Thursday, March 15, 2007
AUSTIN, TEXAS–To longtime CBS broadcaster Dan Rather, American journalism in recent years “has in some ways lost its guts.”
During his hour-long keynote address Monday at South by Southwest Interactive, Rather opined at length on the state of his profession, in which too many journalists have become lapdogs to power, rather than watchdogs.
“I do not exclude myself from this criticism… By and large, so many journalists–there are notable exceptions–have adopted the go-along-to-get-along (attitude),” he said.
So, because of this “access game,” journalism has degenerated into a “very perilous state,” he said in response to a question from his on-stage interviewer, FireDogLake.com writer Jane Hamsher. (Editors’ note: News.com on Tuesday published its full one-on-one interview with Dan Rather.)
Rather left CBS last year in the wake of a scandal surrounding questionable documentation for a story accusing President George Bush of being absent without leave during his military service. Today, Rather works as a journalist for entrepreneur Mark Cuban’s HDNet network.
In his speech, he touched on the state of the Internet as a way to get information and news to people.
“The Internet is a tremendous tool for not just news, (because) its potential is unlimited for that,” Rather said, but for “illumination and opening things up.”
But he spent most of his time on stage talking about why he thinks many people have lost faith in journalists.
One reason, Rather said, is that questioning power, especially at a time of war, can be perceived as unpatriotic or unsupportive of America’s fighting troops.
That’s “a very serious charge in this country,” Rather said.
“We’ve brought it on ourselves,” he added, “partly because we’ve lost the sense that (the) patriotic journalist will be on his or her feet asking the tough questions. My role as a member of the press is to be sometimes a check and balance on power.”
Indeed, Rather’s ascent to the pinnacles of power in journalism came as a result of his reputation for asking very tough questions and–as Hampshire pointed out–not being afraid to ask follow-up questions, of powerful people like President Richard Nixon, the first President George Bush, current President Bush, Saddam Hussein, and many others.
“In many ways,” said Rather to loud applause, “what we in journalism need is a spine transplant.”
Rather reiterated his feeling that many journalists today–and he repeated that he has fallen for this trap–are willing to get too cozy with people in positions of power, be it in government or corporate life.
“The nexus between powerful journalists and people in government and corporate power,” he said, “has become far too close.”
You can get so close to a source that you become part of the problem, he added. “Some people say that these powerful people use journalists, and they do. And they will use them to the fullest extent possible, right up until the point where the journalist says, ‘Whoa, that’s too far.'”
It is incumbent on journalists to be willing to risk their access to power to seek out the truth behind a story, he said. And they shouldn’t be willing to water down the truth to protect their access to power.
Rather also said that the consolidation of power in a small number of media companies has hurt the search for the truth in newsrooms across the country. As media conglomerates get bigger, the gap between newsrooms and boardrooms grows, and the goal becomes satisfying shareholders, not citizens, he said.
Therefore, Rather supports increased competition between media companies and between journalists. “So next time someone says, ‘I believe in the capitalist system,'” he said, “tell them Dan Rather says ‘Amen.'”
Rather reiterated the journalist’s role as a watchdog.
“Not as an attack dog…But what does the lapdog do? He just crawls into someone’s lap,” he said. “A good watchdog barks at everything that’s suspicious. I submit to you, the American press’ role is to be a watchdog.”
Hampshire then asked Rather about the state of the Internet and how useful it can be in helping to inform people.
Rather responded that he sees a lot of potential in the Internet, and in the blogosphere in particular, but that he worries about anonymity on a lot of Web sites and blogs.
He said it’s very easy to attack someone when you don’t have to put your name to your complaints. He’s not sure how to strike the right balance between professional and citizen journalism, but he believes the market will eventually provide that solution.
In the end, Rather said, the American people must understand that the news does matter, and that what they see happening on TV or read about on the Internet, is real. War, he said, is real.
“What happens on the streets of Baghdad or Kabul does matter on Main Street.”