In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, many network news anchors have distinguished themselves as serious, dignified and intelligent journalists.
Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings have proven themselves excellent leaders of the respective news divisions of NBC and ABC. So too — among many others — have CBS's Bob Schieffer, CNN's Aaron Brown, and the Fox News Channel's Jon Scott and Brigitte Quinn.
But I don't know what planet Dan Rather, CBS's august newsman, is from. In a year of odd behavior, Rather's post-Sept. 11 comportment has called his planetary origins into greater question than ever.
It is not just his crying on Late Night with David Letterman that makes me question his attachment to planet earth, although that's part of it, of course. Countless numbers of anchors and reporters and commentators and photographers, not to mention people from every other walk of American life, were devastated by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But only one took his spiky new hairdo to a comedian's talk show and broke into tears between commercials.
And did anyone really notice what he said in the process? First, he recited these lines from "America, the Beautiful": "O beautiful, for patriot dream/That sees beyond the years/Thine alabaster cities gleam/Undimmed by human tears!" He then said, "We can never sing that song again, that way," and began to sob.
Well, of course not, Dan. We didn't sing the song that way before Sept. 11. That particular stanza is almost obscure; no one has ever heard of it and those who have don't remember it. The fact that you chose it for your interlude of weepiness on Letterman suggests to me that you had to do a little research before your show time. It suggests to me that the whole episode was a little contrived.
Then there is the interview Rather gave in which he explained how he was able to anchor the news in marathon, sixteen-hour clumps in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. How could a mere mortal have endured such hardships? How could he have performed so admirably?
Rather responded that he put himself into a "zoned" state. "I laser-beam focus so completely on what I want to do that everything else — eating, going to the bathroom — becomes not just secondary but irrelevant," he said.
"Zoned" state? "Laser-beam focus"? Who's talking here? A network news anchor or a character from one of the Star Trek sequels?
And the arrogance of such a statement! The insensitivity of it! Thousands of firefighters and police officers and emergency medical personnel were working and still are working sixteen-hour shifts and longer, and their place of work is one of the greatest scenes of carnage in modern American history — an unimaginably grim and smoking repository of body parts and shattered dreams, not a multi-million dollar air-conditioned studio on the west side of Manhattan with meals catered by some of the best take-out restaurants in the world.
Who gives a damn how a television news reader made it through his days? If Rather volunteered the information to his interviewer, he made a mistake. If the interviewer asked Rather to detail his survival skills, Rather should have told him that the time was hardly right for questions of so trivial a nature.
But Rather was not done yet. He had even more to say. In addition to zoning and laser-beam focusing to keep up his performance at the anchor desk, the voice of CBS News said he drank large quantities of — are you ready for this? — "zoom juice."
What is zoom juice? It's "a heavy protein mixture that's whipped up in a blender," Rather said. "Frankly, I don't know what's in the damn stuff, someone on my staff just makes it — but it's good for a few reasons."
Careful, Dan. Too much zoom juice and, even though you're laser-beam focusing, you'll eventually have to go to the bathroom.
Finally, Rather has also made it known that, despite being 69 years old, he is ready to do what he can for his country. President Bush has only to tell him where to go.
I know where you should go, Dan. Home. The way I figure it, you ought to be able to get there in about 30 light-years.
Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT .
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