A Newsman’s Credo, Part I
VTR Date: December 9, 1994
Guest: Rather, Dan
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dan Rather
Title: Dan Rather A Newsman’s Credo
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.” That’s the way I sign on each week. The way I sign off is to say, ‘as an old friend used to say, ‘good night, and good luck,’ which is my own small way, but one, I must say, that profoundly satisfies my soul, that inner place where I live and harbor the thought and hope always that someday this instrument of mass communications that plays such a major role in our lives will be used for good, not for bad. Well, that old friend, and hero — for I’m not embarrassed to use that word, even when there is so little that is heroic about our times — was Edward R. Murrow, the great CBS newsman, gone so many, many years now. Indeed, one of my greatest pleasures came just a few years back when I was able to add two speeches by Ed Murrow to my Documentary History of the United States, which first came out more than four decades ago, even before Murrow helped me get into broadcasting.
Well, now one of those Murrow pieces, his famous 1958 Chicago address to the Radio and Television News Directors Association, has surfaced again, serving very much as the intellectual centerpiece of The Camera Never Blinks Twice: The Further Adventures of a Television Journalist, a new William Morrow book by Dan Rather, another renowned CBS newsman. And I’ve asked Mr. Rather to join me today to discuss not only television journalism, but also the impact of broadcasting generally. In fact, Mr. Rather, not so long ago, spoke to The Radio and Television News Directors Association himself, garnering ringing applause, a standing ovation, for speaking very much as Murrow had not so long ago.
I’d just like to read briefly from what he said at the time.
In any showdown between quality and substance on the one hand, and sleaze and glitz on the other, go with quality and substance. Every one of us in this room knows the difference, because we’ve been there. We’ve all gone Hollywood. We’ve all succumbed to the Hollywoodization of the news because we were afraid not to. We trivialize important subjects, come up with high-speed MTV style crosscuts, and just to cover our asses, we give the best slots to gossip and prurience.
Well, Dan Rather also quoted with his own daring from Edward R. Murrow’s insistence that “there is no suggestion here that networks or individual stations should operate as philanthropies. But I find nothing in the Bill of Rights,” said Murrow, “or the Communications Act which says that they must increase their net profits each year lest the republic collapse.”
But I must now ask Mr. Rather what good Ed’s speech accomplished in 1958 or his own now. Fair question?
RATHER: Fair question. And here’s the answer. I think it is one of the three or four most important things that Ed Murrow, in a remarkable life of accomplishment, accomplished. What that speech to the Radio and Television News Directors Association that Murrow gave, what it did was keep the flame alive. Yes, the flame has flickered, and I think now flickers dangerously close to being extinguished. Without Murrow’s speech, I’m not sure that the flame would’ve survived the next four or five years after Murrow made that speech. It was a critical time in the history of American television. And so I think that’s what it accomplished. And I have no reluctance to say that, with myself, as with so many other people who were at that time entering television news, an unknown world, all uncharted water, and in many important ways still is. What Murrow gave us was a polar star. When you lose your way, you want to know, where am I? Who am I? Whither the voyage, you can always look to the polar star of Murrow’s great speech, which is what I tried to do in my own small and, I fear, ineffectual way, was return to that navigational star, and to, I hope, gently suggest to others that we need to take a new bearing on that polar star.
HEFFNER: But you know, it’s interesting, Mr. Rather, that when you quote this in The Camera Never Blinks Twice, I know the story that there was silence when you finished, and then shortly thereafter you were aware of the fact that the men and women there were standing cheering, giving you that standing ovation. But what about the fear that you had addressed? You said, “the fear factor freezes us. The greatest shortage on every beat and at every newsroom in America is courage.” Now, they got up and. cheered. Dan Rather rekindled that flame. What good do you think that will do?
RATHER: I’m not sure it will do anything, over the long pull. In the short run, I think it did do at least some good. For at least a short period of time, in that it may have encouraged the few. I have no illusions, the few, to stop and think. What you know from your own experience? Richard, is this is among, next to courage, this is in about the shortest supply in every newsroom, particularly those who deal with daily news, is that habit of just stopping, even for a few seconds, to stop and think. And my hope at the time was, and it has been realized to at least a small degree, at least some few would begin to stop and think and say, as they did that night. I think what the silence was about was, “gosh, how do we respond to this?” It’s a truth. We all knew it to be truth, and I tried to pick, as Ed Murrow did, the right place at the right time. These were peers of mine. These were people who do, in one way or another, what I do. And I think they recognized, “whew, he’s speaking the truth, and we all know it.” It’s a tough truth, but it’s the truth. But there was a silence of, “how should we react to this?” And then, I thought the applause was not for myself, but it was for the ideas and the ideals that had been restated basically from Murrow’s original talk in this. Now, not everybody walked out of the room rededicated to stop, think, make a little noise about what we know is untrue. But some did. And I can see it in some places.
Again, I’m not kidding myself. This is, what, a year-plus later. I think things have gotten a little bit better. Not because of this speech. I think things have gotten a little bit better. I can see it from time to time and place to place, perhaps because I want to see it. But I think I see it.
I’ll give you a specific example. I think after the initial, tremendous over-coverage of the O.J. Simpson case, I think there was, among the better people in journalism, electronic and otherwise, a period in which they said, ‘you know, we’re really overboard on this.’ And you’ve seen less of the worst excesses in covering some things, as the Simpson case, than we saw in the beginning. Part of that may be because public interest seems to have waned a bit. No surprise there. But I see some encouraging signs. But I am an optimist by nature. And it may be because I want to see them.
HEFFNER: A few years, two years after his 1958 address, Ed was out.
RATHER: Yes. As I said in the speech, they cut him out, they cut him down, and they cut him up.
HEFFNER: How can you balance out the equities here? He spoke as a newsman. You speak as a newsman. You’re speaking about the masters of the media. You’re speaking about the conclusions drawn, the decisions made, not by fellow newsmen, but by the people who own the franchises.
RATHER: Well, there’s no reconciling this.
HEFFNER: They weren’t the ones who stood up and applauded, I imagine.
RATHER: No. Some of them, had they been there, I think, would have. I’m chided by colleagues of mine who say, “Dan, you’re really kidding yourself now.” But some of them would have. But many would not. And this is the problem. You see, you are cutting to the chase, which is what you should do and we all should do. There is, as Ed Murrow said, there’s a struggle between we want to do right, but we want to do well. The trying-to-do-right reporter in the newsroom sees that through one prism. Those who own the local television station, or, for that matter, own the network, see it through yet another prism. And this, in some ways, is where the two worlds collide. We all want to do right and do well. This was Ed Murrow’s point. It gets out of balance, and can get out of balance very quickly when you’re dealing with the huge sums of money that are involved in the profits of any commercial television enterprise in this country. Pick one. The worst commercial television makes a lot of money. The worst-run operation. It’s almost impossible to lose money in commercial television. Nobody really likes to talk about this very much. The problem is, it isn’t, well, we have to make money. That’s not the problem. Making money is not the problem with commercial television. The problem — I see this from, admittedly, the prism of my own prejudices, which is a newsroom prejudice — but the pressure’s always on to make increasing sums of money each quarter and each year, that the profits have to be better every time around. I have been there. These stories are not apocryphal. You walk in to a manager — not necessarily a leader; there’s a difference between a leader and a manager — walk in to a manager and say, “we have this idea to do this program. We must do this program, because the public needs to understand what’s happening in — pick a place; Bosnia right now would be a good example, the manager will look you in the eye, and has looked me in the eye, “Dan, you’re right. I’d love to do this program. It needs to be done. But let me tell you, my back’s to the wall here. Our ratings are not as good this quarter as they were last quarter. And if the ratings are not better next quarter, I’m out of here. And you’re talking about a program that is going to play next quarter or maybe the quarter after that. “So get out of here and don’t talk this madness.”
Now, here’s the point of taking you through that. I’m not sure that viewers understand that that’s the reality. It’s the reality, yes, for the Dan Rathers of the world, but even more so for the local station news director, or the local anchor who does read, study, and really wants to do right. You’re constantly butted up against wanting to do well.
HEFFNER: Well, let me ask you then whether there was a kind of copping-out when you read with approval from Ed’s address, and what he said, to begin with, was, “there is no suggestion here that networks or individual stations should operate as philanthropies.” But in fact, perhaps it’s only philanthropies in which you will not find the question, “what did you do for me this fiscal week or month or year? Did you do better?” I remember very well, in my CBS days, the point was, if you aren’t increasing each year the profit, then you were well on your way out.
HEFFNER: So, isn’t it a copout to say that it’s possible within the context of the present system to do what you think, as a premier newsman, should be done?
RATHER: No, I don’t think so. And about this, you and I…
HEFFNER: Explain to me. Please.
RATHER: …may disagree about this. I do believe in the marketplace. I do believe that competition, competition even, yes, even for ratings and for profit, can, and in some important ways, makes us all better. Here’s why I don’t think it’s a cop-out. There was a time, and it hasn’t been that long ago, when there was a much stronger element of this kind of thinking. Yes, I own a commercial television operation, whether it be a small station or a huge network. And yes, I’m constantly trying to get the ratings up and constantly getting the profit up. But I do have a public responsibility to deliver public service. Now, let’s not kid ourselves. Part of that was because, at the time, there was government regulation. The federal government…
HEFFNER: A real FCC
RATHER: Yes. There was a threat. If you don’t do that, your license to operate your station — and while no network was licensed, as we know, the core business of networks are the owned and operated stations that they have in very large markets, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and so on — well, there was always this threat, sometimes only implied, but there was always the threat that if you didn’t subscribe to that notion, which is to say, yes, you’re supposed to make profits, yes, you’re supposed to drive for higher ratings, but you do have a responsibility to perform public service, and news was seen as the core of that public-service component. Here’s the point: that I don’t think it’s a cop-out to say that the best of people in commercial broadcasting can yet be brought back around to the idea that of course we drive for profits, of course we drive to deliver it to our stockholders, of course we want ever-increasing ratings. But when it comes to two percent, five percent, ten percent, 15 percent of our schedule, we have an obligation to perform public service. Part of what I got out of Ed Murrow — and I without apology say that I hold him to this day in tremendous awe — is Murrow had the idea, I think he got it out of newspapering, that a public journal is a public trust, and that what everybody in broadcasting holds, some in larger measure than others, is a public trust. So if you’re going to meet the responsibilities of that public trust, then you have to deliver a certain amount of public service.
Now, what’s happened, particularly from somewhere in the mid-1980’s on forward to the time that we now talk, is where before, say, somewhere to the early to mid 1980’s, you could go in to the worst of television station managers and get their attention, at least their attention, by saying, I’m here to talk about public service. We need to perform this public service. Now, we were very close, very close, to having entertainment values so overwhelm everything in television that nobody will even listen to you when you talk public service. That’s one reason I wanted to speak out.
Now, this is, you know it’s not original with me. It’s not particularly profound. Yes, I got most of it from Ed Murrow. This is what I talk about with the flame. What I want all of us to keep in mind is you do have a public responsibility. Not everything, not everything can or should be put through the strainer of saying, “well, will it help our ratings, and will it increase profits?” But we’re very close to the point, very close to the point in commercial broadcasting that nobody in a decision-making capacity will even talk about it.
HEFFNER: You see, that’s — maybe it’s not polite on my part — and you are my guest, and I’m grateful for that — to talk about cop-out — but you seem to pose an impossibility. You talk about deregulation that has taken place. You talk about the ‘Hollywoodization,’ as you said in your speech before the Association. You talk about competition, increasing competition; not decreasing competition.
RATHER: Oh, no. It’s exploding competition.
HEFFNER: Then whither, from whence, comes the return to that notion of, as you embrace it, as Ed Murrow embraced it and passed it on to us, that there are two problems here, one is profit, and the other is pride in public service? Where does that come from? What rekindles it?
RATHER: Well, I’m pausing only because of some fear, speaking of fear, that this could be misunderstood. It comes from, first of all, a love of country. I still believe that there are enough people around, even among what used to be called the “captains of industry ,” who are beginning to understand that in a way the whole country is falling victim to Hollywoodization. Not just news, not just what’s on television. But something’s happening in the country. And that if each of us within ourselves doesn’t start saying, “listen, part of my life has to be dedicated to something larger than just ever-greater profits or ever greater ratings,” that’s where it will come from. And about that you can say, well, I’m overly idealistic about it and saying, “Dan, Rather, I wish it were true. But it isn’t going to happen.” And I think I can see and hear and feel some of that happening in my own business. They are small indicators. And I see them myself. And I’m very happy that, let’s face it, in many ways I’ve been where I’m going. That at this, at my age and stage of my career, to begin to see some people who not very many years ago — I’m talking about in the late ‘80’s, early ‘90’s –said, “Listen, Dan,” in effect, “get out of the way. What we’re about are ratings and profits.” And I was saying, “well, you know, the country really does need for people to understand what happens in places like China.” There’s a tremendous story in China. You very seldom see it on television, because there is that school of thought that says it’s a long way from Broadway, and foreign news doesn’t sell, international coverage is passe, all of those things. I see the pendulum not swinging back, but just barely nudging back to enough people. And it only takes a few good people — a few good people can make a decisive difference — who say, “listen, for this time, ratings won’t matter. For this time, profits won’t matter. It’s too important to put it only through the Hollywood consideration, the entertainment values. There’s too much at stake.” Now, if I’m wrong about that, then all is lost. But I don’t think all is lost.
HEFFNER: You know, the funny thing is, sometime back, Robert Redford was here, we were talking about his film, Quiz Show, and about the writer/producer/filmmaker as historian, because he played the role of historian. And then one can be critical or acclaim his history. But he was speaking about television, and you remember the line in the film where, “we thought we were going to get television, and it got us.” You talk about the Hollywoodization, he spoke about television. But I think perhaps on your part you’ve been much more willing to talk about your own medium as well. And what you see is the way in which the two are coming together. We laughed, many of us, when Mrs. Reagan spoke about, “just say no.” But, in a sense, you’re saying there are more and more individuals in the news business who are willing now to say, “no, we won’t go further down the profit path, because there is something else, another path to follow.”
RATHER: Yes. And I see that. I wouldn’t kid anybody. And I try very hard not to kid myself. We’re not talking about a lot of people. But again, I come back to, I don’t think it takes a lot of people. Part of what I tried to talk about in Miami, this little talk, at one point I said, “listen, I’m not talking about some hero who is willing to take the spear in the chest. I understand, and I want almost desperately for viewers to understand this reality.” It’s one reason I wrote The Camera Never Blinks Twice, and I want people to understand what it’s like, what it’s really like on the inside as opposed to what they may perceive it to be. And there is a great deal of difference. Your average local station news director — we’re not talking about people who operate at the network level, who have it better, bad as people such as myself may think it is on any given day — your average local station news director is a person who got into journalism because they were idealistic. That person, he or she, metaphorically, almost every day has their back to the wall, their shirttails on fire, the bill collectors at the door, and there’s somebody with a straight razor right at their throat. And, yes, little driplets of blood are beginning to come down the straight razor. What I mean by that is the pressures on them are enormous. It’s the overnights. We now, there was a time when ratings were looked at once every three months. Then it was they were looked at every month, and they were looked at every week. Now, every night, the so-called overnights. I’ve seen last night’s overnights, and I’m going to tell you our newscast last night was down three-tenths of one percent. This is the reality for news directors all over the country. Now, you led last night with that expose on some damned thing that happened in City Hall. Our competition led with the O.J. Simpson case or the Bobbit case or the Menendez case. When are you going to wise up? See? This is the reality.
Now, what happened for a very long time, that being the reality, the news director would say, “yes, sir,” or, “yes, ma’am. I got you. I understand.” Then he’d go back to the newsroom and say, “let me tell you folks, we’re leading for the next five days with the Bobbit case or the Menendez case,” whatever the case at the moment happened to be.
Now I do find there are increasing numbers of people — it’s not a wave, it’s not a whole counter-revolution — but one by one there are people who are saying, “I’m going to say no. I’m going to say, ‘okay, our overnights were down last night, but I’m asking you sir, or madam, to understand that what we led with last night was important. And while it may have taken us down on the overnights, over the long pull, if we keep our credibility up, I’ll be able to deliver ratings for you.”
HEFFNER: That’s a great note on which to end, and you, of all people, will appreciate the fact that I’m getting the signal that our time is up. But will you promise to sit where you are, and we’ll do another program, which will be on the following week?
RATHER: Sure. I’d be glad to.
HEFFNER: Thanks. Thanks for joining me today, Dan Rather.
RATHER: Thank you, Richard.
HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time too. And if you’d like to share your thoughts about our program today, please write, THE OPEN MIND. P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts, send $2.00 in check or money order.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”