid to take a risk or make a mistake or get involved in controversy.
texasmonthly.com: You mention a number of famous stories Rather has covered—civil rights marches, Vietnam, Watergate, 9/11. What, in your mind, is the most quintessential Dan Rather moment?
GC: The quintessential Dan Rather moment was when he snuck into Afghanistan in 1980, dressed as a mujahideen warrior. Good reporters admired his daring, and lazy reporters, in fits of jealousy, ridiculed him as “Gunga Dan,” as though his reports from the war front were filmed on a sound stage. That’s why I think Rather is the last of a breed, a junkyard dog reporter in anchor’s clothing, willing to take any risk for a story.
texasmonthly.com: You talk about the changing face of journalism—the increasing focus on spectacle, the dearth of investigative reporting, and the enormous corporate influence through consolidation of the media. Do you think there’s hope for the kind of classic journalism Rather touted, or is his retirement symbolic of a larger changing of the guard within the profession?
GC: Yes, there will always be good journalists, ready and able to do battle with the bad guys, especially in the print media. But I doubt if we’ll see any TV anchors, at least in network jobs, willing to go somewhere that might mess up their hair or cause their makeup to run. Rather’s retirement does symbolize the broadcast media’s move to lighter, fluffier, less substantive reporting and to the dedication of corporate profit instead of public service.