News anchor Dan Rather says news should operate in public interest
According to former CBS News anchor Dan Rather, the American people are entitled to a “diverse and varied” news media.
“Too few voices are dominating, homogenizing and marginalizing the news,” Rather said during an appearance at the National Conference on Media Reform in Minneapolis.
In a June 7 keynote speech, Rather pointed out that over the past quarter-century, media consolidation has put more value on profits, and as a result, quality news has been sacrificed for the bottom line. “Political analysis [is] reduced to in-studio shouting matches between partisans armed with little more than the day’s talking points.”
More news time is “wasted on so called human-interest stories, celebrity fluff, sensationalist trials, and gossip,” he observed, with “a proliferation of ‘news you can use’ that amounts to thinly disguised press releases for the latest consumer products.”
The Big Three (CBS, NBC and ABC) see more value in entertainment than in news, Rather continued. “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.”
Quality news “requires resources and it requires talent,” and network executives believe that this is too expensive. But “financial resources always seem to be available for entertainment, promotion and lobbying,” the award-winning journalist added.
Rather, who once had broadcast journalism’s longest tenure as anchor and managing editor of CBS Evening News from 1981 to 2005, now works at HDNet as the anchor and managing editor of Dan Rather Reports. HDNet began broadcasting in November 2006 and is carried on both cable and satellite.
During a June 7 afternoon meeting with reporters, Rather said that America’s newsrooms aren’t as diverse as they should be. “I favor much more diversity in [media] ownership, news directors and program directors,” he said. “The overall progress in the country is not reflected in many newsrooms. We need diversity in the newsroom.”
Although he was a nightly fixture for almost 25 years, Rather is critical of network news. He said he once suggested that CBS executives expand the nightly news from 30 minutes to an hour, and air it later in the evening. “Let’s do it at nine at night, across the board time-wise, live every night,” he recalled. “I am not saying that it would be the number-one rated program in primetime every night, but I am arguing that [the evening news] could become what 60 Minutes became for the network. It took 60 Minutes a long time to develop [before it became popular].
“I think a nine live [newscast] every night could survive,” Rather surmised. In his opinion, today’s network nightly newscasts, whose primary emphasis is more on “demographics than ratings,” are disappointing.
“What passes for news these days is not news,” he claimed.
Furthermore, Rather predicted that network news soon will disappear. “I hope I am wrong, but the better likelihood is that one of the Big Three networks — ABC, NBC or CBS — will decide to drop the evening newscast altogether,” he said. “Instead of a one-hour newscast, they will drop news altogether.”
Now in his 70s, Rather said he still has a passion for reporting.
“I have been a journalist working for pay for 58, soon to be 60 years,” he reflected. “I look back at the paths I traveled and know that I gave it everything I have. I could look back and say I could’ve done this or that better. I learned that no matter how much you want to do, no matter how bad you want to do it, it still is not good enough.”
If he has any regrets, Rather noted, it is not “making the argument, or walking through whatever bureaucracy there was to make the case at the very top [of management] about news being a public trust.”
Rather believes the Internet, which he said “is still only in the first phase of its tremendous potential,” can be very influential in the future of American journalism, and should be accessible and free for everyone and not corporate controlled. “We need to ensure that the Internet does not have to pass through a corporate filter,” he said.
Finally, Rather strongly believes that news is “a public journal.”
“The idea of a public journal, whether it is print, radio, television or the Internet, means it is a public trust,” he concluded. “[Media] ownership, as well as news people, has a responsibility in that trust. The public trust should be operated in the public interest.”
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