Last night on the UC Berkeley campus, CBS News icon Dan Rather discussed the state of American media with Orville Schell, dean of the Journalism school. Rather discussed his lifelong love for journalism and his career, which was upended in 2005 due to the dust up over President Bush's service record. Rather praised the past icons of journalism, such as CBS's Edward R. Murrow and Eric Severeid, and lamented the current state of journalism. He pointed to the focus on cost cutting, ratings and demographics (preferably the 18-to-35 year old slice to maximize revenue) as reasons why important stories, especially those dealing with international issues, don't get produced and aired. "The flame of public service [as a goal of journalists] is flickering and burning very low," Rather said.
Dan Rather, CBS White House correspondent for 10 years, CBS New anchor and managing editor for 24 years and now 60 Minutes contributor. Rather told me he has worked recently on stories about biodiesel fuels and the cost of healthcare.
Rather pointed to the pre-Irag war coverage as an example of where the press has fallen down. "It's not very good, bordering on abysmal," he said, including himself in the assessment. Reporters didn't ask enough questions. Access journalism ruled the day. Reporters who asked tough questions were cut off from access to key administration officials, making it difficult to compete professionally with those who tried not to ruffle feathers. "Don't underestimate the pressure to get access and the corrosive effect it has on reporters," Rather said.
The press today is "a wee bit less timid today, perhaps because the President's approval ratings are down, but "American journalism is in desparate need of a spine transplant," he said.
Rather admitted that fear played a role in his own decision making and is evident across every newsroom. After 9/11, there was a fear of being called "unpatriotic" if a reporter asked tough questions about the war. If the Internet, cable and "what passes as news programming" were to hang an unpatriotic sign on a journalists, they could lose air time or their jobs, Rather explained. "It's real, whether other journalists want to acknowledge it or not," Rather said. As a result, the tough questions weren't asked, and if they were, they weren't pursued with tenacity. "The President or Secretary of Defense slide of the questions, and there is no follow up," he added.
Orville Schell asks questions to Dan Rather from the audience, such as "Are you a liberal?" He answered, "I'm an American...independent."
"In my better moments, I know the definition of patriotic is to ask the tough questions, and to keep asking them," Rather said. He said many times that he wasn't making excuses, but also laid blame at the feet of corporate leaders. "Reporters are not supported by the business side," he said. Edward R. Murrow's was a fearless reporter, Rather said, and he could go directly to CBS owner William Paley (see the film Good Night, and Good Luck). "We haven't worked hard enough to establish a relationship with the new ownership model," Rather said.
NBC (General Electric), CBS (Viacom), ABC (Disney) have "huge food chains of command," Schell noted, and asked Rather had talked to Sumner Redstone, the chairman of Viacom. He said, no.
Rather also said a lack of participation in the political process by Americans--a diminution of civic virtue. "We have to get back to the basics, the bedrock is a participatory democracy," Rather said, sounding like a politician. "It's not a spectator sport." The major failing, he claimed, isn't the lack of tough questioning, but a lack of time and space to give context to the news and to cover important stories around the world in depth.
It's not likely the Viacom or other mainstream media owners will be willing to invest in journalistic efforts that don't work in the spreadsheet.
Rather gets advice about blogging from the First Blogger, Dave Winer, and the Gesture Banker, Steve Gillmor. More photos here.
When asked about blogging, Rather said that big, multinational companies [like Viacom, which owns CBS] are controversy averse and fearful of getting negative responses from blogs. How backwards. If CBS had understood the impact of the Internet and bloggers, the Bush National Guard papers debacle could have been handled with less upheaval, Rather said. "I had no idea of the power of the Internet, particularly bloggers, including some with partisan, ideological agendas."
Rather dodged Schell's questions about what exactly went down with the Bush's National Guard service story or whether he believes the story is fully accurate, saying the he was busy with a Florida hurricane and didn't have time to think about the story or its potential impact on the election while his staff was cooking it, and that "history will have the final say."
Looking back on his career, Rather said that his biggest challenge was doing the job--serving as an "honest information broker" interviewing the rich, the poor and mostly powerful--right. He clearly has some regrets and questions his own backbone, but put a positive spin on his future, saying, "My best work is still ahead of me."
Let's hope so. You can see that a genuine journalism fire still burns in him, and he has articulated what ails journalism. He may not convince Mr. Redstone to invest in more quality journalism and citizens to participate actively in the political process, but he should at least try...and then blog about it.
Bonus link: Dave Winer writes about his brief chat with Rather about blogging if he were to leave CBS and offers some advice.