Behind the Scenes With Dan Rather
by Humberto Fontova
Dan Rather is back. Mark Cuban recently signed the cashiered and disgraced anchor to host a weekly newsmagazine on his high-definition cable and satellite network HDNet. The deal came down not a moment too soon. Dan had seemed a bit cranky lately. "It took her (Katie Couric) 15 years to make the 'Today' show a hit." Dan told Art Buchwald in a recent interview. "I'm sure it will take her longer than that to beat Charlie Gibson and Brian Williams."
Graciousness was never Dan's strong suit (except when addressing mass-murdering dictators.) But now he claims to be delighted with the HDNet deal and seems ready to rumble.
"You bet your life I've got a lot of baggage," blustered Dan just after signing the deal. "And make no mistake, I'm proud of it. Yes, I'm biased. I have a very strong bias toward independent journalism, italicized, underlined, put in bold caps!...If you've seen 'Good Night, and Good Luck,' you know what I'm talking about. And I should be lucky enough to live to the day that I can walk in the same room with Ed Murrow, but I can't, and nobody before or since him could. But there's the model for things."
Unfortunately for Dan Rather, we have an eye-witness to his version of "independent journalism, italicized, underlined and in bold caps." More unfortunate still, the eye-witness account involves some of Dan's behind-the-scenes "baggage"--the very thing 60 Minutes so delights in exposing in Republicans and other conservative who earn their investigative ire. A familiar bromide cautions against "people in glass houses throwing stones." Well, if it ever fit.
"Most of the questions Dan Rather was asking Elian's father during that 60 Minutes interview were being handed to him by Gregory Craig," says Mr Pedro Porro who in April of 2000 served as Rather's in-studio translator during the taping of the famous interview with Juan Miguel Gonzalez. Dan Rather would ask the penetrating question in English into Porro's earpiece and Porro would translate it into Spanish for Elian's heavily-guarded father.
Gregory Craig, lest anyone forget, flush from his fame getting Bill Clinton off the Lewinsky hook, was then Juan Miguel's attorney--which is to say, of course: Fidel Castro's attorney.
"It was obvious that Craig and Rather where on very friendly terms," says Mr Porro. "They were joshing and bantering back and forth, as Juan Miguel sat there petrified. Craig was stage managing the whole thing--almost like a movie director. The taping would stop and he'd walk over to Dan, hand him a little slip of paper, say something into his ear. Then Rather would read straight from the paper.
"At one point Craig stopped the taping almost like a movie director yelling "Cut!" I was confused for a moment until Craig complained that Juan Miguel's answers were not coming across from his translator with "sufficient emotion." "So Dan Rather shut everything down for a while and some of the crew drove to a drama school in New York. They hired a dramatic actor to act as a translator, and brought him back."
Okay roll 'em! "Did you cry?" the pensively frowning Dan Rather then asked the "bereaved" father. "A father never runs out of tears," Juan ( actually, the voice of Juan's drama school- trained translator) sniffled back to Dan. And the 60 Minutes prime-time audience, watching the drama, could hardly contain their own sniffles. Sure enough, Juan Miguel's words started coming across with enough emotion to sway any jury--which consisted of the American people at the time.
"Juan Miguel was never completely alone," says Mr Porro. "He never smiled. His eyes kept shifting back and forth. It was obvious to me that he was under some form of coercion. When Security agents from the Cuban Interest Section, as they called it, left him alone for a few seconds, Craig himself would be hovering over him.
"I probably should have walked out," says Porro. "But I'd been hired by CBS in good faith and I didn't know exactly how the interview would be edited--how it would come across on the screen. I mighta known, but you never know these things play out until you actually see it."
Midway through watching that 60 Minutes broadcast, "I felt like throwing up," says Porro. "My stomach was in a knot." His worst fears were confirmed.
A week later Reno's INS, maced, kicked, stomped, gun-butted and tear-gassed their way into Lazaro Gonzalez house, wrenched a bawling 6 year old child from his family at machine-gun point, and bundled him off to a Stalinist nation (and against his father's true wishes.) They left 102 people injured, some seriously. Many of the injured were ladies who had brandished dangerous weapons. These weapons were rosaries. No 60 Minutes "investigative report" on that however.
The New York Times' incomparable Thomas Friedman could not contain himself: "Yup, I gotta confess, that now-famous picture of a U.S. marshal in Miami pointing an automatic weapon....warmed my heart."
Polls at the time showed that 70 per cent of the American public sided with Friedman, Gregory Craig, Dan Rather, Bill Clinton, Janet Reno (and of course) Fidel Castro on the matter. Not one American in 10,000 would have fallen for that during the height of the Cold War. Americans held few illusions about Communism back then and would have seen right through the ruse. So there's no denying that the Craig/Rather 60 Minutes soap-opera was a major hit. The audience ate it up. You've really, really got to hand it to Craig as a lawyer. Imagine getting a major TV network to act as unpaid aides, consultants, props and publicists for your case--and during prime time!
But regarding Dan Rather's brand of "independent journalism," it draws a pretty sorry picture. To cap it all, Gregory Craig at the time worked for the law firm Williams & Connolly--that also represented CBS.
Actually, nobody can accuse Dan Rather of compromising his principles during the Elian episode. He was perfectly true to them, having been a Castro fan and publicist for decades. "Cuba's Elvis!" Dan hailed Castro after one of his "interviews."
Mr Pedro Porro's revelations appeared in a Documentary by Agustin Blazquez titled "The Rats Below." After interviewing Pedro for Fidel; Hollywood's Favorite Tyrant, your humble servant here was asked to confront Mr Craig with the accusations during a radio debate on a show by Accuracy In Media.
"'You bet," I replied.
Alas, Mr Gregory Craig responded in print that my charges were unsound. Mr Porro, he related, had turned out to be a very poor translator, barely knowing the English language, and obviously didn't understand what was going on.
Mr Porro has lived in the U.S. for 45 years (outside of Miami) eared two college degrees from major U.S. Universities and served for years as the U.S. Treasury Department's head architect. True, his profession did not require quite the glibness of Mr Craig's. But he speaks better English, I suspect, than 70 per cent of the native born.
"Funny to hear I was a lousy translator five years after the translation!" laughed Pedro when I conveyed Craig's accusation. "CBS, which hired me for the job, complimented me on it and paid the entire fee without complaint."
Needless to say, no debate took place during the Accuracy In Media show. Mr Craig was a no-show.
Now to Dan's idol, Ed Murrow. The Museum of Broadcast Communications regards him as "the most distinguished and renowned figure in the history of American broadcast journalism." Murrow's canonization was capped with the movie Good Night and Good Luck, which depicts Murrow's piling on the already multi-smeared and vilified Joe McCarthy as an act of immense integrity, pluck and valor. David Strathairn's portrayal of Murrow's grave frown complete with his stentorian jabs at the already cornered and bayed Mc Carthy drove the Mainstream Media and critics gaga. The movie earned six Oscar nominations and earned loud accolades everywhere from the New York Times to Variety to Rolling Stone.
"Murrow frequently used the airwaves to revivify and popularize many democratic ideals such as free speech, citizen participation, the pursuit of truth, and the sanctification of individual liberties and rights," gushes the Museum of Broadcast Communications.
Perhaps Murrow's interview with Fidel Castro on February, 6th 1959 is illustrative of this "revivification of democratic ideals." For the record, by the time Murrow interviewed him, Castro had abolished Habeas Corpus, railed at the U.S. as "a vulture preying on humanity!" filled Cuba's jails with ten times the number of political prisoners as under Batista and murdered hundreds of Cubans by firing squad without due process.
"That's a very cute puppy, Fidelito!" Murrow tells Fidel's son who skips merrily on camera at their "home" in the Havana Hilton and plops on the lap of his loving and pajama-clad Papa. For the record, Castro had no "home" to speak of at the time. He slept in a different place almost every night, wore army fatigues instead of pajamas, and had never provided for his son.
"When will you visit us again?" An (uncharacteristically) smiling Murrow asks a ( very uncharacteristically) smiling Fidel. "And will that be with the beard or without the beard?"
"The pursuit of truth," indeed. Every night during the week that Murrow interviewed him, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara repaired to their respective stolen mansions and met with Soviet GRU agents to button-down the complete communization of Cuba. Murrow "interviewed" Castro fresh from a harangue to the Radio and Television News Directors Association of America where he blasted television for "being used to delude and insulate us."
"News at it's best is a wake up call, not a lullaby" boasted Dan Rather in his interview last week, "I'm not in the lullaby business."
So Dan Rather is wrong. He's perfectly worthy, not only to walk in the same room as Murrow, but to amply occupy his "model's" chair.
Humberto Fontova is the author of Fidel; Hollywood's Favorite Tyrant. A Conservative Book Club Main Selection.