Editor’s note: Veteran journalist Dan Rather delivered the following speech in Minneapolis Saturday night, at the National Conference for Media Reform.
I am grateful to be here and I am, most of all, gratified by the energy I have seen tonight and at this conference. It will take this kind of energy — and more — to sustain what is good in our news media, to improve what is deficient, and to push back against the forces and the trends that imperil journalism and that — by immediate extension — imperil democracy itself.
The Framers of our Constitution enshrined freedom of the press in the very First Amendment, up at the top of the Bill of Rights, not because they were great fans of journalists — like many politicians, then and now, they were not — but rather because they knew, as Thomas Jefferson put it, that, “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free … it expects what never was and never will be.”
And it is because of this constitutionally protected role that I still prefer to use the word “press” over the word “media.” If nothing else, it serves as a subtle reminder that — along with newspapers — radio, television, and, now, the Internet, carry the same constitutional rights, mandates and responsibilities that the founders guaranteed for those who plied their trade solely in print.
So when you hear me talk about the press, please know that I am talking about all the ways that news can be transmitted. And when you hear me criticize and critique the press, please know that I do not exempt myself from these criticisms.
An inescapable answer
In our efforts to take back the American press for the American people, we are blessed this weekend with the gift of good timing. For anyone who may have been inclined to ask if there really is a problem with the news media, or wonder if the task of media reform is, indeed, an urgent one, recent days have brought an inescapable answer, from a most unlikely source.
A source who decided to tell everyone, “What Happened.”
I know I can’t be the first person this weekend to reference the recent book by former White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan, but, having interviewed him this past week, I think there are some very important points to be made from the things he says in his book, and the questions his statements raise.
I’m sure all of you took special notice of what he had to say about the role of the press corps, in the run-up to the war in Iraq. In the government’s selling of the war, he said they were — or, I should say, we were “complicit enablers” and “overly deferential.”
These are interesting statements, especially considering their source. As one tries to wrap one’s mind around them, the phrase “cognitive dissonance” comes to mind.
The first reaction, a visceral one, is: Whatever his motives for saying these things, he’s right — and we didn’t need Scott McClellan to tell us so.
Some asked the tough questions
But the second reaction is: Wait a minute. … I do remember at least some reporters, and some news organizations, asking tough questions — asking them of the president, of those in his administration, of White House press secretary Ari Fleischer and — oh yes — of Scott McClellan himself, once he took over for Mr. Fleischer a few months after the invasion.
So how do we reconcile these competing reactions? Well, we need to pull back for what we in television call the wide shot.
If we look at the wide shot, we can see, in one corner of our screen, the White House briefing room filled with the White House press corps … and, filling the rest of the screen, the finite but disproportionately powerful universe that has become known as “mainstream media” — the newspapers and news programs, real and alleged, that employ these White House correspondents — the news organizations that are, in turn, owned by a shockingly few, much larger corporations, for which news is but a miniscule part of their overall business interests.
In the wake of 9/11 and in the run-up to Iraq, these news organizations made a decision — consciously or unconsciously, but unquestionably in a climate of fear — to accept the overall narrative frame given them by the White House, a narrative that went like this: Saddam Hussein, brutal dictator, harbored weapons of mass destruction and, because of his supposed links to al-Qaida, this could not be tolerated in a post-9/11 world.
Burden of proof was put on dissenters
In the news and on the news, one could, to be sure, find persons and views that did not agree with all or parts of this official narrative. Hans Blix, the former U.N. chief weapons inspector, comes to mind as an example. But the burden of proof, implicitly or explicitly, was put on these dissenting views and persons. The burden of proof was not put on an administration that was demonstrably moving towards a large-scale military action that would represent a break with American precedent and stated policy of how, when, and under what circumstances this nation goes to war.
Legendary journalist Bill Moyers also addressed the National Conference for Media Reform, Saturday, June 7, 2008.
So with this in mind, we look back to the corner of our screen where the White House press corps is asking their questions. I have been a White House correspondent myself, and I have worked with some of the best in the business. You have an incentive, when you are in that briefing room, to ask the good, tough questions: If nothing else, that is how you get in the paper, or on the air. There is more to it than that, and things have changed since I was a White House correspondent — something I want to talk about in a minute. But the correspondents — the really good ones — these correspondents ask their tough questions.
And these questions are met with what is now called, euphemistically and much too kindly, what is now called “message discipline.”
Well, we used to have a better and more accurate term for “message discipline.” We called it “stonewalling.”
Now, cut back to your evening news, or your daily newspaper, where that White House correspondent dutifully repeats the question he asked of the president or his press secretary, and dutifully relates the answer he was given — the same non-answer we’ve already heard dozens of times, which amounts to a pitch for the administration’s point of view, whether or NOT the answer had anything to do with the actual question that was asked.
And then: “Thank you Jack. In other news today … .”
And we’re off on a whole new story.
The powerful got to connect the dots
In our news media, in our press, those who wield power were, in the lead-up to Iraq, given the opportunity to present their views as a coherent whole, to connect the dots, as they saw the dots and the connections, no matter how much these views may have flown in the face of precedent, established practice — or, indeed, the facts (as we are reminded, yet again, by the just-released Senate report on the administration’s use of pre-war intelligence). The powerful are given this opportunity still, in ways big and small, despite what you may hear about the “post-Katrina” press.
But when a tough question is asked and not answered, when reputable people come before the public and say, “Wait a minute, something’s not right here,” the press has treated them like voices crying in the wilderness. These views, though they might be given air time, become lone dots — dots that journalists don’t dare connect, even if the connections are obvious, even if people on the Internet and in the independent press are making these very same connections. The mainstream press doesn’t connect these dots because someone might then accuse them of editorializing, or of being the, quote, “liberal media.”
But connecting these dots — making disparate facts make sense — is a big part of the real work of journalism.
So how does this happen? Why does this happen?
Let me say, by way of answering, that quality news of integrity starts with an owner who has guts.
In a news organization with an owner who has guts, there is an incentive to ask the tough questions, and there is an incentive to pull together the facts — to connect the dots — in a way that makes coherent sense to the news audience.
Character of news ownership changed
I mentioned a moment ago that things have changed since I was a White House correspondent. Yes, presidential administrations have become more adept at holding “access” over the heads of reporters — ask too tough a question, or too many of them, so the implicit threat goes, and you’re not going to get any more interviews with high-ranking members of the administration, let alone the president. But I was covering Presidents Johnson and Nixon — men not exactly known as pushovers. No, what has changed, even more than the nature of the presidency, is the character of news ownership. I only found out years after the fact, for example, about the pressure that the Nixon White House put on my then-bosses, during Watergate — pressure to cut down my pieces, to call me off the story, and so on — because, back then, my bosses took the heat, so I didn’t have to. They did this so the story could get told, and so the public could be informed.
But it is rare, now, to find a major news organization owned by an individual, someone who can say, in effect, “The buck stops here.” The more likely motto now is: “The news stops with making bucks.”
America’s biggest, most important news organizations have, over the past 25 years, fallen prey to merger after merger, acquisition after acquisition, to the point where they are, now, tiny parts of immeasurably larger corporate entities — entities whose primary business often has nothing to do with news. Entities that may, at any given time, have literally hundreds of regulatory issues before multiple arms of the government concerning a vast array of business interests.
These are entities that, as publicly held and traded corporations, have as their overall, reigning mandate: Provide a return on shareholder value. Increase profits. And not over time, not over the long haul, but quarterly.
One might ask just where the news fits into this model. And if you really need an answer, you can turn on your television, where you will see the following:
Political analysis reduced to in-studio shouting matches between partisans armed with little more than the day’s talking points.
Precious time and resources wasted on so-called human-interest stories, celebrity fluff, sensationalist trials, and gossip.
A proliferation of “news you can use” that amounts to thinly disguised press releases for the latest consumer products.
And, though this doesn’t get said enough, local news, which is where most Americans get their news, that seems not to change no matter what town or what city you’re in, so slavish is its adherence to the “happy talk” formula and the dictum that, “If it bleeds, it leads.”
The incentive is absent
I could continue for hours, cataloging journalistic sins of which I know you are all too aware. But, as the time grows late, let me say that almost all of these failings come down to this: In the current model of corporate news ownership, the incentive to produce good and valuable news is simply not there.
Good news, quality news of integrity, requires resources and it requires talent. These things are expensive; these things eat away at the bottom line.
Years ago, in the ’80s and the ’90, when the implications of these cost-trimming measures were becoming impossible to ignore and the quality of the news was clearly threatened, I spoke out against this cutting of news operations to the bone and beyond. Even then, though, I couldn’t have imagined that the cost-cutting imperatives would go as far as they have today — deep into the marrow of what was once considered a public trust.
But since the financial resources always seem to be available for entertainment, promotion, and — last but not least — for lobbying, perhaps there is an even more important reason why the incentive to produce quality news is absent, and that is: quality news of integrity, by its very nature, is sure to rock the boat now and then. Good, responsible news worthy of its constitutional protections will, in that famous phrase, afflict the powerful and comfort the afflicted.
Good news isn’t always good business
And that, when one feels the need to deliver shareholder value above all, means that good news may not always mean good business — or so goes the fear, a fear that filters down into just about every big newsroom in this country.
Now, I have spent my entire life in for-profit news, and I happen to think that it does not have to be this way. I have worked for news owners who, while they may have regarded their news divisions as an occasional irritant, chose to turn that irritant into a pearl of public trust. But today, sadly, it seems that the conglomerates that have control over some of the biggest pieces of this public trust would just as soon spit that irritant out.
So what does this mean for us tonight, and what is to be done?
It means that we need to be on the alert for where, when, and how our news media bows to undue government influence. And you need to let news organizations know, in no uncertain terms, that you won’t stand for it — that you, as news consumers, are capable of exerting pressure of your own.
It means that we need to continue to let our government know that, when it comes to media consolidation, enough is enough. Too few voices are dominating, homogenizing, and marginalizing the news. We need to demand that the American people get something in exchange for the use of airwaves that belong, after all, to the people.
It means that we need to ensure that the Internet, where free speech reigns and where journalism does not have to pass through a corporate filter, remains free.
We need to say, loud and clear, that we don’t want big corporations enjoying preferred access to — or government acting as the gatekeeper for — this unique platform for independent journalism.
And it means that we need to hold the government to its mandate to protect the freedom of the press, including independent and non-commercial news media.
The stakes could not possibly be higher. Scott McClellan’s book serves as a reminder, and the current election season, not to mention the gathering clouds of conflict with Iran, will both serve as tests of whether lessons have truly been learned from past experience. Ensuring that a free press remains free will require vigilance, and it will require work.
Please, take tonight’s energy and inspiration home with you. Take it back to your desks and your workplaces, to your colleagues and your fellow citizens. Magnify it, multiply it, and spread it. Make it viral. Make it something that cannot be ignored — not by the powers in Washington, not by the owners and executives of media companies. Write these people. Call them. Send them the message that you know your rights, you know that you are entitled to news media as diverse and varied as the American people, and that you deserve a press that provides the raw material of democracy, the good information that Americans need to be full participants in our government of, by, and for the people.
There is energy here, that can be equal to that task, but this energy must be maintained if the press — if democracy — is to be preserved.
Thank you very much, and good night.
Veteran journalist Dan Rather is the anchor and managing editor of Dan Rather Reports, on HDNet. He was the CBS News anchor for 24 years. The media conference was hosted by Free Press, a national nonprofit organization working to reform the media. It promotes diverse and independent media ownership, strong public media and universal access to communications.