Oral interviews with Dan Rather's colleagues about what, for Rather, makes a good journalist.
In his sixty-plus-year career, Rather always emphasized that he tried to stay true to his passion: working hard to be a reporter, an honest broker of information, an accurate and fair journalist dedicated to both the idea and the ideal of "objective reporting." It was not only something he strove to achieve everyday but also a topic he actively engaged with in his newspaper columns and radio reports, as well as the lectures he gave, the roundtables he participated in and his posts on Facebook. In addition to exchanging ideas about the craft of journalism and the necessary skills to be a good journalist, Rather was vocal about the ethics of journalism, the responsibility of the press, and its role in America. He regularly discusses the future of the profession, with the move to digital platforms and the increased corporatization of news businesses.
The Craft of Journalism
Asked during a 2005 interview on the Kalb Report what journalism is, Rather responded "the gathering of information, who, what, when, where, how and why of events and attempting to be an honest broker of what happened, not always as an eyewitness, be an honest broker of information, trying to be as accurate and fair as possible." Over the years, Rather also wrote about learning from colleagues, including Eric Severeid, Charles Collingwood, Fred Friendly, and cameraman Wendell Hoffman, and emulating others such as Edward R. Murrow; the need to practice writing and the necessity of reading; how important the team you work with is; and how cultivating your sources is essential for your job as a reporter. Rather's "journalistic tripod," the core experience any journalist should have as CBS producer Tom Bettag explained, consisted of "time spent in Washington, time spent in the heartland, and time spent overseas." Recognizing that, in addition to being one of the hardest-working newsmen, he had a lot of luck and was helped by colleagues, Rather has always been very generous with aspiring journalists, sharing his experience and giving advice when possible.
The Ethics of Journalism
A common thread throughout Rather's career has been his defense of journalistic principles and the journalists who often risk their lives reporting. Rather is a founding member of the Committee for Protection of Journalists (CPJ), dedicated to the global defense of press freedom. He regularly worked with the CPJ, as in 2009 when he used his contacts to help with the release of two young journalists from North Korea, and asked that his role not be mentioned. In 2011, he received the CPJ Burton Benjamin Memorial Award.
Rather truly believes that a free press is essential to a democratic society; a press free from governmental but also economic pressures that has a responsibility to inform citizens. Over the years, Rather stood, for example, against pressures from various administrations unhappy with his coverage, pushed for more foreign news coverage, advocated for unbiased reporting, and criticized "check-book journalism." As early as 1987 piece, "From Murrow to Mediocrity," Rather had denounced the series of cuts ordered by new CEO Lawrence Tisch, arguing that "news is a business, but it is also a public trust." Echoing Edward R. Murrow’s 1958 speech, he gave in 1993 a speech entitled “Call It Courage” at the Radio and Television News Directors Association (RTNDA), in which he criticized the increasing tabloid orientation of the television news. Since leaving CBS in 2006, Rather has repeatedly talked about the corporatization of the news, where shareholder returns are more important than the mission of the news, which is to help realize Jefferson’s ideal of an informed citizenry. In talks and discussions he asked for examples if "the media is failing America?"and what is the stand of the news and the public trust. In his 2012 book, Rather Outspoken, Rather investigates how the news media has become dangerously intertwined with politics and corporate interests. The journalist has reacted strongly against the attacks on the press by the Trump administration, reminding the public that, the press’s role in keeping the president in check has been an intricate part of United States history.
The Future of Journalism
As a reporter who started at a small radio station, worked as the news director of a local TV station after a short stint at a newspaper, and joined CBS News as a correspondent and then anchor of the Evening News, Rather has experienced how drastically news operations in the United States have changed since the 1960s. He witnessed firsthand and often commented on how the very fabric of the evening news was radically transformed, including heightened competition, a sharp decline in ratings, and a move toward "soft news." While technological changes since the 1980s have enabled, for example, live reports from around the globe, the birth of cable news, especially the twenty-four-hour news channels (CNN and later Fox News and MSNBC), radically changed the news landscape, where bringing the news first and partisanship are often more important than accuracy.
For Rather, one of the worst changes has been what he calls the growing conglomeration and corporatization of news organizations, where the main goal is increased profit for stakeholders and not serving the public interest. These have had three pernicious effects on how news operates: cost cutting, risk aversion, and the homogenization and Hollywoodization of the news. In addition, new technologies, especially the internet, and changes in the public perception of the role of the press, led to the decline of newspapers, which are losing revenue, atrophying in the process the entire news-making operation. Despite the gloomy situation, Rather still believes that both the audience and reporters can make a difference, by demanding and working hard to produce honest and fair news.