A Newsman's Credo, Part II

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dan Rather
Title: Dan Rather A Newsman’s Credo
Part II
VTR: 12/9/94

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And this is the second of two programs with Dan Rather, the renowned CBS newsman whose new William Morrow Book, The Camera Never Blinks Twice, The Further Adventures of a Television Journalist, uses very much as its intellectual centerpiece. Edward R. Murrow’s famous 1958 Chicago address to the Radio and Television News Directors Association, in which my hero, and Mr. Rathers, wrote about broadcasters that he found nothing in the Bill of Rights or the Communications Act which says that they must increase their net profits each year, lest the republic collapse. Indeed, my guest spoke as boldly and as pointedly in his own recent address to the Radio and Television News Directors Association. And last time I asked him to what avail, both Murrow and Rather. So let’s probe now even further into today’s broadcast journalism.

Mr. Rather, the other day, I think I was telling you, before Jack Rosenthal, of The New York Times, and I were, not debating, but exchanging views before a group of young students who were going to debate on this subject in time. On the subject of has, or, have mass media in this country served the American people well. And I wonder what your answer to that would be, not as a debater.

RATHER: Overall, and in the main, I think the answer is yes. I suppose that’s the expected answer from me. But beyond that, as Dr. Henry Kissinger once said in another context, “I think it has the added advantage of being true.” Yes, I think that the American public has been served by mass media. I’m very worried about some current trends, including those of the effect of what I’ve called the Hollywoodization of the news on my craft, my profession, which is journalism. But I think the answer is yes.

HEFFNER: Journalism, generally, then, if I were to extend the question? And in my semi-debate with Jack I said the word “enough” has to be there. Has it served it well enough?

RATHER: No.

HEFFNER: Okay. Then what would you add?

RATHER: Well, it certainly has not served it well enough. Because I think the public service part of the formula, journalism does in many ways exist to produce profits for owners and stockholders. The public-service quotient has been reduced tremendously. And certainly not well enough does it serve the public. And increasingly, let me put it this way, if it was true in let’s say 1957, just before Edward R. Murrow made his never-to-be-forgotten address to the Radio and Television News Directors in Chicago, if it was true, at that time, that, say, 15 percent of the overall schedule at most radio and television stations was given over to what we might describe as public service — that, by the way, does not mean it didn’t make money; I would include news broadcasts in there. If it was 15 percent in 1957. It’s no more than one-and-a half or two-percent now, in my judgment. And soon to disappear unless we begin to talk about it, debate it. And, this is the most important thing, I think. Richard, get a consensus among the American viewing and listening public that they will not stand for what’s happening, which is that the only standard by which anybody’s work is measured — is, does it increase ever-increasing circulation or ratings and ever-increasing profits?

HEFFNER: But just a second. You say the American people will not stand. If they weren’t standing for it, they’d be turning it off. In fact, the broadcasters frequently say they’re simply meeting the expressed interests — maybe not the public interest — but the expressed interests of the American public. What public response could there be other than applause for what’s given?

RATHER: Well, this is where I’ve gotten in some trouble with, you mention Jack Rosenthal, and others at The New York Times. One of the principal critics at The New York Times has written of me, in effect, Rather, is Don Quixote Here. And this is almost a direct quote: “the public is demanding what it is getting. And who is Mr. Rather or anybody else to say that the public wants anything else?” Well, I don’t agree with that. First of all, there’s a mistake to talk about the public as one. Listen, this is the United States of America. This is a country made up of individuals, a lot of individual thought, so even if you take — and I do not –but even if you take as a given, this is most people, would rather watch something about the Bobbits or the Menendezes or the O.J. Simpsons than they would about Bosnia or Somalia or Haiti, even if you take that as a given, there is a very large segment of the American public that wants to know. That doesn’t simply want to be titillated. They may at any given hour want to be titillated. They may love to read gossip. But they also want something of real substance. Well, if you say that the common denominator is who, if the mass wants what’s cheap, then that’s the only thing you put on television, say, this is flawed thinking. See, but one reason I’m encouraged, Richard, is that increasingly, I think anybody in commercial — and we’re now talking about commercial television — television, is going to have to choose what audience you want to appeal to as your core audience. The New York Times doesn’t have as large a circulation as the National Enquirer or the Star. Yet The New York Times is a very profitable enterprise. So it will become with broadcasting, in my opinion.

But we’ve strayed from your core point. You say, “listen, if the public wants all this other stuff, why not just give it to them?” And the answer is, you know, it is important what you think of yourself.

HEFFNER: Yes, but it’s not so much “why not just give it to them?” It’s — I’ll take the Walter Goodman position now — why be critical when what the broadcaster is doing, seemingly, is responding to the needs of what mutual friends of ours once called “cultural democracy?” We go in and we vote. And we don’t say that there are some people who don’t want Richard Nixon, or there are some people who don’t want Lyndon Johnson. The majorities have voted as they have. So with cultural democracy, switch the dial.

RATHER: Ah, but we know from the key to democracy, and you know this from your own terrific book, A Documentary History of the United States, we know this: if the key to a viable democracy is respect for the minority, and while it is true that you say, “okay, people vote, and we’re going to have Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton as president,” that’s true. But you don’t say, “that’s the only thing that the country thinks about. That’s the only way the country operates over the next four years in the case of a Presidential election.” Now, this is exactly my point about what I’d call “quality journalism.” Or integrity-based journalism. Simply because at any given moment someone says, “well, most people don’t want this doesn’t mean that you eliminate it. This is my argument with Walter Goodman and others who make this an, I think, very flawed argument.

There is another thing. It’s sometimes people don’t know what they want until they’re given an opportunity to sample it. Sometime people don’t know what they’re interested in until and unless they’re shown why they should be interested. And I’ll give you a very good example. Before the events of Tiananmen Square in China at the end of the 1980’s, if you went out and used Walter Goodman or anybody else, the cultural democracy thing, you went out to the malls and said, “here are a list of 35 stories. Tell me which ones you’re interested in.” China would have been 33 or 34. So, if you took the view, if you carry this to its ultimate, and said, “Well, okay, people are not interested in China, therefore, the CBS Evening News shouldn’t do anything about China. CBS News shouldn’t be in China. We have a cultural democracy here. We’ve gone out, we’ve taken a survey, we’ve taken a poll, people say they aren’t interested in China. So don’t cover China. No. But when we thought we smelled a story in China and we went and we said to people, “listen, a country of well over a billion people, a country that may be a major power in the Twenty-first century, a great volcano of change is bubbling up from the bottom.” you know what? China went then from number 33 and number 34 on the list of stories people were interested in, right up to the top. Because, why? Because they were shown why they should be interested in it.

Now, follow the thought through. Taken to its ultimate, this business of, well, ask people what they want, and if they say they want the O.J. Simpson case, then give them that and give them only that, is very flawed thinking, and, I think, quite dangerous thinking for a democracy such as ours.

HEFFNER: Then how does a man with his head on quite straight as yours — and I say that because I agree with you so totally — how do you become a supporter of cameras in the courts, which does seem to me to play to the prurient interests so much of the American people.

RATHER: Well, you and I are on different sides of this, but this is one of those cases when I want to say because I believe it. I may be wrong. You may be right. There is a legitimate on-going argument, debate, to be held about whether cameras in the courtroom are a good idea. I believe in the main and overall that they are a good idea, because I do think they increase public understanding of what happens inside the court, and because I do think that they are an important part of the system of checks and balances, of making sure that we don’t go to the proverbial star-chamber kind of hearing. But, we do have to very carefully weigh the rights of the accused against those things that I have just outlined, including the public’s right to know. And I think this is one on which honest people can differ. And I’m less certain that I’m right about this than almost any ongoing debate in journalism. There is a very strong case to be made for excluding cameras in the courtroom.

HEFFNER: Which doesn’t present us with the spectra of star-chamber proceedings. After all, the scribblers are there. The courtrooms are still open.

RATHER: Yes, but the scribblers are there. You see, I have some difficulty with this argument. That’s true.

HEFFNER: In distinguishing between the two?

RATHER: Yes, I do. Because that puts it, the best scribbler in the world cannot take you to the courtroom as television can do. The scribbler is, after all, one step removed from the reality of what’s happening in the courtroom. It’s one thing for the scribbler to describe the judge and the testimony; it’s another thing for people to see it as its happening. And this is the difficulty I have with this subject. Because I think the unfiltered coverage, if you will, the camera in the courtroom is better than the best scribbler in the wor1d. My difficulty comes with the question of whether having the camera in the courtroom changes the reality inside the room. That’s my difficulty with it, and why I say that, you may be right.

HEFFNER: It’s funny. Margaret Mead was here once and talked about cameras, not in the courtroom, talked about television. She said, “this is wonderful, wonderful instrument.” She said, “from now on, they will never be able to pull the wool over our eyes, because the camera’s eye is there and sees all.” You don’t really believe that, do you? In your own news program?

RATHER: No. And here’s why.

HEFFNER: You’re doing the selecting, your editor is doing the selecting, your director is doing the selecting.

RATHER: No, I don’t believe that. And you never met anybody who had more respect for Margaret Mead than I do. But about this I respectfully disagree. And beyond what you’ve just described, there’s one thing that’s hard to get people to understand, but as a practitioner I know only too well, and there’s a metaphor the late Eric Severeid used, and I thought used tellingly, the problem with the camera, as I’ve written, the camera does not blink. It is an unblinking eye, and it keeps focused. But, visualize the camera as more or less a flashlight. With the flashlight I can show you what’s at the end of the beam of the light. That’s what I do with the camera. But you do not see what’s happening off to the side, up, and below. Television has difficulty with perspective. Television has difficulty with depth. We’re at our best in taking you there, yes, taking you inside of the courtroom. And we are very good at it. But, it isn’t true that no one can ever fool you, because people can manipulate the flashlight beam. It does make a difference where you shine the beam. Shine the beam over here and you see one thing. Ah, but if you were to take it over here, you might see something else again.

HEFFNER: In the courtroom too?

RATHER: Well, in the courtroom this is — be careful here — yes, in the courtroom too. But, the courtroom is a more confined space than, say, the Vietnam War. And you have a better chance in the courtroom of the beam, if you will,” going all over the room than you do in something such as a war, or, the most difficult area for television is ideas. As Sevareid once wrote, “you cannot take a picture of an idea. And what you can’t take a picture of is suffers on television.”

HEFFNER: Let me ask you about something else. We talked, in our previous program, about deregulation. The question of the Fairness Doctrine. I know broadcasters had always spoken about – I’m not talking about how cold this studio is now — but about the chilling effect of the Fairness Doctrine. As a long, long time newsman, what’s your own feeling about that?

RATHER: I’ve changed my opinion about this. I have given great pause about what’s happened since the effort to diminish, if not demolish, the Fairness Doctrine. Some version of the Fairness Doctrine may be necessary if you’re going to have anywhere close to a level playing field for debate.

The best evidence is what’s happening now with so-called talk radio. If you tune in to so-called talk-radio, which I try to do, because I do think it’s one way to stay in touch — you will hear in some cases, hour after hour of the most racially divisive talk, the most incendiary racial talk that you can imagine. With nothing to balance it off. Nothing that says, “wait a minute.” You hear hour after hour of it. So I find myself saying, I say, “has to be somebody who says, ‘listen, you can’t do this hour after hour, all day long without putting, at least, giving a little bit of daylight of thought to another side.’” So I’m troubled. Too many words to say. I think we may have been too quick to do away with the Fairness Doctrine.

HEFFNER: But what about the reasons why so ma y broadcasters were in favor of doing away with it? The chilling effect.

RATHER: I thought at the time, I subscribed to that argument at the time, and I thought there was something to that. Listen, you need to have unfettered debate. But now we get back to who controls the medium. My concern, the chilling effect argument was, well, listen, if you have a requirement, this Fairness Doctrine, then this encourages people not to put on controversial subjects, not to have people speak their mind because they’re afraid they’re going to have to put on somebody from the other side. We went from that, if that was too far in one direction, and I think it probably was, we’re now very rapidly reaching the point when we’re too far in the other direction, because we have only one point of view. I used racism because I’m very deeply concerned about some of the things that are said on radio about race now. Those who were in favor of doing away with the Fairness Doctrine would say, “we.” That’s the way people talk, and that’s what’s out there.” But, I get back to that. If you have four or five hours a day of only one point of view, the point of view at base being, “listen, they,” whomever they may be, black people, Hispanic people, women, or whatever,” are causing all the problems, and you don’t have somebody else who says, “wait a minute, this is very flawed thinking,” I think, begin to worry about discourse in a democracy such as ours.

HEFFNER: Mr. Rather, do you think there are others, a substantial number of others in the field, who are beginning to feel that way, too?

RATHER: No, I don’t. I’d have to be candid with you and say that I’m in a distinct minority in expressing to you what I’ve just said. I don’t find a lot of other people in the field. Indeed, I find most of the people in the field who say, “Dan, you’re dead-wrong about this. That doing away with the Fairness Doctrine was one of the best things that happened to broadcasting.

HEFFNER: You know, in reading this book, and reading your previous books, The Camera Never Blinks Once, it Doesn’t Blink Twice, and I’m sure it won’t blink a third time….

RATHER: (Laughter).

HEFFNER: I know your own feeling about the potential for this instrument, broadcast news, as an educational instrument. What responsibilities do you think that the… well, strike that. Let me ask the question another way. At times I’ve asked the question of news-people whether you aren’t historians, and whether you don’t have the professional obligations of the historian for measure, for balance, for fairness. And I wonder — I get a very negative answers usually when I ask that question. I get the answer, “we’re not educators, we’re not historians; we’re newsmen.” What’s your response?

RATHER: Well, my answer is along those lines. However, I don’t want to give you a negative answer. I do think we have an obligation for fairness. I think what you’ll find with most journalists, including this one, is a little reluctance to describe ourselves as anything but a journalist. I’m a reporter.

HEFFNER: Why?

RATHER: Well, a lot of reasons. Not the least of which is that, you know, the worst thing you hear said about a reporter is he has pretensions. So if you start talking about being a historian, we’re a long way from reporters as being seen as a, you know, another whiskey-breathed, nicotine-stained, stubble-bearded fellow with his shirttail out. We’re a long way from that. But still — and I include myself in this — there’s a reluctance to say we’re anything as fancy as historian. What we do, we do make that proverbial first draft of history. There is a component of the historian in what we do. But journalism is something separate and apart, except that I think that it’s less than being a historian. But, there is a requirement for fairness. I don’t like the word “balance” — too long to go into — but if you say “balance,” “balance” to me says, “well, okay, if you run 14 inches in your newspaper about one side, then you must run 14 inches on the other side. Or if you give 14 minutes of a broadcast — that’d be a long time in today’s television – to one subject, then you must give it. Look, not every story has two sides. Some stories only have one side. Some stories have 14 sides. So balance, I think, is a dangerous word for us. But fairness. Absolutely. You know? The twin pillars of journalism of integrity are accuracy and fairness.

Now, your point. When we are making this first draft of history, I do think that we have an obligation to be as fair as possible. And one of the great failings — and I include myself in this — is too often we forget that.

HEFFNER: Don’t you feel that the first draft is, in a very real sense, the most important draft? It is the most memorable draft?

RATHER: Well, it’s, in many ways and many times it is the most memorable. I’m reluctant to say it is the most important, because I think this is one difference between historians and journalists. Certainly a first impression is a very important impression, and in some ways is the most important impression. If you go to a new country, sometimes your first impressions are the most vivid and the most important. But historians have an obligation to go back and look at things with perspective. A tough word for any journalist. Particularly with television — I said before and I say again — we have difficulty with perspective. And when you’re writing history on the fly, when we’re making this first draft, it’s very difficult to give context, perspective, and background. That’s what the historian, with the benefit of hindsight, and the benefit of documents, which your average, to take one example, your average journalist never gets a chance to see as he’s writing this history on the fly, I think the historian has a better shot at true accuracy than writing the first draft as journalists do.

HEFFNER: I know that CBS was in favor of the National News Council, and that The New York Times essentially, eventually killed it by its lack of support. What did you think of the concept? Not of that particular council, necessarily?

RATHER: When the late Richard Salant first proposed it at CBS News — I can’t, and don’t want to be hypocritical, and I couldn’t be if I wanted to – because the record shows — I was very reluctant about it. But I’ve come to believe that something akin to a news council, if not a National News Council, then, a series of State News Councils, would be a good idea. And here’s why: It is true that too often people with grievances against journalists or journalistic organizations are left with only one option. That is to go to court. I think there should be other options. There should be some way for a person who believes they have been wronged by a story or an organization, or for that matter, even if they haven’t been wronged, say, “they got it wrong.” To have some forum short of the courts in which they can go in and say, “listen, hear my case, get a hearing, and have somebody make a judgment.” I understand the reluctance of The Times, and it is true, The Times killed the National News Council because they wouldn’t, they said, “no way, no-how, not this day or any other day – and that’s basically the reason that we don’t have one. But what they were afraid of — and I shared that fear in the beginning, and to a degree I share it now — is that this becomes an outside force on the independent news organization to force you to take somebody else’s judgment of what’s news or how the news should be treated. But, look, I think we’re well beyond that. We have to have some way that people can call journalists such as myself to account that is short of the courts. I’ve gone through a libel trial. Went all the way through it to a jury verdict. It’s not a pleasant experience. We won the case. We should have won the case. But I did find myself saying, you know, “this has been a tremendous expense for everybody. It’s taken up a lot of time. And this case could have been better handled by hearing it at some other level in some other forum, and having an independent judgment made: Yes, there is a case here; or, no, there isn’t. The short of it is, I favored some kind of National News Council…

HEFFNER: Let me ask…

RATHER: …but I don’t think we’re anywhere near getting it.

HEFFNER: That was the question I was going to ask. In other words, others in your profession are not as convinced as you are.

RATHER: It’s a dead issue.

HEFFNER: They’re back where you were.

RATHER: It’s an absolute dead issue. I don’t hear anybody discussing it. This is the first time I’ve heard it even raised in, I would say, at least four or five years.

HEFFNER: Well, you see how behind the times I am.

RATHER: (Laughter).

HEFFNER: Oh perhaps, ahead of times.

RATHER: Ahead of the times.

HEFFNER: Because you seem to feel that something like that is necessary.

RATHER: Yes, I do think it’s necessary. And I do think in this case, you are head of the times. Because I think, in the future, that something akin to the National News Conference will come into being. To repeat for emphasis, you have to have some forum short of the courts I which people who have a grievance about journalism have at least a chance to hear. I think it would be healthy for us in journalism– about this I disagree with those at the New York Times – I think I would be healthy for us if people had some say. I sometimes find people who say, “listen, I don’t want to take you to court. I just want somebody to hear my argument.” And you say, “well, write a letter, lady.” And then you get into just answering the letter sort off-handedly.

HEFFNER: Dan Rather, you know, I know people can watch you every week night, and they can read you too, in The Camera Never Blinks Twice. And I just want to tell you how pleased I am that you were willing to join me here on THE OPEN MIND. Thanks very much.

RATHER: Thanks very very much. Thanks for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our intriguing guest today and our program, please write: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDA Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2 in check or money order.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

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