It’s worth joining Facebook just to read Dan Rather. The same Dan Rather who was supposedly condemned to living out his life in exile.
Few of us could ever have imagined that the longtime CBS News anchorman, who left the network under a cloud in 2006, who then toiled in obscurity for a third-tier cable outlet, who we all assumed was permanently out to pasture at age 85, would morph into a social media superstar?
The digital era of journalism has revived the old warrior; without editors, filters, or corporate pressures, he’s free to tap his 60 years of experience and shoot straight — the way he did on Facebook last summer, when he warned of Donald Trump’s dangerous ascent. This democracy, he wrote, “is a lot more fragile than we would like to believe … I have peered into the abyss of dysfunction, and it is terrifying. And more than anything, that is what is driving me to not be silent.”
Rather is a classic illustration of how social media has revolutionized our communications. Even 10 years ago, his impact would’ve been nil. But as Politico reports this week, “Rather’s personal page has more than 2 million likes, his News and Guts page has another million-plus, and his posts are seen, shared, and read by millions more. On average, News and Guts gets more likes, comments and shares per post than BuzzFeed, USA Today, or CNN.”
There’s a caveat, of course. In our fractured media landscape, where people increasingly gravitate toward sources that confirm what they already believe, Rather is probably preaching to the choir. He polarized viewers as early as the ’70s, when he crossed swords with Richard Nixon. Conservatives celebrated his CBS News downfall (in 2004, he accurately reported on George W. Bush’s youthful failure to fulfill his service to the National Guard, but the authenticity of the CBS documents could not be verified), and it’s doubtful that today’s conservatives are clicking Like on Rather’s posts.
Which is fine. Because there’s a huge audience — the majority of the electorate — that’s hungry to hold this regime accountable. There’s a huge audience — not liberal or conservative, just American — that objectively views this regime as dangerously incompetent. And Rather 2.0 is mining that audience.
For instance, on April 7, when he rebuked the press for drooling over Trump’s missile launch in Syria — “War must never be considered a public relations operation. It is not a way for an Administration to gain a narrative. It is a step into a dangerous unknown and its full impact is impossible to predict, especially in the immediate wake of the first strike” — his post got 51,000 likes and 20,000 shares. For those of you not familiar with Facebook, that’s a lot.
On April 5, when he urged readers to resist Trump’s attempts to distract us from the Russia probes — “The magician is buckling his cufflinks. The misdirection meter is turned up full … We know that Russia — led by a former KGB agent — actively worked to undermine our election. We know that there are serious investigations into collision between Trump associates and Russian operatives. That is the story. Everything else is just noise and dust until proven otherwise” — he got 49,000 likes and another 20,000 shares.
And on April 19, when he analyzed Trump’s ignorant boast of sending ships to North Korea, when in fact the ships were heading in the opposite direction — “How and why can this happen? There are no good explanations. Incompetence, deceit, a lack of communication? This is how wars can get started by accident” — his post got 154,000 likes and 82,000 shares.
As Rather’s daughter tells Politico, “He has no boss on Facebook, and my dad with no boss is a beautiful thing.”
Rather with a boss was often a bad thing. Back in the day at CBS, he threw sharp elbows and bridled at efforts to curb his clout. I did a magazine piece about Rather in 1988, and the insiders I interviewed were not kind. They mocked him as “The Anchormonster.” One guy told me privately that “anyone who f—-d with Dan was fish food,” ex-correspondent George Herman said that “he has this bravura manner, but behind it all he’s very insecure,” and ex-news division president Ed Joyce compared him to “an ornamental kudzu vine in Japan, the kind that can spread its tentacles until an entire building can collapse under its weight.”
OK, so the guy’s not perfect. But nobody ever got to the top in the cutthroat world of network news by being nice. All that matters is the quality of the work. Like on April 11, when Rather parsed Sean Spicer’s Hitler remarks and prefaced his analysis this way: “Today in a briefing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer issued a statement that is so far beyond the pale, so tone deaf and blind to history and our precarious moment in world affairs, that it is with only a heavy heart that I even bring attention to it. There can be no joy in such incompetence.”
Social media at its worst is a race to the bottom. But at its best, it can kick-start a seasoned octogenarian who writes with the weight of experience when he calls Trump “a stress-test for our democratic institutions.” It sure looks like F. Scott Fitzgerald got it wrong when he said there are no second acts in American lives.