Dan Rather Made Me Do It

Friday marks the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and as reporters chronicle the half-century since the event, something will be missing from CBS’s coverage.

Dan Rather.

In 1963, Rather had recently been hired as the head of CBS’s southwest bureau and, as such, took on the mundane administrative duties required of a bureau chief during the President’s weekend trip to Dallas.  That changed the instant shots rang out in Dealey Plaza.

Rather, through hustle and institutional knowledge of the major players in Dallas, was among the leaders in coverage of the chaotic aftermath of the assassination.  Walter Cronkite’s emotional reaction to the wire service flash announcing the President’s death remains one of the more iconic moments in a weekend filled with such moments.  What many forget, however, was that Rather had reported the President’s death moments earlier.  CBS, which created the field of broadcast journalism through the work of the Murrow Boys and Cronkite and Rather, has decided to ignore its most well-known connection to that Friday afternoon in Dallas.

That’s fine.  Rather sat down for a compelling series of interviews with Tom Brokaw, a former competitor at NBC.  The 82-year-old journalist also hosted an hour-long special about the weekend on AXS TV, a cable outlet owned, in part, by Mark Cuban.

Why, you ask, is this topic brought up in my quest for funding in the Go To Black  ( http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/go-to-black )   project?

Because Dan Rather made me do it.

Not specifically, mind you.  Heck, I haven’t spoken to the broadcast pioneer in years.

But his support and encouragement from years ago led me to this effort.

In 2004, I was the head of Meredith Broadcasting’s Washington, DC bureau (we had a bureau chief, but he was saddled with so many other responsibilities in the company, he was hardly in DC).  In July, my photographer Rob Yingling and I packed up the bureau and moved everything to Boston to cover the Democratic National Convention; a month later we did the same for the Republican Convention in New York.  In Massachusetts, CBS gave us an opportunity to meet with and interview Rather from the network’s booth high above the convention floor.  His stories about past conventions and his opinions about the ’04 race were fascinating to listen to – I seem to recall his interest in a little-known Illinois state senator named Obama who was scheduled to deliver the keynote address in Boston.

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Speaking with Dan Rather in Boston in July, 2004. 

A month later we were in New York and CBS offered the same opportunity.

“Andy Gobeil,” Rather called out as I walked in to the booth at Madison Square Garden.

Taken aback and pleasantly surprised at his familiarity, I smiled and complimented him on a staff that prepped him well for the visit of one of the many reporters taking his time during the convention.

My staff is wonderful, he told me, but they didn’t remind him of my name.  He said he remembered me from the visit in Boston.

I was skeptical until he told me how his wife’s maiden name was nearly identical to mine.  His response remains one of the high points of my career:  “After you left, I asked around, heard some good things about you and looked forward to seeing you again.”

Rob and I produced another story with Rather, I thanked him for his kind words, and we left.

Four years later, I was in South Carolina and ran into Rather again.  He had since departed CBS and was hosting a discussion –to air on his online program Dan Rather Reports– on the presidential race, a race in which the Palmetto State played a major role.  I reintroduced myself, reminded him of our meeting in Boston and New York and, not wanted to intrude on his prep time, stepped away.  After a few moments, he called me over (we were waiting for the lighting to be set for my interview of him) and we started discussing –of all things- books.

Now, I’ve wanted to write for quite some time, but I’ve been pretty quiet about my hopes to do so.  Yet, for some reason, I told him about my idea of producing a book about local television coverage of the civil rights era.

What a great idea, he said.  You need to write that book.

I chuckled, thinking he was simply being polite.

We conducted our interview and, before leaving, he took my hand in his and urged me –again- to write the book.

Five years later, I’m trying to do just that….

….but I need your help: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/go-to-black

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