November 11, 2016

A few days after an election that was “nasty enough to gag a buzzard,” Dan Rather offered some thoughts about what journalists need to do next.

Rather, former news anchor at “CBS Evening News,” spoke Friday night at a community conversation held by Poynter in St. Petersburg, Florida. Included in the audience were members of the Edward R. Murrow Program for Journalists, with journalists from 70 countries.

“This is a once-in-a-generation election,” Rather said, “because I think it will reverberate for quite a long time.”

Before this election, Rather said, it was a given that fact and truth counted for something. Politicians were held accountable. The country has never had a campaign that went as low as this one did, Rather said, or one where both candidates both had such negative approval ratings.

But it’s worth remembering, he said to the citizens and international visitors in the audience, that freedom of the press is enshrined in our Bill of Rights.

“In our system of government and in our society, a free and independent, truly independent, fiercely independent press is the red beating heart of democracy.”

With a few exceptions, Rather said, the press didn’t distinguish itself in this election. Now, it’s gut-check time.

The press now must do three things to cover President-elect Donald Trump, he said.

One, ask tough questions. Two, “and perhaps more important, ask tough follow-up questions,” he said, not for the benefit of circulation or ratings or demographics, “but because these questions need to be asked.” And three, the press has to dig deep with investigative reporting.

It’s gone a bit out of style, Rather said, “but it’s going to be needed over the next year and a half to two years in particular.”

All of that has to happen in an era that Rather admitted was a different one from his own, when deadlines happened every day, every other day if you were a star. Now, journalists are expected to tweet, Facebook, blog and more.

“There’s a deadline every nanosecond,” he said.

And that leaves less time for actual reporting.

Still, he said, it’s hard to think of a craft, profession or skill whose standards have endured for so long.

Rather took questions from the international journalists in the audience, but his answers may resonate with American journalists now, too. What advice did he have for journalists who feel threatened by their government?

“Some days, in some ways, danger is my business,” Rather said. “That’s what the craft is about.”

He knows what it’s like to balance journalism with family and bills and obligations. He had to make those choices himself, including trekking into Afghanistan in 1980 after the Soviet Union invaded. His wife and daughter asked him not to go, Rather told the audience, but he told them it might be one of the great stories of his generation, and he wanted to get it.

There are a lot of downsides to journalism, Rather said.

“But when it’s at its best and you’re part of it, you have a sense of being part of something bigger than yourself,” he said.

The evening’s last question: What advice did he have for women to help stay in journalism?

To be a journalist and to be a good journalist, Rather said, requires passion. Do you have it? Can you develop it? And then, can you sustain it?

Journalists might not make a lot of money, the odds of being famous are so small it’s not even worth thinking about, he said, “but you can live an adventurous life, and at the end you may say some of what I did counted. Some of it mattered.”

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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