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

A deep breath and a new challenge….

I was desperate.

I’m not sure if it was the most recent article about the middle-aged, middle class, unemployed white-collar professional still looking for work…

…or the first ten such articles I read that led to my feelings of desperation.

Either way, I was desperate.

“This cannot be happening to me,” I thought day in and day out.  I’d been promoted in every job I’d had. At one point I was one of the youngest NPR affiliate news directors in the country. I broke into television news shortly after that and went from reporter to weekend anchor, to weathercaster/reporter/anchor (weathercaster?!) to main anchor, all in a few years.  The broadcast group that owned my station in South Carolina decided to create a Washington, DC bureau and asked me to run it; another promotion.  When a change in the company’s management sent all of those responsible for the DC bureau packing, the new managers liked me enough to offer me more money and an exciting new job.  It was -I thought, anyway- a promotion through non-termination.

A divorce and its resultant mess led to a mid-career hiccup, but who in this industry hasn’t faced such challenges?  You pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and move ahead.

I did just that and found myself back in New England, anchoring a morning television program.  Another step led to another promotion: I was asked to co-host a morning news program on the most well-known radio station in Rhode Island.

For a variety of reasons best left unexplained here, the show wasn’t as successful as all had hoped.  Two years in and management decided to make a change….

…a change that didn’t include me.

No worries.  After all, it is said, you haven’t become a true journalist until you’ve been replaced (a sense of Schadenfreude allows me to point out that the station, with my replacement, hasn’t seen an increase in ratings and in some cases has even fallen in the ratings….but I digress.  Happily).

It’ll take a few weeks, but –I told myself- I’ll find a job.

Those weeks turned to months.

Those months turned into half a year.

The interviews went well: one such phone interview for a main anchor position, scheduled to last thirty minutes, stretched into an hour and a half, the News Director told me to expect a call scheduling a time for me to travel to her city in a matter of days.  An email from her shortly thereafter told me they’d decided to go in another direction.

“You’re too polished,” she told me.  “Too professional for us.”

A conversation with another station and I was given the impression that I wasn’t polished enough.

I had a request from one News Director to watch her morning show, write up a few comments, and send her the critique.

She told me she was impressed with what I had written: the ideas were pertinent and well thought-out.

“You’ll hear from me soon,” she said.

That was in April.

I’m still waiting for her call.

The journalism job applications were soon followed by public relations positions.  Marketing.  Communications.  Voice work.

No.

No.

No.

A 45 year-old journalist who –at one point- reported from the White House and Capitol Hill on a daily basis and who –at one point- had a comfortable salary, apparently didn’t fit in to the new journalism.  I’m sure the latter meant a great deal more than the former.

So now, rather than waiting for someone else to offer me a job, I’ll create one on my own.  For years, I’ve toyed with the idea of long-form writing.  There’s a novel to be written (actually, I’ve written bits and pieces of one) about the broadcast journalism industry.  It’s fun, exciting, interesting and amusing and will be completed very soon.

What I’m working on today, however, is far more important.

It’s a non-fiction look at local television coverage of the civil rights battles.

The Race Beat, which won the Pulitzer for history in 1997, documented print reporters’ efforts to cover the era.  Ignored have been the efforts of local television reporters, producers, photographers and anchors who tried to do the same.  Those broadcast journalists faced a difficult fight, as the owners of the stations they worked for were part of the power structure that wanted no part of integration.

It’s a compelling story.

It’s a story that needs to be told.

In order to tell that story, I need assistance.

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I’ve decided to create a crowd-funding site that will finance the research and writing of the book.  Over the next month, I’ll tell you more about the subjects and the challenges involved in writing.  I’ll also document the difficult fundraising task ahead.  Check back here every day for the latest in our efforts….

….and don’t forget to click on the link ( http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/go-to-black ) to offer your support.

After all, I may just be too polished –or not polished enough—to find a real job.