Q&A With Broadcast News Icon Dan Rather
Famed journalist Dan Rather delves into his historic career and what he’s learned about trying to predict presidential elections.
Here’s what you already know about Dan Rather: He spent 44 years with CBS News (24 years as anchor of CBS Evening News) and has reported on nearly every major news story of the last 50 years. Here’s what you may not know: He’s ridiculously humble. He’s funny. And he was turned down (repeatedly) by Kim Jong-il. Rather will share details of his riveting life experiences, as well as his take on current global news affairs, when he comes to Manhattanville College on June 24 as the second speaker in the school’s Castle Conversations series. But first, he spoke with us about what it’s like to be Dan Rather.
Q: Instead of retiring after leaving CBS News in 2005 (at age 75), you signed on with Mark Cuban’s cable network AXS TV as host of your own weekly news magazine. What keeps you going?
A: I have a great passion for what I do, and this is a very happy and productive time for me professionally. Journalism has been like constant graduate school for me —I’m always learning. There’s nothing I like better than a good story. Every morning, the first thing I’m thinking about is, ‘where is a good story where I can learn something?’
Q: This role must be so different than the high-profile anchor post you held for so long. Was it a tough adjustment?
A: In some ways. But fundamental journalism doesn’t change, and that’s what I’m doing now. I’m working on the deep-digging investigative reports that I love, and doing hour-long ‘legacy’ interviews with well-known people. Almost no one on TV does lengthy interviews anymore.
Q: Your career has spanned so many major moments in history. What are some of the most memorable stories you’ve covered?
A: I’ve been amazingly lucky and blessed to have been on a lot of big stories. My first big assignment was to cover Martin Luther King during the early stages of the Civil Rights Movement. This changed me as a person and as a professional. I was raised in a segregated environment in Texas, where institutionalized racism [was common]. Covering Dr. King made a lasting impact on me. I was in Dallas at the time of the Kennedy assassination. I was also in Vietnam covering the war for the better part of a year—my first time with sustained coverage of combat; you can’t do that and come out the same person. Tiananmen Square—breaking that story was one of the high watermarks for CBS News. Sometimes the competition beats you, and sometimes you beat the competition. Then, of course, 9/11 remains very vivid for me. Not many days go by that I don’t think about 9/11 in one way or the other.
Q: Any stories you didn’t get to report that you wish you had?
A: A goal for a very long time was to interview the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-il. I tried mightily but never succeeded. I also wanted to interview a pope—I’ve met a pope but never interviewed one. And, in the late ’50s/early ’60s, I wanted to be the first journalist into space. Well, I never made it into space, and, let’s face it, the hour grows short.
Q: You spent the bulk of your career in the pre-digital age. How do you think journalism has changed with the advent of the Internet and social media?
A: The fundamentals of news—quality news with integrity—don’t change. But the digital age has changed journalism tremendously and continues to change it. It’s fair to say we are still only in the first edges of this new era; we’re still trying to come to grips with it, both as a society and as journalists. The Internet is a tremendous source of good for education and information, but I worry about the anonymity with which someone can completely smear another person’s or institution’s reputation and not be accountable. Also, the Internet is the most powerful tool for propaganda in the history of humankind, and I’m afraid we’re -not educating our young people to be skeptical enough, to be able to recognize propaganda and to deal with it as such.
Q: Is there anyone out there today who can become ‘the next Dan Rather’?
A: It is much harder to establish, if you will, a strong brand name and identification because the audience today is so fractured. In my time, it was, ‘Who will be the next Edward Murrow or Walter Cronkite?’ And I would say to myself, ‘There is no way you will be either of those, you need to be the best Dan Rather you can be.’ So I hope young journalists will try to be the best they can be themselves. Also, let’s face it: Dan Rather wasn’t all that terrific anyway.
Q: After covering so many presidential elections, do you have any predictions for 2016?
A: I’m fond of one of my father’s sayings: ‘He who lives with a crystal ball learns to eat a lot of broken glass.’ And I’ve certainly eaten my share of broken glass over the years. Covering political campaigns teaches one that in politics, overnight is a long time, a week is forever, and trying to look ahead to an election that is a year away is just too early.