Is truth a victim?


Thursday, June 6, 2002

BBC Newsnight Interviews Dan Rather who gives us a revealing insight about the post September 11 climate in the US media rooms.

MADELEINE HOLT:
In the United States, they say September 11th has changed everything. Now, it's changing American television. For the first time, one of its most distinguished news anchors is attacking how much the climate of extraordinary patriotism is stopping journalists asking tougher questions about the war on terror. With the Government equally reluctant to give answers, he believes core American values are being undermined.

DAN RATHER:
(Anchor, CBS Evening News)
There has never been an American war, small or large in which access has been so limited as this one.

CLIP - "MILITARY DIARIES" - VH1 Television

HOLT:
In an exclusive interview with Newsnight, Dan Rather lays into the people beyond the newsroom who are getting unprecedented access to make so-called "reality TV" like this.

RATHER:
For God's sake and for the sake of the war effort, let's not turn the war into entertainment.

CLIP - "CBS EVENING NEWS"
From CBS news headquarters in New York, here is Dan Rather.
RATHER:
Good evening, it is a sombre time for this country.

HOLT:
And Rather told us with the nation so stirred, it's become almost impossible to hold the Government to account.

RATHER:
(Anchor, CBS Evening News)
It's an obscene comparison but there was a time in South Africa when people would put flaming tyres around people's necks if they dissented. In some ways, the fear is that you will be neck-laced here, you will have a flaming tyre of lack of patriotism put around your neck. It's that fear that keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions and to continue to bore-in on the tough questions so often. Again, I'm humbled to say I do not except myself from this criticism.

HOLT:
While Rather speaks out, American television is developing a new kind of programme, based on a new kind of co-operation with the government. They call it "Militainment", entertainment TV about the military.

CLIP - "MILITARY DIARIES" - VH-1 Television
UNNAMED MAN:
Here I am again. It's been a very long day, about 18-hour day today. Pretty standard for a team pilot. F18 team pilot. I haven't had sex for three months either, that isn't helping matters. It will be nice...!

(SONG STARTS BY STING)
On and on
The rain will fall
Like tears from the storm.

HOLT:
This is "Military Diaries", a 13-episode documentary for the music channel VH-1, airing at the end of this month. It tells the personal stories of men and women on the frontline, with music they listen to away from home.

RJ CUTLER:
(Producer, "Military Diaries")
We went to Camp Pendelton out here in California, were the Marines are training, we went to the USS Stenes,(UNCHECKED) which is stationed in the Arabian Sea, we went to Kuwait, and we went to Afghanistan. Any time you can put a human face on a soldier or sailor, or a marine, that's to the benefit to the department of defence. I'm not saying there isn't something in it for them, at the end of the day they do give up a certain amount of control. We have final cut.

CLIP- "THE WAR ROOM" - 1992
UNNAMED MAN:
Probably for the first time in a generation tomorrow, we're gonna win.

HOLT:
RJ Cutler has a track record of getting great access. In 1992 he followed the Clinton campaign for an Oscar-nominated documentary.

CLIP - "MILITARY DIARIES"
VH-1 Television
UNNAMED WOMAN:
If we didn't have any music here, we would be very depressed sailors and we wouldn't be able to do our job

HOLT:
"Military Diaries" is his most ambitious project yet. He gave video cameras to around 80 service personnel. Before Cutler's contribution, came "American Fighter Pilot" for CBS. After two episodes, it was pulled. Later this year comes Jerry Bruckheimer's much-trumpeted "Profiles from the Frontline" for ABC. Cutler makes big claims for this new kind of war coverage.

CUTLER:
I always think what we do is real than conventional news coverage. I think that journalism has extraordinary merits and its place, but that the work of documentary film makers is to get at the core of something, both more dramatic and more human.

HOLT:
Dan Rather is having none of it.

DAN RATHER:
War is real mud and real blood, real screams of the dying and of death. That is war. What you see in a Hollywood movie or a made-for-television series is not war. It's somebody's glamourised view of war. Even when they say , "Listen we will tell it like it really is", I'm sorry, baloney. What you have is miniature, I'd say miniature, miniature version of what you have in totalitarian states. They produce films about how great the great leader is and how he is getting greater in every way, every day.

CUTLER:
I'd like to point out I don't think Dan Rather wants to do what he we are doing, I don't think the American press, I couldn't have you know, I could have begged NBC news to do this show. I don't think they would have any interest in a project like this. I think they want loud, headlines and external sensationalism and ideally somebody's leg being blown up so they can pretend they care, and look all sad as they exploit it mercilessly.

RATHER:
I simply think he is wrong.

CLIP - "CBS EVENING NEWS"
RATHER:
September 11th 2001, you will remember this day as long as you live. Good evening again.

HOLT:
Rather's credentials as a patriot are unquestioned. Immediately after the terrorist attacks, he became a morale boosting figure. He publicly endorsed President Bush but since then he has become increasingly troubled.

RATHER:
I worry that patriotism run amok will trample the very values that the country seeks to defend. In a constitutional republic based on the principles of democracy such as ours, you simply cannot sustain warfare, without the people at large understanding why we fight, how we fight, and have a sense of accountability to the very top.

HOLT:
On the surface, news divisions seem to be carrying on as usual. We caught this outside broadcast by the veteran interviewer Barbara Walters in Times Square but any journalists who has covered the war knows how hard it is to verify what information is given by the US Government. Rather gave us an example of the big story he thought was only getting half-told.

RATHER:
Let us take Operation Anaconda which was presented to the American people and remains presented to the American people as a outstanding victory. But there are some very serious questions particularly the early hours of Operation Anaconda. Somebody sent some of America's best into a trap.

CUTLER:
The 6th episode of our show is all about Operation Anaconda and is first-hand eyewitness accounts with combat footage that no-one has ever seen before, which is why in-house we refer to it as "Generation Y and the Valley of Death", this is the real thing.

HOLT:
So who does Rather blame for the facts vacuum in news, the people running the war?

RATHER:
What has been done practically in real terms is in direct variance with what the Pentagon stated policy is. Pentagon stated policy is maximum access and maximum information, consistent with national security.

HOLT:
The Pentagon dismisses that. A spokesman for the Pentagon told us they consistently give more access to news teams than to people making reality TV or feature films. He also told us there was an obvious advantage in co-operating with entertainment producers because they were less likely to run off to Baghdad and film the flip-side, the other side of the story. Is there at the heart of this an official neurosis about telling the public too much, for fear of losing their support for the so-called "war on terror" and for the government itself?

RATHER:
What is going on to a very large extent I'm sorry to say, 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, is extremely dangerous and cannot and should not be accepted and I'm sorry, to say that up to and including the moment of this interview, that overwhelmingly it has been accepted by the American people. And the current administration revels in that, they relish that and take refuge in that.

CLIP - "JUDGE ADVOCATE GENERAL (J.A.G.)"
CBS Television
UNNAMED MAN:
Be seated.

HOLT:
And the Government's desire for control shows signs of going further still. "J.A.G." is long-running and highly realistic docu-drama about life in the navy. It recently broadcast an episode featuring a military tribunal planned for al-Qaeda suspects.

NAVAL OFFICER:
Is he hiding something? Doesn't he want to tell his side?

AL-QAEDA SUSPECT:
I have nothing to hide.

HOLT:
Its writers were reportedly briefed by the Pentagon before the press. Radio and TV had been banned from the tribunals if they ever happened. Rather believes it's not just the administration trying to second guess what kind of information the public can take. He told us journalists are pulling their punches for fear of being seen by the public as unpatriotic. Astonishingly he includes himself.

RATHER:
It starts with a feeling of patriotism within one's self. It carries through with the knowledge that the country as a whole and for all of the right reasons, felt and continues to feel this surge of patriotism within themselves. And one finds one's self saying, "I know the right question but you know what, this is not exactly the right time to ask it?"

HOLT:
Rather deplores this self-censorship but reserves his strongest words for the US Government and in his view their manipulation of the public according to who gets access and information and who doesn't.

RATHER:
The belief weren't so strong in both the political and military leadership of the current war effort, that those who control the images will control public opinion. They realise when an entertainment orientated society ours has become, therefore one way of looking it's a is quite natural, they say to themselves, "Hey, we had the Hollywood-isation of the news, we've had the Hollywood-isation of almost everything else in society, why not the Hollywood-isation of the war?" I want to say quietly, but as forcefully as I can, that I hope this doesn't go any further, it's gone too far already. I'm appalled by it, I do think it's an outrage, this is a personal opinion.

HOLT:
Rather is trying to re-awaken what it means to be American, as he sees it. It's a tough mission. The hip TV take on the Afghan war is as entrancing as it is numbing. And the news take is still getting the ratings, tough questions or not. As for the Bush administration, it's riding high too. The conundrum is for Rather is what he believes is in the public interest, may not interest the American public, at least not yet.

This transcript was produced from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight. It has been checked against the programme as broadcast, however Newsnight can accept no responsibility for any factual inaccuracies. We will be happy to correct serious errors.

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