George Trow’s magnificent, prophetic piece on Dan Rather—first published in First of the Month in 1999—never grows old.
Prologue: A Society of Disc Jockeys; or Road Rage Now
Out here in the Panhandle; radio sounds great. Wide expanses for radio consciousness to bounce off of. Of course I’m talking about vehicular radio here. Just you, your truck, and of course your friend the disc jockey. My favorite station is dominant — and interested in dominance. GET OUT OF THE WAY — AND LET THE BIG DOG EAT — is one of the things my station says to other lesser stations. Occasionally, a listener, like my own self, contributes a testimonial. ‘I wouldn’t look at another station,’ one woman avers. Our station is important to us. Our station demands loyalty. Our station is THE BIG DOG puppies and pussies are afraid of.
Our disc jockeys get to say. Our disc jockeys have the jobs we want. No heavy lifting, and they get to say. World News is, if not a joke — on the way to being one. The Governor of the State and a disaster of the magnitude of the one in Nairobi — they get a brief, uninflected straight voice treatment.
But everything else is, you know, like fasten your seatbelt, something you have to say that you might as well edge into irony because who wants to be caught dead taking something like that too seriously, when the real issue in life is how do you get to be a disc jockey; no heavy lifting and you get to be a BIG DOG with all the dog food he wants.
Listening to the Big Dog you run into some interesting juxtapositions. For instance, yesterday. There was a three minute riff against Mike Tyson. Mike is a fool. Mike is just risible. But isn’t Mike, in actual fact, The Big Dog? Couldn’t Mike, without much effort, push my favorite disc jockeys out of the way, on his way to eat, or crush their stupid skulls between his big fingers?
But the trick to dominance, in this age of tricky mutts, is to own the game. First, you want to be the one to get to say; you want your vocabulary (the one that stops at the letter ‘O’; the one where ‘L’ follows ‘M’) to have been established. Then you can project yourself as the Big Dog – laugh at any dog who really is big (‘L’ follows ‘M,’ after all, in this kennel,) and then what?
‘The best selling video in America is Jerry Springer ‘Too Hot For T.V.’ Whadayagonna do with that?’ My disc jockey asks — shocked by an all too obvious decline in standards. Imagine a country where the best selling video isn’t Ralph Waldo Emerson Unplugged (or Dick Clark’s Rock and Roll Legacy for College Presidents), but Jerry Springer.
My High Plains disc jockey is our baseline culture.
Of course you know what I’m saying. Dan Rather is just one teeny little step up.
I. America’s Favorite Debutante
—In Context and Perspective
Point of Entry: Dan Dances
In this country you enter through bravery. Naturally, in a rock and roll society, it is a kind of dramatic or theatrical bravery that is called for. The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed album had this kind of bravery; and so did Sticky Fingers. It is a matter of daring.
Mike Wallace introduced us to the ‘I’m willing to be rude to you’ interview technique. Nine million Wallace wannabes – over nearly forty years – followed in his train.
Rex Reed, interviewing Michelangelo Antonioni in the New York Times introduced a new kind of ironic reportage.
It’s been a celebrity society here in our terrarium for quite some time, and new approaches to Our Great Ones are hen’s teeth rare and hence much prized. A tumescent cock on your album cover; the willingness not to be a gentleman in relation to an interviewee; the willingness to be unhappy in real time with the modes and manners of an artist; these are different camera angles on our dilemma; howcum we don’t feel so great about our own terrarium-mad selves?
The examples I have chosen so far are from one side (I want to call it the Andy Warhol side,) of our street. Unhappiness with our former, devolving but orderly Post War Control System. Our rolling sixties and seventies. (There is a link between Mike Wallace’s interviewing style, and Andy Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe, by the way, at a certain point we needed to get those celebrities down from any kind of dignified Post War Pedestal and under our thumb, to reference Mr. Jagger.)
Richard Nixon was here to cooperate; since he himself was full of a salon mixte of negativity. He never trusted in his own pedestal, his own warrior status.
But before we take on Nixon meets Rather (which is the subject here, au fond,) we need, as people say now, to take note of one other cosmic tick-tock, which will reference our title: Is Dan Mad?
Of course Dan isn’t mad — just maddening; and yet…I’m trying to give you a sense here of how many sides of the street he’s walked on mentally over the years. And, well, if he were your son, for instance, wouldn’t you worry that his head has turned around on his shoulders too many times?
Anger (Mike Wallace early interviews to Gold Marilyn Monroe to Mick at Altamont,) moved to a new place with Phil Donahue. No more here to defy (and cleanse through anger,) the ruling aesthetic, but rather, here to help (really, of course, here to debase).
From Terrarium Period A when we were intent on showing, angrily, that there was not Virtue at the Top, we segued (really through Donahue), into a period during which (enter Jerry Springer) we were (have been) able to prove that there is no Virtue at the bottom either.
Dan Rather has played all these games; hence my ironic — but suggestive — title. He was Mike Wallace with Nixon. That was his point of entry, his Port Huron statement; that was when he sprinkled money from the balcony of the stock exchange, and let us know he was part of — The New And Better Thing That Had To Come.
His ambition was to be Edward R. Murrow. The President of Tiffany’s. Lunch with FDR as an equal. He Stood Up To Nixon (or wouldn’t sit down when told to). But he was going to use that rudeness to get to a position of Unassailable Dignity…Only; then there was Donahue. The new reference was not going to be to Sitting Around a Table With The War Winners, but to pain — opening up the audience to spilling its beans.
That spoiled Dan’s fun, but Dan won’t let you spoil his fun. He’s going to sit at the head of Table Number one forever – no matter what.
He had to develop a humility (and a rock and roll) in order to deal with an audience that was beingDonahued, Sally Jesse Raphaeled, and Springered.
He had to become a kind of disc jockey, some of the time.
II. Dan With Don
Don Imus has the keys to that kingdom. Don has the really good news delivery for now. He — well, he doesn’t pretend to education. Churchill is Churchill Downs, as far as he’s concerned, and if you gentle viewer, want to speculate that a Conspiracy Theory From Mars is at work in the Department of Health Education and Welfare — who is he to tell you you are wrong. He’s just a disc jockey.
Don sits on top of the last happy energy in America. He spun the tunes when we liked the Tunes. When it comes to Texans — it’s not John Connally or Lyndon Johnson or Dan Rather we really like — it’s Buddy Holly. And Don’s got that — a history we all understand that goes back to Peggy Sue.
Don’s got the solution to the Donahue Problem. His devolved audience gets to talk to a Rock and Roller.
Dan has studied that.
Dan drops by on Don. Hey, he’s at MGM too. They happen to be shooting his A-List film on the sound stage next door; he just stops by to say hi to Don.
He pulls his tie loose. He doesn’t get involved with the Pierre Salinger Conspiracy Theories — but he doesn’t disapprove.
He’s not here to sort things out, after all. He’s America’s Favorite Debutante. Oh sure, his real place is way high up with Edward R. Murrow and Bill Paley in heaven, but …
GREEN AS A GOURD.
That’s Dan’s phrase for what he was when he came to New York. Buddy Holly in a way. My, wasn’t Radio City Music Hall an eye opener.
DUMB AS WALL PAINT.
Dan — having been to the Imus School of I shit just like you — has recently accused himself of this. ‘I may be dumb as wall paint, but I just love this job,’ he confided during the course of a Promotional Announcement.
Well that covers his ass for everything forever, doesn’t it?
Well, Bubba was in China recently, and CBS covered it, naturally, and Lieutenant Fieldhand (Scott Pelley in this case, I believe,) gave us CONTEXT AND PERSPECTIVE. Naturally, focus was on the human interest of Bubba being there, but the sidebar was kinda interesting. Just kinda announced along the way that fer sure China was gonna be Number One Economy in Da World within twenty years — if not ten.
Well that’s just exactly the kind of time frame we’ve had with Dan. Just think. Watch Dan Rather, snooze, wake up and find yourself in a whole new world. Twenty years ain’t so long, is it? And ain’t we sold everything in order to be Money-Minded people? And we ain’t gonna be number One, no more? Kinda a big sujet.
Maybe we need to understand what’s going on here.
But don’t ask Dizzy Dan the Happy Deb; it wouldn’t be fair.
He’s as dumb as wall paint, after all. Jes like you.
III. Sunset Boulevard
—Or Twilight’s Last Gleeming
Well, it’s the end of the silent movies, is what it is. Sunset Boulevard. Dan has been impersonating Edward R. Murrow, but he’s not smart enough to do this, so it’s more Douglas Edwards; you know who I mean, that sonorous announcer who read at us from a sheet of paper forty years ago. Sonorous voice, from a piece of paper was the style; it was the style also of the newsreels. The announcer raised himself up to a kind of World Leader Voice in the process of telling you about what World Leaders did. Every leader had his Ten Downing Street, and the announcer had his microphone as his Ten Downing Street, and that’s how you, the listener-then-viewer had access.
Dan’s still trying to do this, and it’s silent film days. Except in the instance of Murrow, it was a silent, chatterboxing, kind of thing those men did, actually. Dan, the avid modeler, has studied the silent chatterbox style, tried to add to it the Friendly Father aspect of Walter Cronkite, and it’s supposed to add up to authority. What it adds up to is John Gilbert plus Foxy Grandpa, and we’ve moved on, as to what we want in the way information-delivery and delusion, too.
Well, his voice is o.k. actually, but he’s really nervous. Talking, the actual process of talking is a problem for Dan. You know, there’s that nice word bobble, in figure-skating championships; so-and-so comes on, does a turn, and one of the commentators says it was good but — oh, there was a tiny bobble. Dan does nothing but tiny bobbles. He is tiny bobble from the beginning of the broadcast to the end, and sometimes there’s a Major Bobble. Come to think of it, that’s who Dan is: Major Bobble, the officer you don’t want to serve under. In one recent broadcast, I counted ten tiny bobbles; words he couldn’t pronounce. This seems like a minor issue, but here’s why it’s not. He has to be thinking about this every minute; he sees replays of it in his own mind; he’s thinking about the next word he says, and will he get it wrong. And that’s all he’s thinking about, except that when he gets it right three times in a row he then thinks ‘am I still o.k?’ And that’s all he’s thinking about. And what he’s done as Managing Editor, or something, is to slot in messages to the viewer as to how he’s to be viewed now. He’s modulated that into his tone of voice. The reference for it actually was in the American Film Institute evening; somebody said something about Jack Palance and how he got off a horse; Jack Palance, apparently, came from Brooklyn; didn’t like horses; was afraid of horses; when he got off a horse, he got off terribly slowly. And he was able to convey a kind of threat by doing that; I get off a horse so well that I can afford to get off a horse slowly. Dan has picked up on that. It’s the old aristocrat’s trick. But the fact is, he doesn’t speak well. Jennings speaks well; Brokaw’s got his ESPN drawl, and a better mind than Dan’s back of it; Jim Lehrer speaks and thinks at the same time, and then there is the divine instance of Margaret Warner who speaks and thinks ahead at the same time, and Dan’s the class dunce — and knows it.
IV. Colonel Bobble On the March
This section takes off from just one phrase of Dan’s — and it’s Orwellian; and people who think that Orwell was wrong because we weren’t shoved in metal cages in 1984 are really missing the point. Orwell’s Big Brother was about mendacity at the parenting level—where the Parent is a Contrived Abstraction. That’s who Big Brother is—he’s the most important person in your life—he’s remote so you can’t check him out—he lies.
The phrase that brings this to mind—and Dan got every word right—there are five words in it—and he said every word clearly—was this one:
‘Still ahead, more hard news.’
He was able to do that — speak clearly; enter the telegraphic mode because he was dealing with his will to power. When Dan is focussing on what he needs to do to you to keep you in his thrall, he can be clear as a bell; it’s only when he has to deal with his job that he Bobbles. He doesn’t like the aspect of his job which calls upon him to recognize the actual existence of other people who can’t do him any good. His will to power is actual to him, and when somebody crosses him; or when he is dealing with a Top Dog close up (the President or Saddam Hussein, or any other Avatar of Ultimate Power,) he can intensify; this is his asset, in broadcasting terms. He can give you something Jennings and the others can’t in this one department; if you want to know what the mind of a person who will do anything to keep Power is like – well, Dan can give you a whiff of that. A-list adrenalin, let’s call it.
Oh, but then what. The human interest. Dan has no humor; and the ridiculous painful work of informing you sufficiently so that the world will not turn out to be the story of A-list adrenalin, only; well, that part of Dan’s job bores him to tears; and scares him. Bobble, Bobble, Bobble. No focus.
The only part of that job he likes is when he is ordering you to understand that he has already done that job, and why don’t we move on. Next on the menu – more hard news; delicious revivifying dessert; eat your delicious garden-fresh broccoli; there, that was Context And Perspective. Do you LIKE Context and Perspective served with Bully Sauce. Of course you do.
That was fun. Or does Dan Still do it; you’ll have to tell me, but there was a time when Dan was very into sharing the road. You’d have a report, and then Dan would call on a Reporter to give Context And Perspective. Like This:
Colonel Bobble: The Preshident may be going to retremes, shom Washington insiders are draying. Here to provide Context and Persplective is Lieutenant Fieldman. Lieutenant, are Drashington insiders convinced that the Prellident is going to be more exlme? Or is he going to lack frown?
Lieutenant Fieldman: That’s right Dan.
Colonel Bobble: Thank you Lew Fieldhand for giving us Context and Perspective.
Now when I say that Big Brother lies, and that Dan Rather is Orwellian in that sense, here is what I mean.
Big Brother works like this: he takes away from the equation the part that would really do you some good (the first ten letters of the alphabet, say,) spends most of his time way down on the easy end (S-X, say,) and then proudly tells you that up next is more difficult, elevated material from the very top of Mount Everest – i.e. something in the K-L-M range.
That is a kind of lying, actually.
And of course, very confusing to you – destructive of your ability to receive any ‘news’ from anybody, ever, which is what the news-delivery people are picking up on now in focus groups and so on. There are now generations growing who are going to be reluctant to accept ‘news’ from anybody ever.
‘First, Do No Harm,’ is the first rule for doctors; should be for everyone. Well, Dan hasn’t done that. He is Bad Vector Number One as to getting us to secretly (or not so secretly) dislike and distrust the authority of News Delivery.
V. Still Ahead, More Hard News…
It’s an interesting phrase ‘hard news.’ It is an Orwellian back formation. The classic template is: news, features, opinion. Then, in quiet, our Orwellian News Deliverers invented ‘Soft News;’ a mutant form for stupid people with attention span problems (and no reference points). No announcement was made, so far as I know. No one has ever said ‘and now the soft news.’ No, as presented, it was all news, just like before. But reality has a way of making itself felt in bits and pieces, and the phrase ‘soft news’ worked its way out into general parlance from within the Councils of the Great.
In 1984, as I remember, the great example is the chocolate bar. The chocolate bar is shrunk from 10 ounces to five — and nothing is said about it. Then two ounces are added, so the chocolate bar is up to seven ounces — at which point it is bigger than your previous chocolate bar.
So too, with Hard News.
I am not aware that the phrase ‘soft news’ has made it on the Big Time Air yet.
But Dan likes the process of telling you you’re dealing with a quality product when you walk with him in Ratherland, so out of 1998 as 1984, all of a sudden, you are informed that you are going to inherit even more Hard News.
Now, what of the hard news that Dan delivered on this particular soft night?
Well, it was about Yugoslavia. Kosovo this time.
It was a short segment. A village in the former Yugoslavia. Partisans had attacked Government forces.
I am using the Generic Names on purpose.
Guns are fired. A reporter announces that guns have been fired. Now This.
CBS News knows what it takes to get your attention so that you will follow a story – a little bit. This particular bit of hard news was sufficient to get this response only:
Ma Kettle: Those furrners always do fight.
Dan – with his ‘more hard news’ direct order to you hopes you will also take away this idea:
Pa Kettle: And trust our Tiffany network to tell us it will always be so.
Compare this approach to the advertisements. The eternal wisdom of Rosser Reeves, the inventor of the USP – the Unique Selling Proposition:
Anacin, Anacin, Anacin. Anacin is like a doctor’s prescription. Ford builds Fords Ford Tough. Ford Tough Fords are so Ford-like that they are Ford Tough.
That is what it takes to get an American to really focus.
In order to get an American to really focus on the former Yugoslavia — well you’d have to think about it for years.
But, of course we’ve had years.
And American fighting men are present; and in significant numbers; and, the significant numbers they are present in does reduce our ability to respond quickly in our new more dangerous world, which really is new, and really is more dangerous, which is why Dan — and the others too — have decided to report less, not more.
What about this question of the USP — the Unique Selling Proposition — which is God in America, and has been for fifty years. Howcum the networks no have? Howcum Dan doesn’t decide (since he’s the Churchill-FDR-E.R. Murrow of our Tiffany Network,) to get one up on the other boys by following the real deal in the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union? Howcum, Brokaw doesn’t stay and stay and stay with the subject of our military preparedness, par example, howcum Jennings no savvy International Currency Trading — the importance of it. He looks like he understands it.
Why they are all the same — and dance to the same rhythm, even — it is one of God’s little mysteries.
And we’ve had the time — especially Dan has. Year after year. It’s getting to be like decadeafter decade…
VI. Intermezzo: Fucked Anthropology
Everyone likes anthropology. We love to study how Samoans organize their love life; we encourage ourselves to respect the ways in which Various Peoples have transmitted wisdom, and so forth. We know how to read the signposts within other cultures. It’s part of our elegant multi-culturalism that we know how to do this.
Well, Dan is a signpost within our culture; an indication that our anthropology is completely fucked.
The Science of Human Life tells us that man is the ‘thinking and talking animal.’ Bears are bigger and stronger; par example. We are thrilled beyond the telling when we can get a dolphin to do a little communicating.
So let’s look at the social anthropology of a twenty year old male, looking for a culture hero, within our primitive culture.
Our twenty year old is not stupid, let’s assume; but not — you know — outstanding or original in the brain department. At the mercy of what he’s been told, he’s here to look at the obvious signs. (Anthropology is the story of how humans move the obvious necessities — sexual rituals, cultural rituals; military traditions — along from generation to generation. Powerful Tribal Elders from a Samoan King to Pope Pius IX know that most young people take a read of the obvious only as they move toward adult decision-making.)
So, our competent, but not-willing-to-look-beyond-the-obvious male twenty year old, takes stock (as he heads toward adulthood,) of what has made an impression on him already.
He is aware that what the human does (apart from fucking and fighting) is to think and talk.
He looks at and for the obvious sign.
Who is our Samoan King and Roman Pope of Thinking and Talking?
Who has Held the Most Powerful Alpha Male Post in the Thinking and Talking department longest?
Who’s got the dominance; the longevity; the tradition? Who’s got the Context and Perspective?
Hold your breath folks. It’s DAN!
VII. ‘And then the Shah Kissed me…’
I am thinking about decent young journalists and what they don’t know about their tradition (the river Dan floated to get to be king of our Fucked Anthropology.)
Journalistic tradition, American style, has a Mississippi and a Missouri. The Missouri (flowing into the Mississippi) is World War II Warrior Reportage. Edward R. Murrow in London; Cyrus Sulzberger talking to to DeGaulle.
The Mississippi is Ben Hecht. ‘The Front Page’ Hildy Johnson taking Richard Harding Davis into the Jazz Age.
The funny thing is: we don’t need any of that now. We need to recover memory now; but those memories we can let go of.
Here are two practical facts. In olden days there was a frisson available to the journalist who got to talk to a British General, say, at the Junior Carleton Club. A frisson available by virtue of showing the British Prime Minister emerging from 10 Downing Street.
Not today. It’s not available, and you don’t want it anyway.
The secret thrill of having access to the last remnant of the 19th Century? You can’t have it.
And you shouldn’t want it.
Don’t suck up to the last remnant of 19th century warriorship; be a warrior on your own.
Ditto the Ben Hecht of it.
Journalism was in a different power position in the 1920’s.
Journalists were bad boys and bad girls who had the guts to jazz their way into and around a world where they were perceived as having a very low status and a few cards of entree.
You’ve got an enormous power position now; it is irresponsible to pretend that you don’t. And you’ve got the best entree possible: people want to get to you.
It was part of the journalist’s style that he (or she) danced high wide and gut-bucket to the tune played by the World of Pleasure.
You should give that up. High wide and gutbucket now isn’t speakeasies and the Early Days of Hollywood; it’s crackhouses (and school children playing gangster,) and the enormous mendacities of Celebrity Society.
Here’s my least favorite moment in the history of journalism — style department, and it’s not a Dan Moment, but a Barbara Walters moment. Within this moment you can see the Mississippi and Missouri of the Old Style turning toxic.
It’s Before The Change in Iran. Barbara is at The Palace. We see the doors of the Audience Chamber. Barbara is describing Her interview — the one she’s just had with the Shah. She grows a little personal.
‘And then the Shah kissed me…’ she says (‘and then Roosevelt hugged me; Churchill groped, me; I had a lovely cucumber sandwich with De Gaulle; Tom Cruise is a nice Guy and we cracked a brew…’)
It was excusable fifty years ago; inexcusable now to even want to have that kind of access.
CBS ought to fire Dan now before he kills again.
Journalists ought to get off their over-paid Huck Finn raft.
Journalists ought to make of themselves a prideful guild. (The Newspaper Guild used to stand for a little something.)
Stand a little apart from this troubled world of ours.
Identify the stories which will affect the lives of our children.
And cover them.
George W.S. Trow’s new book is My Pilgrim’s Progress, a memoir.