Dan Rather on how to be a journalist in 2017 and how the fight for civil rights has evolved.

Dan Rather’s Smart Thoughts on Journalism, Civil Rights, and Politics Have Made Him Wildly Popular Again

Dan Rather’s Smart Thoughts on Journalism, Civil Rights, and Politics Have Made Him Wildly Popular Again

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Sept. 26 2017 11:34 AM

What’s Behind Dan Rather’s Wild Popularity?

In an era of insanity, his thoughts on journalism, covering civil rights, and morality are grounding—and inspiring.

700037203KR00020_The_Intern
Dan Rather attends the International Center of Photography’s 33rd Annual Infinity Awards on April 24 in New York.

Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for ICP

Dan Rather was the folksy face of CBS Evening News for 24 years famous for his arresting turns of phrase and affability. He left the network in 2006 in the wake of a dispute over reporting on George W. Bush’s National Guard service. More than 10 years later, and at age 85, Rather has become—via his personal Facebook page, the Facebook page for his media company News and Guts, and various other ventures—a daily lifeline back to sanity for millions of people trying to navigate Trump’s America. I’ve worked with him on all sorts of projects over my career, so I reached out to Rather, whose new book What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism is set for release on Nov. 7, to ask him about his career’s latest act and, given his experience covering the civil rights movement of the 1960s, how he thinks about civil rights today. Our conversation, which was conducted via email, has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate and hosts the podcast Amicus.

Dahlia Lithwick: When you started at CBS News in 1962, you immediately got yourself assigned to the civil rights beat. You got to meet Martin Luther King Jr. in Georgia, to report on KKK rallies, to meet Medgar Evers in Jackson, Mississippi. How much time in your early career as a journalist was spent trying to convince yourself, and your producers up in New York, that what you were seeing every day in Alabama and Mississippi and Georgia was in fact happening—that it was real? Overt vote suppression, shocking violence and murder. It must have seemed a million miles away from what most of Americans were seeing.

Advertisement

Dan Rather: I had grown up in Houston, which was at that time a segregated city in a state that had been a member of the Confederacy. Nevertheless, nothing I had experienced prepared me for what I saw when I hit the civil rights beat in the early 1960s. At some level, what I would witness was surreal. I remember my first Klan rally: the burning cross, the pure hatred, a society so far from the ideals of American democracy I had been taught in school. But I don’t remember having to convince myself that what I was seeing was in fact happening. I knew it was real.

The veteran reporters who had trained me said that the job required walking the ground with open ears, eyes, mind, and heart. And I was lucky that CBS News management back in New York understood this credo of journalism as well. They were shocked by the reports I was sending back. Some wondered how widespread this was or whether some of it might have been staged. But when I told them what I saw, they gave me the support to keep on going.

America knew of segregation but was largely blind to the accompanying undercurrents of violence that often exploded into tragedy. And bearing witness to these realities drove my coverage. I believe the civil rights struggle was a defining moment for television journalism because we could see the power of pictures. It was one thing to describe a Klan rally in a newspaper article, but to bring it into American living rooms was something different. You could explain that police were attacking African Americans, but to show it was like a megaphone wake-up call for the country. No longer was denial an option for decent intending people. Being agnostic was no longer possible.

For a young reporter, I got to see the importance of a free and independent press in real time. Covering this struggle for justice deepened my understanding of the value of integrity-filled quality reporting. In the midst of it, however, it was hard to give the overall historic arc of what I was seeing full context. I was going from one dangerous dateline to another, scrambling to meet a challenge far beyond my experience or maybe even my abilities at the time. But I knew I had to basically bear witness. I had to drive to the heart of the story and then be an honest broker of information.

Advertisement

You were on my mind all summer when I was living with and thinking about the alt-right and the KKK, and then the alt-right again in Charlottesville, where this was all playing out in my backyard. Being in the midst of this kind of event is unbelievably challenging as a human and then sometimes even more so as a journalist, when you are seeing what seems to be pure evil, and also amazing acts of resistance, and feeling horror and unreality and even worry for your own well-being. And what I saw wasn’t fractionally as bad as what you chronicled over the years.

Tell me what’s different about the civil rights era you covered in the 1960s and the attacks on civil rights that seem to be resurgent now. How does one separate moral horror from objective news gathering? And can you offer advice for young journalists trying to report on racial hate and bigotry who perhaps don’t have the historical context you do?

The hatred that seems to be resurgent now is a direct bloodline to the 1960s. But there is a big difference. In the 1960s, especially in the early 1960s when I was covering Martin Luther King Jr. and other leaders of the young movement, there was not a national consensus that African Americans were entitled to equal rights. I recognize that is a hell of a thing to say, but it was true. It was certainly true of the wide geographic area of the old South, but it was also true in many ways across the nation.

Today, there is a national consensus, and I would say there is even a regional consensus. I do not say this to minimize the challenges of the present, but this backdrop is important. It is why so many CEOs dropped out of President Trump’s business councils after his comments on Charlottesville. It is why there was condemnation across the political spectrum. Now, just having this consensus is not enough. We need more than just words and feelings. We need action to make American society more just and fair. That is the urgency of our current age.

Advertisement

In covering these stories, one doesn’t—or at least this reporter doesn’t—separate moral horror from objective newsgathering. These realities are not at odds. They are not mutually exclusive. Objective newsgathering means not shying away from shining a light on a moral horror and bearing witness that the moral horror is at the heart of the story.

What I would tell young journalists is that I can think of few jobs more important to the continuation of our democracy than the one they are performing. A free press guided us through the civil rights era, Vietnam, and Watergate. Where would we be in these times without it? Do not lose your idealism about what you do. It matters. It counts. And never lose your idealism about what the country can be and should be. You may not hear it as much as you should, but I believe the overwhelming majority of Americans appreciate and value what you’re doing. Do not succumb to cynicism. Being skeptical is part of being a journalist but cynicism pollutes objectivity. Particularly in today’s tsunami of news coverage and a confusing news environment, young journalists may be tempted to wonder if anybody is watching or reading. Does it matter? The answer is yes it matters, and yes it can make a difference.

This past weekend saw phenomenal attention given to NFL protests of racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Have you ever seen anything like it? What do you tell people who caution that it’s both a distraction from what matters and also playing into this president’s terms of debate and values?

Dissent is American. So is debate. I have seen a lot of both in my lifetime, but few moments of such public widespread opposition—from public officials, business leaders, celebrities, and a wide swath of citizens—in response to divisions being sown by a president of the United States. This was a moment of reckoning for the nation. I do worry that, at a time of a lot of serious news, this can be seen as a distraction. But ultimately this is about race relations in this country, and that is one of the central and enduring fissures of our history. Yes, the president set the timing for the discussion, but it soon exploded beyond anything he could control. I personally stand for the national anthem, hand over heart. But I understand and respect the reasons for the protest and do not see them as disrespectful to the spirit of freedom of our country. Quite the contrary.

Advertisement

I think President Trump believed he had a winning issue politically for his base. But I also believe the enormous condemnation overwhelmed that calculus. Nevertheless, it is still unspeakable that a president of the United States would even seek to exacerbate the potent forces of racial resentment. That is not the kind of leadership we expect from our presidents. It is divisive and against the spirit of unity under which this nation should orient itself.

You have had such an extraordinary recent career, in no small part as a result of Facebook, which is itself a fraught news vehicle as we are now learning. Now you’re poised to launch a book and attendant book tour with an active production company. How does it make sense that one of the leaders of the resistance on social media comes out of the golden age of television? Have you changed, or has the new media been less revolutionary than we have been led to believe?

I really do not know how to explain this moment in my career. I think we live in an era where people are deeply worried. They believe, and rightfully so, that this an unprecedented moment in history. We see dire threats to our democratic norms, our health, our security, and our planet. But this is not the first time we have faced bleak and seemingly insurmountable challenges.

One of the benefits that comes with experience and the passage of time is that it helps you put things into context, especially historical context. And maybe if there is any explanation for what we are doing, whatever value it has, it’s to put things into perspective. I think there’s a yearning for voices that resonate with at least some faint sense of steadiness. I am deeply grateful that so many people feel that my musings are worthy of consideration.

Advertisement

I feel I am fortunate to have come of age at a time when the press had different pressures than it does today. When I was covering civil rights in the 1960s, we basically had a deadline once a day. That gave you time to report—and more importantly, to think about what it all meant. With cable news that became a deadline every hour or so. Now it seems to be a deadline every nanosecond. This pressure to file makes it harder to be as accurate and fair, to get the story right. The dangers of emphasizing speed over substance in journalism cannot be overstated.

I have learned that there is a wide-open world of journalism where more voices are available. This is for the good, but we need to worry about a sustainable business model and a way of sorting out fake news from quality reporting. Social media undercuts the advertising revenue that has traditionally funded reporting and has yet to replace it with something sustainable. And the pressure that Facebook is facing in its role of spreading the manipulations of Russia in our last election is only increasing. And it should. We need better answers. While I appreciate my exposure on Facebook and Twitter, I think many hard questions need to be asked about how these types of outlets are changing journalism.

Media is in a time of rapid change. The days of landlines and typewriters are long since gone. This revolution is real, but the fundamentals of good journalism still apply. Bear witness and be an honest broker of information. The bedrock of the craft is writing, and we should all constantly strive to be as fair as possible. Those fundamentals haven’t changed.

You’ve said that when you covered the civil rights era in the South, the other side was claiming that the events you witnessed were staged to evoke sympathy for African Americans. That was new to me: I thought arguments about false flags and fake news were fairly recent.

Advertisement

As journalists, what do we do about efforts to destabilize the very notion of truth and fact? When so much of the Trump era is about fomenting doubt about media, and even the possibility that truth is knowable, what do you see as your role? And do you worry that by calling out lies and distortions, you will be dismissed as contributing to the problem of polarization and mistrust?

We did face in the early 1960s all kinds of charges that we staged things, that we didn’t edit the material with integrity. Even after that period, when I led a CBS crew into Afghanistan, there were some who said we faked the whole story in Pakistan. There are always going to be those who are seduced by conspiracy theories.

What is new is two things. One, there are many more of these accusations made today, and they get much wider distribution on a worldwide basis than they did before. And perhaps even more insidious, there are many more politicians and ideologues using charges of fake new to their advantage.

These attacks on the very notion of truth are one of the biggest challenges of our day. We cannot allow our country or our world to descend into a post-truth era. Facts are called facts for a reason. The notion of “alternative facts” is an affront to reason. One of the roles of journalists is to separate brass tacks from bullshine. And these alternative facts claims are unadulterated bullshine.

We must be on guard because partisan political forces are working hard to lessen the notion of truth. They want truth to be in the eye of the beholder. But a lie is a lie. And I am heartened that many in the press now are not afraid to use that word when it is warranted. I don’t worry about calling this one as I see it. I worry about a lot of things, but not this. Maybe it is a function of increasing age. My attitude is I know what I know, I know what I don’t know. There will always be people who want to attack you, and some people will believe the lies and distortions. But I have a trust in the audience. I have been a paid reporter for almost 70 years. My experience with the American public is if you trust them, they’ll trust you. If you are authentic, people will listen.

We have immense problems tearing at this country: political, racial, and other deep polarizations. We are in a time of great mistrust. But as a reporter, you try to stay humble and do the best you can. You shine a light on issues you think need to be illuminated. You push forward and recognize that you are performing a constitutional role in protecting the freedoms and sanctity of our improbable union.

You yourself had to reckon with charges about fake news at CBS, with competing claims about George W. Bush’s military service. Did any of that fracas over what reporting is now prepare you for, or influence your approach to, newsgathering in 2017?

One definition I like for news is that it is what the powerful want to remain hidden. If you enter this arena, you have to be prepared for the consequences. I have made my mistakes and have the wounds to prove it. But I believe that it is better to be fearless and to push forward.

We are living in a time of unmitigated deceit by many of those in power and intimidation towards the press. They are looking at any weakness they can exploit and will bandy about the idea of fake news when it serves their purposes. They will use the press to their benefit and then turn on it at the slightest provocation. Sadly, this is how the world works. As the old adage says, to be forewarned is to be forearmed.

What is vital is that those in the press don’t break under the pressure, that those who run journalistic organizations stand behind their employees when the heat is turned on. It is up to others to judge the quality and effectiveness of my life’s work. I don’t spend much time worrying about the past. My journalistic heroes, like Edward R. Murrow, instilled in me a belief that personal fame or reward in journalism is ephemeral. You are only as good as your next story. And I imagine I will feel that way until my last byline or signoff.

One more thing

Since Donald Trump entered the White House, Slate has stepped up our politics coverage—bringing you news and opinion from writers like Jamelle Bouie and Dahlia Lithwick. We’re covering the administration’s immigration crackdown, the rollback of environmental protections, the efforts of the resistance, and more.

Our work is more urgent than ever and is reaching more readers—but online advertising revenues don’t fully cover our costs, and we don’t have print subscribers to help keep us afloat. So we need your help.

If you think Slate’s work matters, become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.

Join Slate Plus