Dan Rather: What We in Journalism Need is a Spine Transplant

For several years the media has given the Bush administration a free ride, failing to adequately question them during the run up to the Iraq war, and repeating Repubican talking points without critical examination. Dan Rather gave a keynote speech at South by Southwest Interactive, discussing the role of the internet and the failings of the news media:

“The Internet is a tremendous tool for not just news, (because) its potential is unlimited for that,” Rather said, but for “illumination and opening things up.”

But he spent most of his time on stage talking about why he thinks many people have lost faith in journalists.One reason for that, Rather said, is that a sense has developed that questioning power, especially at a time of war, is perceived as unpatriotic or unsupportive of America’s fighting troops.

That’s “a very serious charge in this country,” Rather said.

“We’ve brought it on ourselves,” he added, “partly because we’ve lost the sense that patriotic journalists will be on his or her feet asking the tough questions. My role as a member of the press is to be sometimes a check and balance on power.”

Indeed, Rather’s ascendance to the pinnacles of power in journalism came as a result of his reputation for asking very tough questions and–as Hampshire pointed out–not being afraid to ask follow-up questions, of powerful people like President Richard Nixon, the first President George Bush, current President Bush, Saddam Hussein, and many others.

“In many ways,” said Rather to loud applause, “what we in journalism need is a spine transplant.”

Rather then reiterated his feeling that many journalists today–and he repeated that he has fallen for this trap–are willing to get too cozy with people in positions of power, be it in government or corporate life.

“The nexus between powerful journalists and people in government and corporate power,” he said, “has become far too close.”

You can get so close to a source that you become part of the problem, he added. “Some people say that these powerful people use journalists, and they do. And they will use them to the fullest extent possible, right up until the point where the journalist says, ‘Whoa, that’s too far.'”

Therefore, it is incumbent on journalists to be willing to risk their access to power to search out the truth behind a story, he said. And they shouldn’t be willing to water down the truth to protect their access to power.

Rather also said that the consolidation of power in a small number of media companies has hurt the search for the truth in newsrooms across the country. As media conglomerates get bigger, the gap between the newsrooms and the boardrooms is too big and the goal becomes satisfying shareholders, not citizens, he said.

Therefore, Rather supports increased competition between media companies and between journalists, he said.

“So next time someone says, ‘I believe in the capitalist system,'” Rather said, “tell them Dan Rather says ‘Amen.'”

Rather reiterated the journalist’s role as a watchdog.

“Not as an attack dog…But what does the lapdog do, he just crawls into someone’s lap,” he said. “A good watchdog barks at everything that’s suspicious. I submit to you, the American press’ role is to be a watchdog.”

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1 Comment

  1. 1
    mbk says:

    glad to see Dan Rather speaking up, and glad that you posted this.

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