SXSW Day Three: Dan Rather

They keynote for day three was Dan Rather, interviewed by Jane Hamsher from Fire Dog Lake (also the producer of Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight).

The mp3 of the interview is available from the SXSW podcast page: Dan Rather Keynote Interview.

Apparently the acoustics of the room were quite bad – Rather asked several times for Hamsher to repeat herself or couldn’t understand the question being asked, and also (the lights?) couldn’t see the folks in the audience with questions.

Nonetheless, it was interesting to hear his take on investigative journalism and why there is so little real investigative journalism in the US today.

He was always careful not to exempt himself from his criticisms of “journalism today” – not claiming to be above or beside it but addressing them as problems within the industry he is still part of.

Unfortunately there wasn’t really much time for discussion of his new show on HDNet, or how new media might be able to change the equation of access journalism – I wish there had been more time for good questions from the audience and for Rather to talk about whatever he wanted to discuss- the interview seemed very focused on what’s wrong with journalism today, as compared to some glory days when Rather was challenging Nixon – and perhaps how bloggers could change that.

(Update: There’s a great summary here – really looks more like a transcript! – Dan Rather at SXSW (Dogged) and another here – Dan Rather Keynote Liveblog from SXSW 2007 (Conversion Rater) )

My raw notes:

Q: What was it like to challenge Richard Nixon, when you refused to be dismissed?

I never saw myself as challenging Nixon – I saw my job as being an honest broker of information for people who were not able to get access to what was going on. What the president was saying was the situation kept being proven as consistently false.

Mr. President – what you are saying keeps being shown to be untrue. As time went on it seemed like I was challenging him- it was just that I kept asking him about the facts. “Watergate” – there was a widespread criminal conspiracy with Nixon at the center – those were the facts.

Increasingly, in some important ways American journalism has lost its guts. (And I include myself in this, for the most part). Many journalists would seem to have adopted the “go along to get along philosophy” – access journalism has degenerated to a dangerous state.

Patriotic journalism would be to be the one asking the tough question and the tough followup – to speak truth to power when the truth you have.

In many ways what we need in journalism (again not excepting myself from this) is a spine transfusion. There’s been an increasingly tight nexus between people in power in press and journalism with people in power in corporations and thirdly people in government.

[The “spine transfusion” line got a standing ovation]

In one way or another, a great deal of the time, the reporter is using the source and the source is using the reporter one way or another – but this is a dangerous arrangement when the report might feel that she becomes part of the team.

We have to rethink very fundamentally the relationships journalists have to their sources. It isn’t ultimately true that they control access – if you let them define it that way you are setting yourself up for failure.

There’s been a dramatic failure of the fourth estate to interrogate power. Do we still believe that the best journalism is Independent journalism?

It used to be fairly common even at presidential news conferences that the reporter second in line would put aside his own question and redirect to the first question if the president didn’t answer it.

Journalism has become a set of conveyer belts – the president today said this and such.

I’ve never really liked the phrase investigative reporter, because it seems like a redundancy. Being a reporter should always mean being investigative.

One reason investigative journalism has become an endangered species – one reason it has fallen badly out of favor – is the corporatization of news. Mostly huge international conglomerates. Among other things this has lead to very very wide gaps between the folks reporting the news and the tops of the corporations – less direct connection between the executive and the newsroom – but also broader needs – legislation that they need or want to block.

It isn’t the evil ceo or chairman – they are laser focused on stockholder value, which is not the same as truth. Some very small number of corporations (<5) own a great majority (>80%) of the primary means of communication – that’s the problem.

The press should be a watchdog, not an attack dog, not a lap dog. A good watchdog barks at everything that is suspicious. Not that they will always be right – but that they will alert us to things which might be worth investigating.

The internet is a tremendous tool and potential stage. We’ve gone though the elvis stage and we’re now at the Beatles stage – the potential is vast, and I’m excited about it. But somepeople think of the internet as “that’s where the bloggers are” – but there’s much more to it than that.

Whatever you think the development of the internet will be 15 years from now will be here in 3. (Sullivan, at the time of the Wright Bros – in 75 years we could be flying coast to coast.)

We have to be careful about generalizing about “the blog” – I respect journalistic integrity where I find it. I do think there is a problem with anonymity – it makes accountabilty an issue.

The form so often is: – gov or pres says this. You say to yourself, what a load of crap. But to present that, you say “heres what his critics say” rather than “that’s a load of crap.”

When is the last time you heard someone say “the government said this . . . and it is a lie.”

Q. What impact did the Libby trial have on reporting as a profession?

[The interviewer is trying to make some kind of point about the Libby trial – but I think she’s referring to the 1st amendment when she means the fifth – lots of witnesses in the Libby trial plead the fifth?]

It wasn’t that long ago that we had a clear sense of what off the record, on the record, or on background meant. It used to be that the assumption was that everything was on the record. People had to ask, can we go off-record?

It was not that long ago that “off the record” really meant you cannot use this, under any circumstances – this conversation did not happen, these words were not spoken, we didn’t speak.

If these aren’t the rules any more, what are?

Difference between taking oneself seriously and taking the role of journalism seriously – independence is more important than access, ultimately.

We need to hold that ideal like the 10 commandments – everyone can’t live it 100% every day but we can keep it as a real living belief system we aim for.

Q. What about the fairness doctrine? What percentage of our problems stem from having repealed the fairness doctrine?

Good question. There are lots of factors at play here – I can’t really answer what percentage of it stems from that.

There are people who believe that journalists are already too independent, too aggressive in their pursuit.

It is hugely important that the bosses at those media companies hear from people who support and believe in investigative journalism – when people do actually do investigative journalism.

There should certainly be more, not fewer press conference with folks higher in power. This is actually better for the president as well – it doesn’t allow the pressure to build.