Rather: ‘The Public is Not Well-Served by Political Coverage as it is Today’

Longtime CBS News broadcaster Dan Rather came to The Poynter Institute this week to talk about what it was like to cover some of the world’s biggest stories throughout the past half-century.

I sat down with him to hear his thoughts on the state of the news industry and how to improve it. Rather shared his take on the untold stories in politics; the effectiveness of sites that fact-check the news; and the ways in which his experience with bloggers during the Killian documents controversy still shapes his view of them today.

Big businesses’ negative impact on political news coverage

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Rather, who is now anchor and managing editor of HDNet’s “Dan Rather Reports,” said too much of today’s political coverage is reduced to horse-race reporting and public opinion polling. Such polls are valuable to the extent that they can provide a snapshot of a given moment, he said, but that moment changes.

The 78-year-old advocated for deeper investigative reporting that looks at the money involved in politics, and he suggested that journalists ask: “Who is giving what to whom, expecting to get what?”

‘”The public is not well-served by political coverage as it is today,” said Rather, who did not exclude himself from this criticism. “In many important ways, very big business is in bed with big government and whoever’s in power in Washington, whether it be Republicans or Democrats … and this seriously affects news coverage.”

Too often, he said, political coverage is governed by the large corporate entities that own news organizations and that don’t always have the public’s best interest in mind.

“An independent, a truly independent and truly free press, a fiercely independent but necessary press,” Rather said, “is the red beating heart of freedom and democracy, and it’s absolutely essential to our system.”

Political fact-checking sites need to expand reach

Rather said he doesn’t think PolitiFact and other efforts to fact-check political news reach a wide enough audience, despite efforts to expand. Still, he applauds them.

“This is what every good newspaper, every television station, every network ought to be doing. But in so many cases — it’s not unanimous, there are some exceptions — but by and large, this is not what they do,” Rather said. “So often, particularly covering politics, enterprises that describe themselves as journalistic enterprises, and journalists who describe themselves as journalists, in fact just become transmission belts.”

He said journalists can quickly become transcribers who simply write down what they hear without asking tough questions, partly out of fear that they’ll seem unpatriotic.

Leading up to the Iraq war, most journalists blindly accepted the government’s statements without checking to see if the information matched up with the facts, he said. (There were some exceptions, Rather said, such as McClatchy’s Washington bureau, which didn’t accept the Bush administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.)

“What happened in the run-up to the Iraq war is that the administration of that time commanded the narrative, and the press bought that narrative,” Rather said. “And this led to, by any reasonable objective analysis, a strategic blunder of historic proportions.”

“Highly partisan, political” nature of the blogosphere

Rather has acknowledged that he never realized the power of bloggers until after he reported the infamous story about the Jerry B. Killian documents that criticized Bush’s service in the Army National Guard. At the time, conservative bloggers questioned whether the documents were falsified and began a debate about it online. No one has yet to prove the authenticity of the documents.

Rather said the Killian controversy shows how the blogosphere lacks accountability and can be used for “highly partisan, political and ideological purposes.” He stood by his belief that, despite what all the bloggers said at the time, the Killian story was true.

“It was true then, it’s true now, and evidence of that is neither the president nor anyone close around him, so far as I know, (and I think I would know if they had), has ever denied the narrative of the story,” Rather said. “I don’t seek to go over this ground all over again, but I do think it’s important to point out that the story was true, and for those who didn’t like the story, for their partisan, political, or ideological reasons, that’s the reason they had to attack it so fiercely and, as it turned out, so effectively, I’m sorry to say.”

Need for new business models to replace old one

Despite the growing influence of online news, Rather said he still thinks we’re in the early stages of the Internet’s potential. He called for more original, shoe-leather reporting on the Internet and less aggregated content, particularly when it comes to international and investigative coverage.

The old business model for news is crumbling, he said, and the Internet has not yet risen in its place. He’s said before that he wishes President Barack Obama would form a commission to help save journalism jobs and establish new business models.

“In the past when we’ve had these crises, for the automobile business, for the early stages of the microchip business, for the steel business and what have you, it’s not that unusual for the president to call together the best minds and say we may or may not have the government intervene,” Rather said. “I thought it would be a good idea for him to call together some of the brightest people in the country, including those in journalism but not confined to that, and say, let’s see what we can do.”

The idea has not gone anywhere, and Rather said he doesn’t think it will anytime soon.

Social media is “increasingly important” in politics

Twitterers criticized Rather earlier this year for making what some believed to be a racially-charged comment about Obama’s efforts to get health care legislation passed. Rather later responded to the buzz on Twitter, saying, “Much of what we tweet, or post, or chat away at under the guise of news, are distractions.”

Rather told me he’s since found that, in general, social networking sites can be an important tool for journalists.

“I think it’s increasingly important in politics and in business and in personal relationships to have these so-called social media. And I think there’ll be more of them, not fewer,” he said. “Some of them will go by the wayside. Twitter is the big thing now. Who knows what’s going to be post-Twitter.”

Though Rather has both a Twitter and Facebook account for “Dan Rather Reports,” he said he doesn’t spend much time updating them because he’d rather be doing what he likes best — being out in the field reporting.

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