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Live from St. Petersburg, Florida: The election and Dan Rather
The veteran anchor's got a high-def niche.
By Eric Deggans, Times TV/media critic
Published January 28, 2008
[AP photo (2007)]
The budget is smaller on HDNet, but former CBS News anchor Dan Rather is back in a role he relishes.
IF YOU GO Dan Rather Reports A live, two-hour edition of his HDNet show covering Florida's primaries airsat 8 p.m. Tuesday from Miller Auditorium at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. The college will simulcast the broadcast in Fox Hall; e-mail email@example.com to be placed on a waiting list for seats. Rather will conduct a question-and-answer session after the broadcast in Fox Hall.
He found out in 2000 how much egg can land on your face if you trust polls to predict elections.
And he wiped away a bit more - along with just about every other journalist and pundit who covered the race - when Hillary Clinton found an unexpected victory in the New Hampshire Democratic primary Jan. 8.
So, despite recent polls showing Rudolph Giuliani with serious challenges in the Sunshine State, former CBS anchor Dan Rather said he's going to resist the urge to make many poll-driven predictions when he brings his reporting on the Florida primary to St. Petersburg Tuesday.
"I had reluctantly become convinced in New Hampshire - gosh, poll after poll showed it was going in Barack Obama's direction," said Rather, who covered the election for his new employer, HDNet, from a theater in New Hampshire. "Now, I give you the lecture I gave myself - not that it always sticks as well as it should - in which the late Time magazine correspondent Teddy White had a great admonition: Journalists should concentrate on what has happened and what is happening and not delve into what may happen."
Unfortunately, that's just about all TV personalities can do when reporting slowly tabulated primary results, particularly during two hours of continuous coverage.
Rather admits he indulged a fair amount of speculation during his HDNet program from New Hampshire, which flashed exit poll graphics noting Obama's popularity with male voters and independents, before voting results showed Clinton's success.
Still, the anchor insists that his presentation in St. Petersburg will "take viewers inside the campaigns," exploring how they may react to the ongoing vote totals and looking at who has funded each candidate's campaign.
"We want to matter . . . we want to put out information that can be of importance to our viewers," Rather said, his Texas-tinged voice crackling over the phone from his New York office. "And while decent people can disagree, we think (Florida's primary) may - emphasize MAY - be decisive on the Republican side. And in terms of the general election, Florida remains one of about five states which can make a significant difference."
Looking at his presentation for HDNet earlier this month, it is striking how far Rather, 76, has come in a few short years.
When viewers watched him helm CBS News' coverage of the 2000 election debacle, he was surrounded by a ritzy set, flashy graphics and heavyweight colleagues such as Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer.
On HDNet, a high-definition channel available to about 8-million cable subscribers nationwide,the presentation is simpler. Joined by Republican consultant Mike Murphy and Democratic strategist Donnie Fowler in New Hampshire, Rather sat before a blue-and-black backdrop, kicking around questions about the vote's implications before a small audience.
For some, the plunge in production and visibility might be humbling. But the anchor insists these broadcasts - and the investigations he has been doing for HDNet's Dan Rather Reports series since November 2006 - are some of his most thrilling work in a half century chasing stories.
"It's more addictive than crack cocaine," he said of election reporting, which he insisted should be a feature of his show when the program was first established. "We're on a channel which is growing quickly, but in the great universe of TV news, we know we're small. But frustration isn't a word which exists in my vocabulary."
One HDNet story Rather cites often is his reporting on allegations of shoddy workmanship and unreliability in touch screen voting machines used in the 2006 elections, particularly in Florida.
His first report, aired in August, featured Sarasota area Democratic U.S. congressional candidate Christine Jennings, who fought elections officials in Florida for many months after her unsuccessful race against Republican Vern Buchanan. Machines failed to register votes from up to 18,000 people in the 13th District congressional race. Rather traveled to the Philippines where the machines were assembled to show one worker who says he was paid $2 to $2.50 an hour for his effort, performed in a hot factory with no air conditioning. The report said testing amounted to shaking the machine to see if any loose parts rattled around. And the most defective parts of the unit, an unreliable touch screen, were manufactured in the United States.
It was the kind of damning report he once prepared for TV's best-known news magazine, 60 Minutes. And had it aired to that show's sprawling audience, perhaps his work would have sparked other news stories or a government investigation.
But Rather said there has been little official reaction to his stories, though he hopes to unveil a report outlining voting problems in other areas of Florida soon (one reason for the measured reaction may be the state's decision back in mid 2007 to replace the touch screen machines with optical scan units).
"There hasn't been a serious, widespread government investigation into what's happened with voting machines when we went from - in many cases, from punch card to electronic voting machines at tremendous expense to taxpayers," he said. "This is not a matter of (saying) technology is terrible. ATM machines work marvelously well - there's no reason we can't have the same reliability with our voting machines."
As Rather flies around the country, interviewing stars at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah one day and covering election results the next, his lawsuit against CBS slowly winds through the legal system.
On Jan. 9, a judge decided the $70-million lawsuit could go forward, allowing Rather's attorneys access to internal e-mails and documents they say will prove the network treated him unfairly in 2004, when he was ousted as CBS's top anchor amid fallout from a controversial 60 Minutes II report on President Bush's Vietnam-era National Guard service.
Though critics and even some friends have cautioned that the anchor may be ensuring his impressive career is remembered mostly for a messy legal battle he still might lose, Rather has remained upbeat publicly, insistent that the noise and controversy will be resolved.
"This is a journalism joy for me," he said of his current work. "I can't tell you what a good time I'm having and how satisfying it is to do what we do and hope we make some impact. What I'm concerned about now, is doing the best journalism we can do; the rest is up to the media gods."
What that means for those lucky enough to see him in St. Petersburg is two hours of the best analysis an old reporter can offer.
"The cable networks, they try to keep the pace rapid," he said. "Our attitude is, let's have a deep breath, have another cup of coffee and try to take a wider view. If we're not different, if we can't give added value, then there's no reason to watch us."
A live, two-hour edition of his HDNet show covering Florida's primaries airsat 8 p.m. Tuesday from Miller Auditorium at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. The college will simulcast the broadcast in Fox Hall; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org">href="mailto:email@example.com" mce_href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com to be placed on a waiting list for seats. Rather will conduct a question-and-answer session after the broadcast in Fox Hall.