Thursday, October 18, 2012

Q&A with Dan Rather

Dan Rather, a longtime CBS News anchor and correspondent, now hosts AXS TV's "Dan Rather Reports." His new book is titled "Rather Outspoken."

Q: As someone who covered the Vietnam War as well as subsequent conflicts, how did the relationship between the military and the press change over the years? How did it remain the same?

A: In many ways, the relationship has changed greatly. In general, correspondents and news organizations have far less access to combat operations and Americans who fight in them than was the case in Vietnam.  The Defense Department and the military allow less access and now much more tightly control who gets to go where, when and talk to whom-- in fighting areas, military field headquarters and in Washington.

Fair to say, in many cases, news organizations are less committed to extended and thorough coverage of war zones --and overall war efforts--than during the Vietnam era.  High costs, reduced resources (including personnel, overseas bureaus) and, I am sorry to say, a loss of commitment to public service by the owners of major media are among the reasons. The idea that a national-distribution news organization--whether print or electronic--is a public trust and therefore an owner should try to meet the responsibilities of that trust has pretty much disappeared.  For example, the idea that a major television and radio network should be operated at least some of the time in the PUBLIC interest--in service of the public--as opposed to only for the benefit of principal owners and share-holders is gone.

This is a major change.  It affects all coverage, but war coverage is one of the places it hits hardest. Foreign coverage in general suffers greatly. It's less expensive and easier to put four people in a room shouting at one another about a war (whether any of them have ever been to the war, or any war) than it is to staff bureaus and send correspondents into combat on a sustained basis. It's also less controversial, less likely to get the owning company into trouble with whatever powers-that-be in Washington (whether, at any given time, they be Republican- or Democrat-led).

Among what hasn't changed is this: the general population tends to view wars through the prism of their own prejudices.  Those prejudices often are created and manipulated by national politicians, who too often do it for their own partisan political purposes. This is made easier since only a tiny percentage of the overall population now has any close family member in uniform and/or actually fighting (to say nothing of the fact that it is made even easier for office-holders since very few of them have first-circle family members in the service now).

Q: Who was the most interesting president for you to cover, and why?

A: Richard Nixon because: a) he became the only president in history to resign the office. b) he became that due to having led a widespread criminal conspiracy from the Oval Office (this made him what the grand jury officially called an “unindicted co-conspirator” in criminal activity). c) this all became a constitutional crisis, which tested the validity and integrity of our treasured “checks and balances” system of separation of powers.  Covering this as it unfolded over a period of years also put the role of the press as the “fourth estate” to a hard test. It was not pleasant, and there certainly was no joy in covering it.  But it sure was interesting.

Q: How important do you think military service is for a president?

A: Important but not imperative. My opinion is that it helps but it is not absolutely necessary. I do think a president, if he hasn’t had military service, should have studied military history (especially the ancient Greeks and Romans and more modern military affairs). Also I think it would be a good idea if he saw the movies “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “Full Metal Jacket” plus a documentary or two about Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Q: In your new book, “Rather Outspoken,” you discuss the controversy over the 2004 “60 Minutes” story on President Bush’s National Guard service during the Vietnam era, and your later decision to sue your longtime employer, CBS. What are your feelings today about the documents relating to Bush’s service that were called into question, and about CBS?

A: My feelings today are exactly as I wrote them in detail in the book. We reported a true story.

Q: As someone who’s been in the news business for 60 years, what do you imagine it will look like 60 years from now?

A: It’s difficult to imagine that far out. If you go back and look at the world 60 years ago, all of the technology today would have been unimaginable. That being said, I do believe that there will be a market for quality news of integrity and good story telling. How that is delivered and consumed is anybody’s guess.  I hope that the American tradition of journalists believing in, and the public supporting, a free and independent press -- truly independent, fiercely independent when necessary –- as the red beating heart of democracy will continue.

 Interview with Deborah Kalb. This interview previously appeared at

Dan Rather

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