Francis Sparks

Francis Sparks

Contributor

A week ago I was talking to a friend of mine (Sarah K. Stephens) about a story from the 80’s. I had just heard What’s the Frequency, Kenneth? on Spotify and mentioned in passing the strange origin of the title.

She had never heard the story, but when I described it to her she immediately had a take on it leading to a deeper discussion. So I began to wonder how many others had never heard the legend behind the famous R.E.M. song, What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?

It is a mystery with a great leading man in a great city during a turbulent time period. The man is Dan Rather an icon of American news journalism. A person who reported on some of the lowest periods in modern American history. He was there to cover the assassination of JFK in Dallas in 1963 and in Vietnam in 1965. He was there for the turbulent 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. He covered Watergate and the subsequent impeachment of Richard Nixon earning him the job as weekend anchor. Later he would be the successor to Walter Cronkite as CBS Nightly News Anchor in 1981. Five years into that job on October 4, 1986, our story begins.

Photograph via Unsplash

The following is a dramatization based on the events described by Dan Rather.

Dan Rather was walking along Park Ave in New York City on his way home from a night out with friends. It was a pleasant night for early October, the warmth of friends, good food and drink left him feeling warm in his long-sleeved shirt and jeans. He passed two men walking toward him haphazardly, their steps without the pace of a New Yorker but that of tourists. The one closest to him had the wide-eyed look of a recognition. Dan gave the man a quick nod and hurried past. A few moments later he paused at the intersection of 88th and Park when he heard a man shouting at him from behind him. He turned and saw the two men he’d past a moment ago jogging toward him and shouting. He’d been in enough tight spots to know when to run. He turned and darted across the street but years of sitting behind the anchor desk had left the fifty-five-year-old a step slow and he could hear the two men closing in on him.

He made a snap decision to make for an apartment building and hope that a doorman was on duty. He reached the door yanked it open when the first blow hit him in the head knocking him forward into the building. A kick to the gut rolled him to his back and Dan Rather threw his arms up to ward off the next blow. Another man joined the first and soon blows were landing faster and he was getting ‘beat like a rented mule’.

In between strikes, one of them men kept screaming at him. “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” Dan Rather kept his composure and told himself that you’ve been in worse situations and you’d survive this.

“I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” he managed to say in a brief lull in the attack. Dan crawled toward a table to seek shelter from the attack but then the men were kicking him again. The same voice cried out. “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?”

The doorman came to his aid and then the superintendent of the building arrived and the men fled the scene. Just as suddenly as it had begun it was over and Dan lay dazed on the floor of the apartment building lobby, wondering what the hell the frequency was and if anyone would believe his story.

If the story ended here it would be interesting enough but the plot definitely thickens.

Dan Rather was viewed by some at this time as coming unhinged. Around this time he walked off the set of the Nightly News leaving dead air and this was seen by some as another example of his tenuous grasp on reality.

The phrase became something of a pop culture reference and was the title of the aforementioned R.E.M. song. It wouldn’t be until nearly twenty years later that the mystery of the seemingly random incident would be made clear although questions would remain.

In 1994, a man shot and killed an NBC stagehand outside of Rockefeller Center. The killer’s name was William Tager. When he was arrested he also claimed responsibility for the attack on Dan Rather in 1986 but due to the statute of limitations, charges were not pursued.

Photograph via Unsplash

What led to these random attacks against media workers? William Tager was interviewed by a forensic psychiatrist named Dr. Park Dietz to assess his ability to stand trial. In the course of that interview, Dietz learned that Tager was convinced that he was under surveillance and TV stations were beaming hostile messages to him. Tager volunteered information about the attack on Dan Rather during the course of the interview. The encounter with Dan Rather was pure coincidence. Tager was in New York to meet with a TV personality in an attempt to end the TV signals sent to him but the appointment only existed in his mind and so thinking he was stood up, he was walking the streets when happened upon Dan Rather. When Mr. Rather refused to answer his question about the frequency, he attacked him.

Dan Rather was subsequently interviewed and shown a picture of William Tager and positively identified him as the assailant.

Tager was found to be legally sane and was convicted on murder and weapons charges and sentenced to 12 1/2 to 25 years in prison. He has since been released and lives in New York.

The other assailant has never been identified and Dan Rather has admitted he might have only thought Tager was accompanied by another man.

References:

    http://www.nytimes.com/1997/01/30/nyregion/belatedly-the-riddle-of-an-attack-on-rather-is-solved.html

    http://www.nydailynews.com/archives/news/s-86-mugger-sez-killer-tv-tech-mystery-attacker-article-1.754828

    http://lubbockonline.com/news/013097/dan.htm

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More About Francis Sparks:
Francis writes all types of adult fiction from short story to novel length. At the moment, the voices of the characters in his mystery/suspense and high fantasy novels have clamored their way to the front of his writing queue.

Francis grew up on a farm in Iowa where he spent his days avoiding bulls and other livestock as he created castles in the pasture made of fallen trees, twine pilfered from his father’s hay baler and his imagination. In fifth grade, he discovered TSR/Wizards of the Coast and their treasure of fantasy novels. Ever since he’s been chasing the writing dream. His mystery/suspense novel Made Safe was signed by Pandamoon Publishing in September 2015 and will be published in the fall of 2016.