AUSTIN, Texas--If any figure from the world of mainstream journalism could be forgiven for nursing a grudge toward new media, Dan Rather comes to mind.
The longtime news anchor had his career prematurely shortened after bloggers drew attention to an erroneous document used by CBS as the basis of a report on President Bush's National Guard service. CBS later disavowed the report, and Rather, who issued an on-air apology, was soon out the door.
But Rather has revived his career working with Internet entrepreneur Marc Cuban's HDNet. In a one-on-one with CNET News.com at the South by Southwest multimedia festival here, this born-again cyberjournalist offered his views on how journalism is evolving in the digital era and the challenges he thinks the profession will face.
Q: Did you see blogging as a serious journalistic endeavor before the CBS dustup over President Bush's military record?
Rather: Some parts of it I did. As I've said many times, I think it's very easy to generalize about blogging, which is a big sphere, and growing bigger every day. But there were parts of it I considered to be serious. Anybody who blogs, who does real reporting, which is to say, make telephone calls, go interview people, go talk to people, in a spirit of independence...and (tries) to do journalism with integrity, I would consider a journalist.
Good journalism, great journalism, starts with owners who have guts.
Of course there are an increasing number of bloggers now who by any definition are reporters, or journalists. There are some others who in my opinion would fit into a gray area. They may do good reporting, but they mix in their own opinion, their own point of view, without clearly signifying the difference. Now that's not a kind of journalism that I practice. It's not one that I'm going to damn either.
We're talking about definition. In the first category, they're clearly reporters; the second category is gray. And there are some, as there are in TV and radio and newspapers, who claim to be journalists, who aren't by any reasonable definition doing that--for example, someone who's blogging as a political operative for a party, with a partisan point of view, and who doesn't clearly hang out their shingle. But it's a complicated picture. The point is it's grown exponentially over the years, and there are more in each of these categories.
How can newspapers adapt to new technology and business models?
Rather: I think there is a way. I think newspapers are struggling to find that way, and some have had more success than others. As we sit here today, some will survive as newspapers, which is to say they'll use newsprint, and they'll come out daily. I certainly can see the time when most, if not all, newspapers reach the point at which they say, "We're going to do the newspaper, but it's only going to be on the Internet, or on supplementary new technologies," like going to mobile telephones and that kind of thing--basically not doing it on newsprint.
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I would guess that this would probably start with a newspaper that's in a clearly, heavily permeated high-technology community. I can see the day where a paper such as that says we're going to get out of the newsprint business. I think it's going to begin that way. But it all depends on whether and how quickly advertisers take to it.
What role can the Internet play in neutralizing the effect of media consolidation?
Rather: I think it can play a very important role. First of all, in holding people accountable. Sometimes in the guise of holding people accountable, some want to smear others' reputations. But I do believe that at least the potential for self-correction is already there on the Internet for those kinds of things. At its best, journalism on the Internet--including blogging--does some of the following, holds people to accountability. It says, "Wait a minute, this is what the governor says, or the mayor says, or the president says. But here are the facts, and by any reasonable analysis, this is the truth." It's speaking truth to power, but it's become almost a cliche, because it's a powerful thought, and it's an essential for journalism in a society such as ours, a constitutional democracy based on the principles of freedom and democracy, that you have a high degree of accountability, that you have a constant questioning of power.
I believe that news is that which people need to know, that someone somewhere doesn't want them to know. And all the rest is just advertising. Now insofar as the Internet can operate from that baseline and help inform citizens, I think its potential is unlimited. It's one of the things that excites me about the Internet.
As the gap widens between newsrooms and boardrooms, how can journalists in large media organizations stand up to pressure from above to not push hard on stories?
Rather: The first thing, and I include myself in this criticism, is that it's increasingly hard for people in news to have any access to the top leaders of the giant corporations. But I think you have to work hard at it...In today's mega-corporation, I think those at the top in the news divisions--the anchor, the managing editor and the presidents of the news divisions--need to work harder to explain to the very top what it is we do, why we do it...It is important to have a news operation that is known for independence and backs the independence of the division and the reporters. It has to be a stronger line of communicable trust between the leadership and the newsroom.
It has been a long time since anyone has called me an idealist. But I consider myself one.
Good journalism, great journalism, starts with owners who have guts. So if you give them a reason why it's in the company's interest, never mind the country's interest, to do it, that's one reason. And the other is to stand up for good reporting when it's necessary, when the heat comes down, to back reporters, and to back investigative reporting. And the most insidious part to me, the part that needs sunlight put to it, is the need of the larger corporation to get legislation passed (that helps corporations that own media companies), or get legislation stopped (that harms corporations that own media companies). This frequently comes in conflict with particularly hard-digging investigative reporting. The public needs to know that.
What's your take on Net neutrality?
Rather: Neutrality is an emotionally charged word for the Internet. I'm not an expert, but I believe in equality all the way around. If someone's going to have high speed, then everybody ought to have access to high speed. I recognize that there's an argument the other way, that you can't have it for everybody, but I just don't buy that argument. To me, it's akin to saying, "Well, there's this new invention called the telephone, and only a few people should be allowed to have it, because everybody can't have it at once."
What other regulatory issues do you think are important for ensuring continuing freedom of distribution of content on the Internet?
Rather: I'm very wary of anything that smacks of government censorship or regulation. Having said that, our system of government in this society depends very heavily on individual responsibility, individual outlets, private ownership and having a sense of public responsibility...If there's no self-discipline with whatever the new technology is, whatever the new practices are, if they're not acting in the public interest, and particularly if they act against the public interest--smearing their neighbor or trying to undercut their business competitor unethically--that will lead to increased government regulation, as it has before.
It has been a long time since anyone has called me an idealist. But I consider myself one. Ideally, (the answer) would be self-discipline. I don't like the word regulation, and the way (to go) is to expose those who are using it for nefarious purposes. But if it isn't self-discipline, and if the marketplace doesn't (adapt) fairly quickly, in each succeeding progression of technology, then you will have voices saying the government definitely needs to step in and put in a new set of regulations. The less of that the better.
Large tech companies like Google, Yahoo and Microsoft seem to be making an argument for the good of the people, even as they are multibillion dollar companies. Should we worry about that dynamic?
Rather: We saw it with newspapers, when newspapers were dominant. We saw it with radio to a degree when radio became a competitor to and supplemental to newspapers. Certainly we've seen it in television. There's nothing wrong with a corporation being big in and of itself, but if we aren't careful, there's always the tendency to become monopolistic, whether the leaders of the business intended to be so or not.
I consider the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt to be one of the great American presidencies, perhaps not right there with Washington and Lincoln, but right behind it, because as a Republican, mind you, he saw the dangers of trusts, monopolies and the great syndicates. So I think attention must be paid as the larger some companies you name become; do they choke off competition? If they reach that point of monopoly or something near that, attention must be paid.
I think there's always greed, not only for money, but for power, or to control the marketplace. It's inevitable when companies reach a certain stage. Up to a certain point, not only is it OK, but it's good. But particularly when it stifles innovation and creativity, the creation of new businesses and new jobs, that's when we have to watch it.