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24 September 2014
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Veteran CBS News Anchor Dan Rather speaks out on BBC Newsnight tonight

The veteran CBS News anchor and reporter Dan Rather has for the first time attacked the climate of patriotism in the United States, saying it's stopping journalists asking tough questions. In an exclusive interview with BBC TWO's Newsnight tonight (Thursday 16 May), he admits he has held back from taking the Bush administration to task over the so-called war on terror.

Rather says: "It is an obscene comparison - you know I am not sure I like it - but you know there was a time in South Africa that people would put flaming tyres around people's necks if they dissented. And in some ways the fear is that you will be necklaced here, you will have a flaming tyre of lack of patriotism put around your neck. Now it is 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. And again, I am humbled to say, I do not except myself from this criticism."

Rather admits self-censorship: "What we are talking about here - whether one wants to recognise it or not, or call it by its proper name or not - is a form of self-censorship. It starts with a feeling of patriotism within oneself. It carries through with a certain knowledge that the country as a whole - and for all the right reasons - felt and continues to feel this surge of patriotism within themselves. And one finds oneself saying: 'I know the right question, but you know what? This is not exactly the right time to ask it'."

He tells Newsnight: "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."

He declares himself a patriot, but for him the essence of being American is being able to bring the government to account: "It's unpatriotic not to stand up, look them in the eye, and ask the questions they don't want to hear - they being those who have the responsibility, the ultimate responsibility in a society such as ours, of sending our sons and daughters, our husbands, wives, our blood, to face death, to take death. Now, in my position my view is not to ask the tough questions in this kind of environment is the height of lack of patriotism."

Rather is also stinging about the lack of access and information the Bush administration is giving news journalists over the war: "There has never been an American war, small or large, in which access has been so limited as this one.

"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 am 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 they take refuge in that.

"What's being done practically in real terms is in direct variance with the Pentagon's stated policy. The Pentagon stated policy is maximum access and maximum information consistent with national security."

Rather is dismissive about the new trend in American television - "militainment" - mass market reality shows about life in the military. The Pentagon has given unprecedented access to RJ Cutler to make Military Diaries for VH1, which airs later this month. It features service men and women talking personally about the music they listen to away from home, and includes exclusive footage of Operation Anaconda.

Rather says: "The belief runs 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 what an entertainment-oriented society ours has become. Therefore one way of looking at it is quite natural, they would say to themselves: 'Hey, we've had the Hollywoodisation of the news, we have had the Hollywoodisation of almost everything else in society, why not the Hollywoodisation of the war?'

"And I want to say quietly but as forcefully as I can that I hope this doesn't go any further, it has gone too far already. I am appalled by it, I do think it is an outrage, this is a personal opinion."

RJ Cutler - the maker of the Oscar-nominated documentary, The War Room, on the 1992 Clinton campaign - responds: "I always think what we do is more real than conventional news coverage. I think that journalism has extraordinary merits and its place, but that the work of documentary filmmakers is really to get to the core of something both more dramatic and more human."

Other "militainment" TV shows include the upcoming Profiles From the Frontline by Jerry Bruckheimer for ABC and the CBS drama documentary JAG about life in the US Navy (which recently featured a military tribunal). CBS has already aired - and pulled - the reality TV show American Fighter Pilot.



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