Dan Rather on the state of American media

Dan Rather on the state of American media

Summary: 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.

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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.

rather400.jpg 

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.

 orvilledan.jpg

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.

 rathergang.jpg

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.

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  • Flogging one's self

    This happens repeatedly with the press. I've seen it again and again over the last several years or more. Something happens, the press reacts to it, and then several months later wonders "did we react correctly to it?" Well gee, hindsight is 20/20. I don't know why people expect that they're going to get the story right every time while they're in the midst of it. Sometimes stories are like eyewitness accounts of crime scenes. A group of people are jostling about and scuffling, a person goes down, and the crowd runs away. Who dunnit? The media can end up with incomplete information and not know it at the time, just like a witness can swear that it was the 3rd guy in the crowd that hit the victim on the head, which caused him to fall, only to have other witnesses contradict them. Granted, we expect more from the media than the credibility of a run-of-the-mill witness to an event, but they're not infallible. What I do expect is that even after they report a story they keep digging for information. And if they find further facts that contradict what they said earlier, they correct themselves.

    To my recollection the press did the best they could with what they had during the pre-Iraq war period. There were some facts that were revealed on the internet that the press did not discuss, but IMO those facts did not definitively contradict the case that both Bush and Blair were making for the war. The one factor I can think of that would've affected the press's ability to ask tough questions is that the news departments didn't approve large budgets for doing investigative reporting on the subject. Or, if they did, no one thought to check with sources that people now realize should've been checked. One can't ask tough, intelligent questions without relevant information to base the questions on. My recollection is the kind of "tough" questions the press was asking were softballs like, "Aren't you rushing to war?" (I seem to remember this got asked repeatedly, similar to now when they ask about justifications for the war in 20/20 hindsight), which just allowed Bush to say, "No we're not. Here's why." That's not getting to the crux of the matter.
    Mark Miller
    • Flogging or Navel-Gazing?

      Rather's problem, and that of much of the legacy press, is not a lack of investigative reporting per se, though that is indeed lacking. The problem is a failure to recognize the [i][b]need[/b][/i] for investigative reporting since the facts might fail to confirm the predetermined conclusions.

      It was sad to see a once-respected journalist like Dan Rather descend to the level of defending his work and that of his staff on the basis that, although fabricated, it seemed very much like what [i]might[/i] have been true. Unfortunately, this and the subsequent wagon-circling among the legacy press has turned Rather from a fine example of good journalism to the very icon of bad news.
      gafisher@...
  • Let's Go For A Series!

    Rather on News, Mitnick on Security, Kevorkian on Medicine; I wonder if Berkeley can book Rube Goldberg to lecture on Engineering!
    gafisher@...
  • Rather is the reason for the flickering flame

    I read that story and can't help myself from laughing until I get hiccups. This guy actually thinks we forgot about the reason why he got fired, opps, I mean retired, because he fabricated a story about President Bush?

    Whatever he has to say is now worthless in my mind.....you can't trust a liar!
    computerworkspro
    • Who are you referring to?

      ---Whatever he has to say is now worthless in my mind.....you can't trust a liar!---

      Does this refer to Rather or Bush?
      tic swayback
    • Unfair

      You can't dismiss his career...nor is it clear that the story abt Bush's national guard service is untrue...we all make mistakes...and he knows its and knows he didn't ask himself the tough questions
      dbfarber
      • Faked

        That's what the "hard evidence" behind that story turned out to be. Dan got up before the "Grand Jury" in the Court of Public Opinion and perjured himself, then defended the perjury, and finally admitted it was perjury but that the faked story seemed convincing to him anyway.

        If the story [b]was[/b] true (which nobody's shown to actually be the case) it would have been a heck of a lot more effective had it been built on proper evidence; as it is, Rather undermined whatever story might have actually existed.

        Now, how can we be sure Mr. Rather didn't cheat on earlier stories? How can we be sure he wouldn't do it again? And given the support he got from the rest of his industry, how can we be sure he and his crew were the only ones who did [i]or do[/i] this?
        gafisher@...
        • The facts of the news reporting

          As I understand it, what really happened is that Mary Mapes, the producer of the Bush Nat'l Guard story, led the effort to put the story together, not Rather. She had been working on the story practically since Bush began his run for the presidency, 'round about 2000 (I may be a bit off on the timeline). Rather came in basically when the team that produced it felt that the story was "done enough" to put on the air. Mapes and Co. were the ones who pushed for it to air before the election. The mistake that Rather made is he should have personally evaluated the story more thoroughly before agreeing to be the point man for it, since his reputation was on the line. The consensus I've seen from the critics, and it's plausible IMO, is the reason he did not more thoroughly vet it, is Rather himself thought the story was entirely plausible. Another plausible explanation is that Rather implicitly trusted Mapes's work, and understood that she and her team had been working on the story for a few years. With such hard work put into it, why insult her by investigating it himself? It's also possible he thought the story was plausible. The icing on the cake, maybe.

          The documents were not the only part of the story that came into question. The credibility of one of the sources they interviewed also came into question. Chris Matthews, someone who is not exactly a fan of Bush, interviewed this source (can't remember the name) on his own about what he told 60 Minutes, and said he wouldn't trust the guy. He was too evasive.

          Where Rather et al. really fell down was the way in which they defended the story. They basically took the stance, "Even if the documents were fake, the story is true". They really should've known better. They fell in love with their own work. Logically, the stance they took may have been right. Professionally it was not. The classic rule is that all a reporter has is their reputation. Once their work comes into question under plausible criticism, they need to investigate what the critics are talking about, step up and either contradict the critics with more factual information, reinforcing the credibility of their story, or say they made a mistake, and acknowledge that the whole story either needs to be investigated further, or that it lacks credibility and apologize for presenting it. The stance they took was to basically not answer the criticism, which had legs, and say "the story is still true".

          Part of a reporter's job is to make a clear presentation of the facts of their story. Every fact or piece of evidence they use needs to check out. Like I said in another post on here, what they present may not be the complete story, but what they do present needs to be factual.

          If people stop believing what you're saying, because they don't find you credible it doesn't matter what you present in the future. Your credibility is damaged. You could present 100% factual information for the rest of your career, but people still won't listen to you.
          Mark Miller
      • Please be on my jury if I'm ever up for homicide

        Your cognitive skills would be a lifesaver (mine)!

        The letter was obviously a forgery, from typeface to comment to format (it was written by someone who has never SEEN a military memo).
        critic-at-arms
  • Old School

    Gez, for a guy that was out of the loop regarding blogs and the
    internet, Rather's desire to produce better reporting seems
    unlikely. If he was so unaware then, what is likely to change in the
    future. The guy is old school in a world of homeschooling. I'd
    want to know if Rather was asked what he now knows about
    blogging. You can feel for someone who's had his props kicked
    out from under him, but everyone has his day and Rather's has
    passed.
    Menlo Bob
  • Dan, you let us down...now please shut up

    The Dan Rather debacle over the Bush military service record story unfolded as it did because most key players in the TV media don't like Bush and desperately want to find something that would discredit him, even in the eyes of hardcore Bush fans. They NEEDED the story to be true so badly that they DID NOT apply the skepticism that is ALWEAYS required NO MATTER WHAT THE STORY IS and NO MATTER WHOSE OX IS BEING GORED.

    Frankly, I do not like Bush either. But for the mass media to present a false story and then have the nerve to defend it when the undepinnings start falling away is inexcusable. Thus the now-discredited Rather report probably helped INSURE that Bush won the last election.

    Rather's "retirement" was richly deserved. It is too bad a lifetime's work can be trumped by one on-the-record display of arrogance, but in journalism those are the basics. Nobody cares what the political beliefs of the reporter are. If the reporter wants to become a politician or a columnist, he/she should IMMEDIATELY be disqualified from further reporting assignments.
    dmennie
  • State of Affairs

    In what happened to Mr. Rather and his subsequent presentation at UC Berkeley campus, people are provided a rare affirmation as the current state of affairs in the U.S.A. and the character of Mr. Rather.

    In order for people to understand why Mr. Rather presented a story that was ?proven? false the viewer must listen to what he said at the Berkley interview and combine that information with the key understanding that the current government is ushering in a new phase of the New World Order.

    Mr. Rather chose to speak at UC Berkeley the sight of the 60?s / 70?s war protect and the protest against the undemocratic government of Nixon. Thus in the location of the venue for his discussion Mr. Rather was attempting to place the information he presented in the correct context. Yes MR. Rather did present a media story that may have been falsified but the question remains why?

    He tells that that during his interview. He talks about the dismal state of reporting in the U.S. out of fear of being ?cut off from access to key administration officials, making it difficult to compete professionally with those who tried not to ruffle feathers.? He admits that reporters are timid in the U.S.A. He goes so far as to say they need a ?spine transplant.? Where does this timid ness stem from? It stems form the ?fear of being called "unpatriotic" if a reporter asked tough questions [about the war.]? In the U.S.A of today a journalist could lose his job simply by being labels unpatriotic. He says that ?it's real, whether other journalists want to acknowledge it or not."

    Why does this type of working world exist for journalists in the U.S. today? Because the corporate ?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." Further than that "reporters are not supported by the business side."

    Thus Mr. Rather reveal that journalists are AFRIAD to do proper reporting in the U.S. today out of being fired simply for revealing something that is contrary to what the government considers to be patriotic. If this is so, then what Mr. Rather is truly saying is that democracy in reporting does not exist in the U.S. and one of the tenets of a democratic system is a free press. Therefore without a free press one cannot truly have a free/liberated society. The government can get away with it because the media cooperate agenda is not about presenting new worthy stories or issues of importance but rather to package the news in a manner that appeals to the lowest common denominator. Most are aware that the youth in the U.S. are dumb down though their diet of non nutritious foods, poor education system, and non existent heroes. Thus they have little interest in world affairs. They are told they do not need to care about others around them because they are ?American? whatever that means.

    Mr. Rather admits that he has made his living touting the line and being most of the time another talking head. Thus why would he present a story about the government that he knew it was false given his assessment of the state of corporate journalism, that same cooperation he worked for knowing that he would most likely be fired for it? There are two possible answers. Logically speaking he did not believe the store to be false and further it speaks something of his character. Given that Mr. Rather believe the story to be true he did a fearless act given the current climate of journalism as he described in the U.S. today. He did so because ?in my better moments, I know the definition of patriotic is to ask the tough questions, and to keep asking them." He knows the history of those journalists with integrity with strength to tell the truth as they believed it such as Mr. Edward R. Murrow.

    Mr. Rather knew the undemocratic and unpatriotic world he operated in. He knew the Bush government was enforcing that dictatorial state and took the risk and took advantage of the opportunity to stop or prevent that continuing any further. Unfortunately he was provided a storey which was ?proven? false and one could argue that he should have stepped back to ensure the integrity of the information presented. Then again the integrity of the person presented the store to him is also brought into question. As a professional as other professionals he relied on their word. In today?s climate, there is little time is retrench and reexamines anthers persons work and Mr. Rather did not have much time. The election was approaching and if he was to be affective he had to act soon. He wanted to stop the undemocratic government of Bush form getting back into power and thought he had the spicket to do so.

    I would conclude there were powerful forces which wanted Mr. Rather out but given his loyal service to them at times over the years, they did not want to retire him as they did Mr. Jennings. Thus they used the bait of a trust worthy source with a partially damaging story to lure him in and root him out.

    Like all heroes Mr. Rather is not perfect. Mr. Kennedy was not. Nor was Mr. Lincoln. However like all heroes they finally listen to that inner voice of reason and sum up the courage to do the right thing. How many American can say that they are true patriots today?

    P.S. displaying the flag is not a sign of patriotism but allegiance to a social system irregardless if that systems is right or wrong and what makes this sign of patriotism worse is the blind nature form which the banner is displayed.
    ciociario
    • So you want to give him a medal?

      [i]Logically speaking he did not believe the store to be false and further it speaks something of his character. Given that Mr. Rather believe the story to be true he did a fearless act given the current climate of journalism as he described in the U.S. today. He did so because ?in my better moments, I know the definition of patriotic is to ask the tough questions, and to keep asking them." He knows the history of those journalists with integrity with strength to tell the truth as they believed it such as Mr. Edward R. Murrow.[/i]

      As opposed to focusing on being "fearless", the CBS team that produced the story should've focused on being correct on their facts and being sure about the credibility of their sources. The picture you paint is that Rather, et al. were afraid of the Bush Administration and wanted to stop them, almost by whatever means necessary. That places truth at a lower priority, don't you think? By presenting a story that's been "'proven' false", as you say, CBS was [i]not[/i] asking the tough questions. In order to ask tough questions you need to be informed. You can't just run a hatchet job on a public official and call it "asking tough questions". To bring Edward R. Murrow into this is laughable. It's my understanding that he stuck to one of what should be the tenets of journalism: he had facts on his side.

      [i]Then again the integrity of the person presented the store to him is also brought into question.[/i]

      News organizations need to look at the credibility of their sources before presenting stories based on the information they are given. Mapes, the producer for the story, had been working on it since about 2000/2001. So she had about 3 years to get sources vetted and her facts straight. The real problem was Mapes and Co. had such a vested interest in the story by the time of the 2004 election they had lost any sense of objectivity.

      The problem with running with a story and "damn the consequences" is that if the story lacks credibility, it ends up making the target of the story look like a victim of a smear job, which shifts sympathy to the target of the story, not the story itself. Rather and Co. managed to get themselves into a position which is unforgivable in the news profession: They [i]became[/i] the story, not Bush. And they got there by their own actions. So as far as trying to "stop Bush" they utterly failed. In fact they may have made a small contribution to getting him re-elected.

      The other problem was the way Rather and Co. reacted to the valid criticism of the story. They ignored the criticism and insisted the story was true. That looks like denial to the viewing audience and detracts from their credibility.

      [i]The election was approaching and if he was to be affective he had to act soon. He wanted to stop the undemocratic government of Bush form getting back into power and thought he had the spicket to do so.[/i]

      It sounds like you want to give Rather a medal. But should we really do so for the act of standing by a shaky story, just for the sake of getting rid of Bush? Such a goal rings hollow.

      [i]I would conclude there were powerful forces which wanted Mr. Rather out but given his loyal service to them at times over the years, they did not want to retire him as they did Mr. Jennings. Thus they used the bait of a trust worthy source with a partially damaging story to lure him in and root him out.[/i]

      Quite a substantial claim. Care to back it up? You know, Chris Matthews interviewed the same questionable source I believe you are referring to (this was after the story ran), and he was able to determine that the source was not credible just from that one interview. How could Matthews have had such discernment, and Rather "and all the king's men" did not? The problem was they fell in love with the story and lost their objectivity. A fatal flaw.

      [i]However like all heroes they finally listen to that inner voice of reason and sum up the courage to do the right thing.[/i]

      The right thing was to pursue the facts wherever they led. If the facts ultimately showed that the story they had was, in part or in whole, a fabrication they needed to acknowledge that, rather than enter a state of denial. I think their inner voice of doing the right thing was snuffed out by other concerns. Not trying to imply anything sinister, but I think they forgot some of the basics of journalism.
      Mark Miller
  • "CBS News icon"? More like an "I can't!"

    Having Dan blather about the "flickering flame" is like having Bill Clintoon decrying the sorry state of marital fidelity in this country or General DeWitt moaning about racism.

    Dan's not an independent, he's an independable, and I'm wondering why ZDNet even mentioned his speech.

    But then, ZD has always bought into MS press releases, so I guess they're used to fawning all over BS . . .
    critic-at-arms
    • ZDnet a Neocon hotspot?

      It's deeply disturbing that it's come to this. What a shame that seemingly intelligent people are so blindsided by conservative propaganda, they can't even acknowledge a great newscaster's career. Is your love of George W. Bush so overwhelming that you'll viciously attack anyone who doesn't sing his praises?

      Please. Grow up.
      rrusson_z
  • Message has been deleted.

    johannk
  • Ever Since JFK and Watergate

    The Media had been looking for the "BIG" Story since the advent of Kennedy and Watergate.
    If they can't get it, then the just about kill themselves making it sound as though what they are reporting is anywhere near as momentous. Or like they did and literally hound Princess Diane to her DEATH. They Killed her.
    Do you think we're stupid?
    It was Nixon, and his Watergate that have to thank for today for the mediocre methods employed by the media.The lack of respect and above all the journalistic arrogance. Thanks to the way Nixon acted, the media took a carte blanche approach to journalistic reporting. Led by the Washington Post and people like Dan Rather.
    They have become rude, invasive, pervasive,arrogant, brutal and some of them even dare to have an "In your face" attitude in the reporting. They call it "Asking the though question" I call it Bloody rude and Presumptive Arrogance.
    When all is said and done what we really get is an overly hyped up much ado about nothing.
    And most people are stupid enough to fall for it. They even ,ay more to get the same thing on the "Upper Channels"
    What do your think would happen if people started banging on the CNN Windows demanding "Real News", not these stupid talk shows that pretend and purport to be News.
    What would happen at the Washington post and the God Almighty Bob Woodward if the people of today were half as intelligent and demanding in their news as they used to be.
    There was a time when on believed, "actually believed" in the news people.
    Now, the most believable one of them all is The National Enquirer. As for CNN & Co, I won't even go there.
    At least with the Enquirer, you know it's all made up and hyped-up crap so you could care less.
    But you would expect much better from the Washington Post, The New York Times, CNN, Headline "News?".
    This is what has been done to the media of the day, and Rather was no help. TVs gone stupid with Idols of one sort or other, or the other great farce, "Reality?TV" PULLEASE!, and then the News Media with it's own agenda, called money and to hell with real news.
    A longtime ago, a journalist said to a Senator,"Sir, if the fiction is more exciting then the trut, print the fiction" and that's what we have today, news that is largely fiction.
    So don't just blame the Bottom line, but also blame the would be "Super Star Anchors" and "Journalists? who are killing themselves trying to get as lucky as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
    The media is corrupt and we know it, that is why I no longer watch.
    Think about this, if you're running a news show and you have to have an out of shape, pot bellied "DR PHIL" or perhaps these arm chair retired Backstabbing two faced hypocritical "Ex-Generals" on your "news" show, what does it say about you? I suggest it points to the truth.
    To the fact that it's rotten to the core.
    Thank you for your attention
    Aaron
    Aaron A Baker
  • Cute,real cute

    Intelligent and caring too.
    Aaron
    Aaron A Baker