I was blessed to work with Dan Rather in his prime — We both worked at CBS News in NY when the “Tiffany network” was at its peak. As you may know, Dan’s career ended a bit tarnished. Some felt the network lost some of its luster and Dan left, perhaps a bit disgraced. I always felt really bad about that. How could one of the greatest journalists of all time – the reporter who covered Kennedy’s death, every election since the 1960s, every breaking news story for decades – not leave in a blaze of glory?
When I saw Dan’s name as a panelist at SXSW in Austin, I knew I had to stop working for an hour and go. That was it. I hustled over to the Marriott and thought I’d mosey on in. NOT the case — There were lines around the ballroom, up and down the hall, around and around, twisting like Disneyworld. Honestly, I was shocked.. and thrilled!! Here we were at SXSW and millennials who I didn’t think knew who he was.. and folks on the cutting edge of everything wanted to hear Dan Rather and learn from his wisdom. I was ecstatic.
So I sat down in a standing-room only ballroom and Dan was in his glory — humbly, of course, ’cause that’s Dan, using his famous Southern words like ”buzzards and cowboys” and other expressions that made the audience laugh. He talked Trump, Hillary, brokered conventions, “old-fashioned TV,” new media and he dazzled the crowd.
And then I made a decision. I was going to give him what I couldn’t give him all those years ago at CBS News. So when the hour was almost over and the moderator asked for questions, I surprised myself, got up and was the first one at the microphone. I had never asked a question before and I thought I’d be nervous. But I wasn’t. “Dan, my name is Jodi Fleisig. I don’t know if you remember me, but we both worked together at CBS News about 20 years ago.” Gasp from the audience… very cool. And Dan looked at me, knew exactly who I was… And he smiled.
“You used to come to my show at WCBS every Friday at 5p and do a great segment looking back at that week’s news. And you used to tell me, in that humble Texas drawl, “Jodi, thanks so much for having me on your show. I really appreciate it.” To which I made a funny face and answered, “OMG – You’re Dan Rather! Thanks for being on MY show!” I must’ve had the right delivery at the microphone, because the audience started to laugh… and Dan clearly enjoyed the moment.
And I continued. “I had to see you today and tell you how much of a legend and journalistic icon you are, how much we’ve missed you on the air, although you deserve your retirement… and how much all us “old fashioned” reporters and producers learned from you. Thank you.”
“And I was shocked and delighted to see some of the longest lines at SXSW for your session today! This is standing room only. Look at all these people TODAY who STILL want to hear what you have to say. And I don’t even know if they are old enough to remember seeing you on the air (laughter from the crowd). But they are here to hear your wisdom today.” At that point, the audience started to applaud… and applaud… and applaud and gave Dan the kind of applause he deserved, telling him we STILL love him and STILL respect him and still want to hear what he had to say. It was a wonderful moment.
I went back to my seat and the people around me nodded and shook their head, telling me I did a “good job.” When the panel was over, I went to the front of the room and gave Dan a big hug. He hugged me back and then was distracted by all the younguns bombarding him with questions and autograph requests. I walked away knowing I did a mitzvah – a good deed – I helped give Dan the accolades I thought he deserved all those years ago.. so he could feel as good as he made the rest of us feel.