Dan Rather Keynote Interview

Loose notes from SXSW 2007 keynote interview with veteran journalist Dan Rather.

Rather has been hitting these key points for a while now, starting to sound familiar, but still his experience and wisdom are powerful. Interview was awkward. Interviewer Jane Hamsher was no match for him — seemed amateurish.

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Is the climate of modern journalism such that a journalist can “challenge” the administration in similar ways to that in which you challenged teh Nixon admin.?

Journalists have adopted the “go along to get along” game – also the access game. It’s become a perilous state – trading honest journalism for access to politicians. The underlying charge is that if you challenge, your patriotism is in question. Patriotic journalists will be on their feet asking and following up on the tough questions. J has a check/balance relationship to power. This sometimes happens still, but it’s becoming frighteningly rare.

What Journalism needs is a spine transplant.

Journalists tend to become integrated into the establishment, and get too close to the sources of power. Once they begin thinking they’re “team players,” they’ve come too close, and threaten the integrity of their responsibility. But journalists do wield some power, and can get a “wedge” in between themselves and the power people they’re covering. It takes guts to ask the right questions, and not to pass off the difficult work.

I don’t like the term “investigative reporter” because it’s redundant. And yet this animal is an endangered species.

What happens when the journalist knows that if s/he runs the piece, it will damage them, damage their boss, damage the big boss. So “I’ll just run it through the edit pass a bit, water it down some…”

What’s happned to long-form? When was the last time you saw an hour-long documentary outside of PBS?

Corporations have gotten larger and you get the feeling they’d be happy to ditch their news business entirely. But they know it’s a power base, so they retain it. They need regulatory relief from FCC, etc.

4-5 corps own 80% or more of the news market.

What does a good watchdog do? Goes for the throat. What does a lapdog do? Climbs up on your lap to get stroked. “There’s a good doggie.” A watchdog’s job is to bark at everything. That’s a critical role of the journalist, and it’s been shrinking.

Rather is concerned about anonymity – anyone can say anything about anyone, without any accountability (I’ve blogged about this before – thoughts on anonymity). But he also believes the marketplace will balance this over time.

It used to be incumbent on the source to be ask “On what basis are we taking here?” On record, on background, etc. (“On background” = OK to supply info but won’t identify you as the source.”)

[… had to leave session early …]

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