Dan Rather on Texas, Twitter and journalism
COMMERCE - A candid, humble and at times emotional Dan Rather, longtime anchor of the CBS Evening News, reflected on his more than 60 years in journalism during a Tuesday evening visit to the Texas A&M University-Commerce campus.
The 80-year-old Rather, who covered some of the most significant world events over the past several decades, was preparing to give remarks as the first guest in the university’s Prestigious Speaker Series. His topic, entitled Hard Times, Then and Now, addresses the challenging economy from Rather’s perspective as a child of the Great Depression.
In an exclusive interview with KETR, Rather told stories of his Texas childhood, recounted memories of the JFK assassination, expressed concern over the lack of vigilant journalists and previewed his upcoming book, Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News, which becomes available May 1.
“If you long dreamed and hoped of being a journalist and aspired to be, yes, a world class journalist - I’m not saying that I ever have been or am now - but, in the moment, that’s where you want to be,” Rather said. “And I don’t mean this in any self-serving way, but in the moment, what little time one has to think, I found myself thinking, ‘This was my destiny. This is what I dreamed of doing. This is what I hoped to do. And, wow, I’m actually doing it.’ And it’s a cliché, but sometimes I found myself really literally wanting to pinch myself to say ‘am I really here? Am I really doing this?’”
Rather was the first network television journalist to report that U.S. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, reported from the front lines during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Vietnam War, and stayed on air for 18 hours straight during the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But it was during his time covering the early Civil Rights Movement that Rather says changed him as a person and as a pro.
“Sad to say Texas had institutionalized racism the whole time that I was coming up. I went to segregated schools, everybody did. Institutions were segregated. But Texas was not Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina. And covering Dr. King, when I think back to all the stories I’ve covered, made as large, perhaps a larger imprint on me as both a person and a professional that anything I’ve covered.”
But in a generation where internet news is becoming the dominant source for information, among other factors, Rather believes American journalism is and has been for some time in crisis.
“We lost our grit and our guts. We lost the sense of what American journalism at its very best is supposed to be. And that’s a check and balance of power,” commented Rather. “That’s the reason we have the first amendment.”
The seasoned newsman believes, admitting not everyone agrees, that journalists need a “spine transplant.” That somehow they’ve lost their backbone about speaking truths to power and being a little bit afraid to ask the tough questions. In his mind, the corporatization, politicalization and trivialization of the news has resulted in a lowering of journalistic standards almost across the board over the past 15 to 20 years.
“Journalism is the red beating heart of freedom and democracy. The founders of the country realized then we haven’t always operated with that foremost in our minds but that’s true. So when I talk about this diminishment of standards and the trivialization of news, the corporatization and the politicalization which has led to this lowering of standards, that matters to everybody.”
Rather currently serves as managing editor and anchor of the television news magazine Dan Rather Reports on cable channel HDNet. He’s recently composed a memoir entitled Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News. As Amazon.com explains, the book is told in a straightforward and conversational manner so that you hear his distinctive voice on every page.
Rather tells KETR that those who haven’t worked in news, and perhaps some who have, will be surprised in their reading about how a large international conglomerate news organization like CBS handles stories and what goes on behind the scenes. He sites examples such as the terrible abuses in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and the George W. Bush Air National Guard controversy.
“I would say the same thing about, however one feels about it, President Bush’s service or lack of military service during the Vietnam War,” Rather explains. “We [CBS] did that story as well. It turned into controversy. We got in trouble over it. Maybe we should have been in trouble for it – I don’t think so – But I understand those who do. But my point is that you asked what would surprise people? It might be an eye opener of what was happening behind the scenes of that story.”
In a recent interview with Texas Monthly Magazine, Rather defended the news report, which alleged Bush got preferential treatment to get into the National Guard shortly before his college deferment for the draft was set to expire.
Rather, who turns 81 in October, continues to file reports of “Real... hard... news,” something he claims is lacking in today’s media, through his program on HDNet. But in recent months he’s yielded to facebook and twitter, admitting he’s found it’s another venue or pipeline for people that are interested in news.
Rather cautions, however, “If you’re not authentic and you’re not carrying on a conversation, then you’re not likely to be relevant.”