Over the course of a decade, it evolved from an incomprehensible utterance during a quizzical crime to the possible measure of a news anchor’s unraveling to a kernel of kitschy folklore, memorialized as the title of a popular hit by the rock band R.E.M.
“What is the frequency?” became more than just the question that Dan Rather said he was asked during an attack in 1986 that some detractors unfairly dismissed as apocryphal. It became a nonsensical oddity and an unsolved mystery: Who said it, and why, and what ever happened to him?
Now, it seems, there may be some answers, as The New York Daily News first reported Wednesday. According to Rather and law enforcement officials, the man who attacked him appears to be the same man who, in 1994, fatally shot an NBC stagehand outside Rockefeller Center.
And in both cases, the motive was distrust and suspicion of the news media, said Dr. Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist who, at the request of prosecutors, examined the man, William Tager, after the 1994 shooting of the stagehand, Campbell Theron Montgomery, 33.
Dietz said in a telephone interview Wednesday that Tager, serving a 12-1/2-to-25-year sentence for manslaughter, believed that messages were being broadcast directly to him on the evening news.
Tager’s lawyer, John Esposito, did not return a phone call to his office Wednesday night, but has said he is not convinced that his client attacked Rather.
When Tager was arrested for the fatal shooting, he claimed responsibility for the attack against Rather as well, but the authorities did not investigate it, because the five-year statute of limitations had expired.
But Dietz wanted to determine if Tager was lying about the attack against Rather, which occurred on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. So, sometime last year, he contacted Rather to see if Rather’s memories of the crime matched Tager’s.
Dietz said there were certain details about the building in which part of the attack occurred that both Rather and Tager recalled identically. Tuesday, Rather looked at photographs of Tager provided to him by The Daily News and identified Tager as his attacker.
After the attack in 1986, Rather’s critics lumped the incident together with a subsequent episode in which Rather abruptly left the set, leaving the network with dead air time, as signs that he was losing his cool.
“These were hurtful in ways that I think everybody understands,” Rather told the News. “Sometimes it angered me, and sometimes it was discouraging.”
Rather said he even attempted to solve the mystery himself, hanging out near the corner where the incident happened in sunglasses and a baseball cap to see if his assailant returned.
But as time passed, Rather came to make light of the incident himself, even singing along with R.E.M. during a performance of their song “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” on David Letterman’s show two years ago.