In June 2002, Dan Rather looked old, defeated, making a confession he dare not make on American TV about the deadly self-censorship that had seized U.S. newsrooms. After September 11th, news on the U.S. tube was bound and gagged. Any reporter who stepped out of line, he said, would be professionally lynched as un-American.
"It's that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions," the aging journalist told the British television audience.
"It's an obscene comparison," he said, "but there was a time in South Africa when people would put flaming tires around people's necks if they dissented." No U.S. reporter who values his neck or career will "bore in on the tough questions."
Back in the U.S., Rather smothered his conscience and told his TV audience: "George Bush is the president. He makes the decisions. He wants me to line up; just tell me where."
During the war in Vietnam, Rather's predecessor at CBS, Walter Cronkite, asked some pretty hard questions about Nixon's handling of the war. Today, our sons and daughters are dying in Iraq. But, unlike Cronkite, Rather could not, would not, question Bush. On the British broadcast, you could see Rather was deeply unhappy with himself for playing the game.
"What is going on," he said, "is a belief that the public doesn't need to know -- limiting access, limiting information to cover the backsides of those who are in charge of the war. It's extremely dangerous and should not be accepted, and I'm sorry to say that up to and including this moment of this interview, that overwhelmingly it has been accepted by the American people. And the current administration revels in that."
Rather's words had a poignant personal ring for me. He was speaking on Newsnight, BBC's nightly current-affairs program, which broadcasts my own reports. As an American, I do not report for BBC by choice. The truth is, if I want to put a hard, investigative report about the U.S. on the nightly news, I have to broadcast it in exile from London.
Rather is in hot water for a report my own investigative team put in Britain's Guardian papers and on the BBC years ago. In 1999, I wrote that former Texas lieutenant governor Ben Barnes had put in the fix for George Bush to get out of 'Nam and into the Guard.
What is hot news this month in the U.S. is a five-year-old story to the rest of the world. And you still wouldn't have seen it, except that Rather and a 60 Minutes producer finally got fed up and stepped out of line. As Rather predicted, he stuck out his neck and got his head chopped off.
Is Rather's report accurate? Is George W. Bush a war hero or a privileged little shirker-in-chief? What I haven't read is about two crucial documents supporting the BBC/CBS story. The first is Barnes' signed and sworn affidavit to a Texas court in 1999, in which he testifies to the Air Guard fix, which then-Governor George W. Bush, given the opportunity, declined to challenge.
And there is a second document, from the files of the U.S. Justice Department, again confirming the story of the fix to keep Bush's white bottom out of Vietnam. That document, shown last year in the BBC television documentary Bush Family Fortunes, correctly identifies Barnes as the bag man even before his 1999 confession.
This is not a story about Rather. The millionaire celebrity can defend himself without my help. This is really a story about the fear that stops other reporters in the U.S. from following the evidence about this administration where it leads -- American news guys and gals who will practice their smiles, adjust their hairspray, bleach their teeth, look at the treatment of Rather, and say, "Not me, babe." •
Greg Palast is the author of The Best Democracy Money Can Buy.