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Rather keeps going -- and excelling on HDNet with his two-hour cautionary tale on Detroit's flunking public school system

Detroit public schools student Deanna Williams is a key player in Tuesday's two-hour edition of Dan Rather Reports. HDNet photos

Dan Rather soldiers on, a trooper whose much-documented departure from CBS and its Evening News anchor chair seems long ago, far away and largely irrelevant at this point.

For the past four-and-half years, since the Nov. 6, 2006 premiere of HDNet's weekly Dan Rather Reports, he's put his name to more substantive, real journalism than most if not all of the far more visible flag bearers on ABC, NBC, CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC and, of course, CBS.

The latest example is especially stellar. HDNet's two-hour A National Disgrace, premiering Tuesday, May 10th at 7 p.m. central (and repeated at 10 p.m.), is a compelling, thoughtful and in large part damning look at the decrepit Detroit Public School system. No, it's not particularly "entertaining." But it's thoroughly watchable from start to finish, with exceptional production qualities, precise storytelling and a reporter who no longer feels any need to over-sell anything.

Rather will turn 80 on Halloween, just six days before his HDNet program hits the five-year mark. He's had a longer association with the network's owner, Mark Cuban, than most of the current Dallas Mavericks have.

Cuban's Mavericks now have a national sports spotlight after their 4-game demolition of the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. Rather, as has been noted by many, toils in relative obscurity for an owner who funds his little-seen program because he thinks it makes a difference.

"I get to watch a really great news program on TV," Cuban told me in a 2008 interview for D CEO magazine. "I do it more for my personal than financial satisfaction."

So will Dan Rather Reports remain on HDNet for as long as he wants to continue?

"Yes," said Cuban.

Amazingly, that could still be a while. I've been both critical and complimentary to Rather during what seems to be his eternity as a network newsman. And it initially seemed wiser for him to hang it up rather than report for a network that at times begs the question of "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?"

But to hell with all that. Independence and a return to long-form, single-topic television journalism are what Rather wanted. And he has them. And it's made him a stronger, better reporter than ever. There's no more posturing on-camera or "packaging" a story in the practiced manner of ABC's 20/20 or NBC's Dateline.

Rather quietly and effectively goes about his business on A National Disgrace, which takes its title from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's controversial description of Detroit's public school system. The documentary tracks a year-and-a-half in the life of the DPS, ending at the close of the 2009-'10 school year. Rather and his HDNet crew, including producer Sari Aviv, editor/director Steve Tyler and writer Elliot Kirschner, cover this story from every conceivable angle and emerge with what turns out to be much the same old story in this school district and many others. The alleged grownups in charge of the system are intent on protecting their own turfs, fighting amongst one another while Detroit's public school pupils continue to get a collective poke in the eye.

Rather's interview subjects range from a fired school superintendent to school board members to a federal official brought in to clean up the mess to a featured high school student, Deanna Williams, who feels betrayed by one and all.

The blame game is almost toxic and the end results are even worse. Detroit's public high school graduation rate is a jaw-dropping 26.8 percent, by far the lowest in the nation. The second and third lowest are Philadelphia (39.1 percent) and Dallas (40.7 percent). And given the current budget shortfalls plaguing the Dallas Independent School District, that percentage isn't likely to get much better. Certainly not in the near future. And perhaps never.

Deanna lives in a small apartment with her mother and younger sister. They go everywhere by bus, rising well before dawn to make their various connections at work and at school. Deanna wants to go to college and study to be a librarian. But her years at Henry Ford School and an earlier middle school mostly have been nightmarish. Teachers who drink in class if they show up at all. No textbooks. Fellow students with little if any interest in being there.

Deanna and her family aren't perfect by any means, which National Disgrace also shows. But the kid's frustrations with the system are really what this documentary is all about.

The rise and fall of emergency financial manager Robert Bobb is particularly instructive. Hired by the city to find the root causes of a $285 million school budget deficit, he's initially seen as a take-no-prisoners saviour whose "I'm In" campaign is championed by the likes of a visiting Bill Cosby.

But Bobb's remedial tactics, which include teacher layoffs and school closings, end up alienating the same community that previously railed against the school board at public hearings. The board sues Bobb, he counter-sues and nothing seems to improve. In the end, Bobb is booed by parents, who now are on the side of the previously vilified school board. "Robert Bobb is a criminal and we are going to expose him," one parent shouts before he walks out.

It's a sad tale to be sure. But Rather and company do a superb job of presenting all sides while also keeping the story moving.

So yes, even George W. Bush might well see Rather in a somewhat different light were he to watch National Disgrace all the way through. Perhaps he might even say privately, "Ya know, Laura, that was some pretty good work from that guy." The questionable "Memogate" expose that eventually led to Rather's demise at CBS will probably always be a barrier between them. Whatever the report's flaws, though, does anyone seriously believe that the very well-connected young George W. Bush didn't receive preferential treatment from the military during the Vietnam War years?

Rather created many problems for himself during his long career at CBS News. He wouldn't deny that. Still, his work for HDNet's Dan Rather Reports has been first-rate in times when he continues doing much of his own legwork on stories that actually matter. Go ahead and laugh if you'd like. Brand him a charter member of the "liberal media" who should be flogged forevermore.

But the rest of Rather's story -- and he's not dead yet -- amounts to far more than the easy caricature. His last roundup may not be far off. But since autumn of 2006, he's gone back to basics and made it work for him. Few see his work now. That doesn't make it any less salutary.