SXSWi: Dan Rather Keynote Interview

Dan Rather Keynote Interview
14:00 CST
Moderated by: Jane Hamsher, Publisher, The Fire Dog Lake Company

Lots of paraphrasing here of course.

Q: What was it like when Richard Nixon dismissed you and you would not be dimissed?

A: (strange he needed the question repeated 3 times and then he went away from the question) We are going to talk about lots of important questions like tech, war, etc. Problems are the problems – the way we call attention to these in the news are important, but secondary. Reporters put themselves in harms way to cover this stuff.

“My role is to be an honest broker of information”

Have to keep up with the news so that people don’t have to. I never say myself as challenging President Nixon, I was just doing my job of finding out what was really going on instead of what they wanted the world to believe what was going on.

I wasn’t challenging the President, I respect that office more than anyone, but the President was involved in one of the largest conspiracies in our history – Watergate. The President said I was challenging him, but the facts are the facts and the President was not presenting the facts.

Q: Does the state of journalism today allow the same types of critiques of the administration

A: In the last 5-6 years (including me) American journalism has lost its guts. Journalists have adopted the go-along to get-along cliché. The access journalism game has degenerated the craft to a perilous state. We trade go-along get-along for access and having the boss feel good about you. The danger is real and present of being called “antipartriotic” and “not supporting the troops.” This is a very serious charge in America at a time of war. A patriotic journalist would be on their feet asking the hard questions. My role as member of the press is sometimes to question authority, keep checks and balances on power, follow up on these questions.

Q: Small group of journalists in DC are trying to protect themselves and their positions by not challenging with questions.

A: American journalism (including me) needs a spine transplant. The nexus between powerful journalists and corporate interest/other sources of power have become far too close. You get a little too cozy with your sources. You make agreements with them, stated or unstated. You take care of me, I’ll take care of you. This is very dangerous. Definitely in Washingtion, but other places as well, city hall, towns, etc. To get them on your newscast you negotiate (but don’t call it that) that you get so close, you become part of the problem. Powerful people do use journalists – they will until the journalists say whoah, too far. Journalists though also use sources. That is a given in most situations. Sources begin to think the reporter can be part of the time. Then the reporter thinks that they are part of the system and need to help, then the reporter has gone too far. Journalists need to rethink the relationship with sources.

If you have many sources, it will be had for your sources to seal you out. When the President sealed Rather out, we called the Pentagon, Congress, etc. So when you call for the 15th time you then tell the secretary that I am on the evening news with a not-so-flattering piece of information and if the President wants to rebut, call me before 5:45pm. It doesn’t work the first time or two, but then they start calling you back. It isn’t true that you can’t find out the info without the main source. It is harder, but you can use other sources to force the hand of the main source.

Q: Do you still think it is important to ask the follow up questions? Is journalism failing to act as a check on power?

A: Do we still believe that the best journalism is Independent? Do we still believe you should ask the hard question and follow up? If the Governor, President, etc does not answer the question, do we believe the next person should say that Mr. President, you didn’t answer her question? Barring national secrets, do we the people still own all the documents? Even a president, this person is not a descendent of a sun god, they are supposed to server we the people. You listen to a news conference, you record, you take notes: then you go out and check, you call, you research, then you report. Or now have we taken the position that journalists are conveyor belts, and our job is not to ask the right questions – “The President said today such and such.”

Increasingly journalists are trying to play it safe. Look at the copy, “I know this is true, but if I broadcast this I am going to pay a price for it” so maybe I should water it down, make it a little less powerful so me, the boss, the network doesn’t pay the price.

“I have never really liked the word investigative reporter because I consider it a redundancy.” All reporters investigate. Hard news with Independent news is an endangered species. Especially in those places with the most outlets, most listeners, most viewers, etc.

Q for Rather: When is the last time you saw a 1-hour investigative documentary on the big 6 networks? It has gone out of fashion. The corporatization of news – larger companies owning news networks – the people at the head of the company and the newsroom, huge distance between the two. The interests of the corporations (building aircraft, billboards, etc) have nothing to do with journalism and they would rather give up the news, except that they need legislation they need to help their business. The have regulations that they need eased or stopped. Television corporations want to own more markets, they need FCC regulation, they need products manufactured. The people at the top aren’t evil people per se, but their mindset is stockholder value and what is good for the corporation as a whole.

Investigative reporting by its definition is going to make somebody unhappy. Journalists are at odds with lobbyists who are trying to get legislation lifted or passed if they are investigating. Competition leads generally to better journalism. 4-5 major corporations control 80% of principal communication. They aren’t seeking more competition, they are seeking less.

The press has a very important role to play as a watchdog (not the only role). Not an attack dog which goes for the throat. What does a lapdog do? Crawl into a lap and someone says nice dog, nice dog. A good watchdog barks at everything that is suspicious. Who’s that over there? Why’s the happening? Not that they will always be right, but that they will always be barking. That role has been shrinking in my lifetime.

Q: People have been turning to the Internet to get news that isn’t too close. What are your thoughts on Internet news, democratization of news.

A: Internet is great for news, education, illumination (Edward Murrow), the potential is unlimited. The Internet is in the Beatles stage. Elvis was the early stage, the Beatles moved it forward. We are not in the Beatles stage, the potential is vast and I am excited about it.

So many people think of it just as the blogosphere. There is so much more. Whatever you think the Internet will be in 15 years, it probably will be in 3-5.

Are their irresponsible blogs? Of course. Are there good analysis blogs? Yes. Are there some who do reporting themselves, going to the places, making the calls, yes. I applaud responsible journalism. Journalism integrity is about finding truth. I have a problem with anonymity. You could get on the internet on an anonymous blog and cut up a competitor or your neighbor – these are problems to overcome. Given time, the marketplace will balance this. Sometimes this takes a long time and reputations/businesses can get ruined. Being anonymous and saying scurrilous and unscrupulous things is a problem.

Q: You have a small group of people who aren’t asking the right questions. The country has other questions. How does new media address that problem?

A: One way, stay on it, hold people accountable. If you feel the right questions aren’t being asked somewhere, a rather constant putting out of a list of questions that aren’t being asked can be effective. Holding the press core accountable. These are major truths that aren’t being told, we need to keep generating this. So many raindrops eventually make a dent on the rock. We need to move towards increasing accountability. This is a problem in every government. We had less, but it is more and more of a problem. We need to keep asking.

When someone lies, news reporters say, “this is what the governor says, this is what his critics say.” When is the last time someone said, “this is what the governor says, this is a lie.” When the facts clearly demonstrate, that type of direct language might be preferable to the type of sideways dance that is going on.

Q: Do you think journalism as a craft took a hit during the Libby trial? Journalists on the stand said they assume everything is off the record unless stated otherwise.

A: This goes back to getting close. “I am pretty big, I am part of the system, I am part of what helps the country go around and I know a lot of things that I can’t tell people because it wouldn’t be good for the country.” If that toxic gas gets into journalists, that is dangerous for journalism and the country as a whole.

Off the record used to be clearly defined, on background was defined, on deep background was defined. In your own head, you knew what the rules of the road were, they were agreed to. Call a source, start talking: incumbent on the source to say on what grounds are we talking? Assumed that everything talked about could be written about. The source could ask to be protected, but it wasn’t assumed. If the source asked to be off the record, you could say no, not on this topic. Then you negotiate what the terms are. If those aren’t the rules now, then what are the rules? How can we get info from sources who won’t put their names, don’t want to be traceable in any way, and keep our obligations to the readers?

Going to leave early to do a live update at Tune in to the podcast and live tomorrow at 2:15 pm EST/1:15pm CST.

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arvind s. grover

I am a progressive educator, a podcaster (, a blogger, and dean of faculty of JK-11 school (building a high school) in New York City.