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Dan rather truth victim

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Is truth a victim?

by Madeleine Holt
BBC Newsnight Arts correspondent

One of America's foremost newscasters, Dan Rather of CBS, says the US media has stopped asking tough questions of the Bush administration since 11 September.

And he blames a climate of extraordinary patriotism.

In an interview with Newsnight, the CBS anchorman says that fear of offending the politicians "keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions" and adds: "I do not except myself from this criticism."

Rather's anger is also aimed at a new kind of war coverage which has emerged since the terrorist attacks of last year.

Unprecedented access

Military Diaries: reality tv from the front line

It's been coined "Milatainment" - entertainment programmes about the military, which include the shows Military Diaries, American Fighter Pilot and Profiles from the Front Line.

Crucially, Milatainment is being produced with the co-operation of the Department of Defense, which is offering documentary makers unprecedented access.

Military Diaries is a 13 episode documentary for music channel VH1. It features personal stories from men and women on the front line talking about the music they listen to away from home.

Producer RJ Cutler, who was Oscar nominated for his Clinton campaign documentary in 1992, was allowed to hand out 80 digital cameras to service personnel to record their feelings for broadcast.

Editorial control

One of the episodes is about Operation Anaconda - the 17-day offensive to flush out al-Qaeda members from caves in eastern Afghanistan.

Mr Cutler says: "This is first hand eyewitness accounts with combat footage that no-one has ever seen before. This is the real thing."

He claims to have editorial control over his material, but admits that "anytime you can put a human face on a soldier or a sailor or a marine - I guess that's to the benefit of the Department of Defense."

A spokesman for the Pentagon told Newsnight that they consistently gave more access to news teams than to "reality TV" makers.

But he also said there were clear advantages in co-operating with entertainment producers, because they were less likely to "run off to Baghdad and film the flipside".

Rather argues that reality TV doesn't always reflect the truth.

Sensational images

He says: "What you see in a movie or a made-for-TV reality series is not war. It's somebody's glamourised view of war."

Mr Cutler responds in kind, saying that news is as keen to exploit sensational images for ratings.

He says: "They want loud headlines and external sensationalism and ideally, somebody's leg being blown up."

News reporter and reality TV director may have irreconcileable views about what kind of coverage is more truthful.

But Rather's fundamental concerns are with government accountability and journalistic integrity.

"There has never been an American war, small or large, in which access has been so limited as this one," says Rather.

News divisions appear to be carrying on as usual but journalists find it extremely difficult to verify information provided by the US Government, he contends.

Many stories are being half told, Rather argues, citing Operation Anaconda as one of many.

Uphill struggle

He says: "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."

Rather faces an uphill struggle if he wants to teach the Pentagon how to run their war.

But he may well succeed in rallying journalists to go against the current swell of patriotism and ask those difficult questions.

"I would willingly die for my country at a moment's notice and on the command of my president," says Rather.

"Its unpatriotic not to stand up, look them in the eye, and ask the questions they don't want to hear."

Yet what Rather believes is in the public interest may not interest the American public - at least not yet.

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