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Dan Rather is a hero to many in the news industry — including myself — for his determination to do anything to get the story.The most famous example is probably when he tied himself to a tree during a hurricane in 1961 — a stunt that landed him a job at CBS New York.
But that’s not the most daring thing he’s done.
When I interviewed Rather in my last semester at journalism school, he told me about the time he used heroin for a story.
Rather previously discussed this incident in an interview with Cliff Jahr at the magazine Ladies’ Home Journal in the 1980s.
During our interview, I asked Rather about his choice to take such a drastic step for a story. He paused, then said, “I made the mistake of ever talking about it.”
He was willing to open up to me about his experience. I’ve posted a transcript with his permission, edited slightly for clarity:
“I was working in radio in Houston in 1956 and 1957 and it’s hard for people below a certain age to understand that drugs were not a problem at the time … very little was known by most people about recreational drugs.
A group of musicians came to Houston and they were arrested for heroin [possession]. I had never heard of heroin. In fact, on the radio later, I pronounced it [wrong]. … Remember this was in the ’50s. Houston was not the big city it is now.
I knew a lot of police officers. They said they had arrested these people for heroin. I had no idea what it was … [the police] described it to me as best as they knew from what people told them.
So I said it would be a good story to get some heroin — [though] I had no idea how to get it — and then describe how you feel. And so I did that with the help of the police in the police station. Hard to imagine these days, but I knew these guys pretty well.
So they injected me at the police station and I made notes as best as I could have, of what the effects were. And we produced a series of ‘This is what heroin is; This is why people take it; This is what you experience while you’re under the influence; This is why it’s dangerous.’
It was no big deal, but it got to be a big deal. It didn’t get a lot of attention at the time. That was that.
I had never really thought about it … that was until a magazine interview in the 1980s…”
Rather’s willingness to take risks — and to take responsibility for his actions — generated controversy, but they won him a lot of respect too. There’s a reason he was the face of CBS News for decades.
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