In his lifelong career as a journalist, Dan Rather, 82, has covered the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the 9/11 attacks and wars in Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan. The former CBS Nightly News anchor will speak Monday at Toronto's Fairmont Royal York Hotel in support of the Women’s College Hospital Foundation.
What is the biggest change you have observed during your time as a journalist?
There have been two changes over the course of my career. One was the rise of television to become the most dominant source where most people in the world got most of their news first. Television overtook the combination of print newspapers and radio. The second major development has been the Internet, which is where most people will get most of their news first. In terms of things I think people ought to worry about, there has been so much consolidation of media ownership that there’s less competition. I don’t think that’s a healthy situation. It’s a big change, and it’s what I’ve called the corporatization of news, which has led in some way to the trivialization of news.
Have those changes affected how news is reported?
I think it’s changed the craft quite a bit. Particularly over the last 15 to 20 years, there’s been a discouraging diminution in the standards. The standards of what is accepted as quality journalism have dropped precipitously. In making this criticism, I do not except myself. There was a time when if you were covering foreign news, that meant you sent reporters to a place to actually cover it. Now, so often covering international news is, “Put four people in a room and have them shout at one another.” Take Afghanistan, for example. Coverage has disappeared from many newspapers and television programs, as if nobody wants to hear about it. But if Afghanistan is to be “covered,” networks put two or three people up on the screen to spout off their opinions about it. And very often none of the three has been to Afghanistan. I think journalists and journalism — certainly in the U.S. — we lost our guts. An attitude got around: Be careful, because if you report something people in power don’t like, you may have to pay a very heavy price for that. That’s not in the best tradition of U.S. journalism, nor do I think it’s in the best tradition of the free press anyplace.
What can be done to reverse that decline?
The solutions are harder to come by. With the advent of the Internet and the move into the digital age, the old model for financing first-class international coverage, deep digging and extensive investigative coverage, and the old model for financing quality journalism with integrity has faded very badly, and no one has yet come up with a new business model that can consistently finance that kind of coverage. I don’t know what the new business model will be, but I’m hoping someone will come up with one.
What sort of damage does this decline of journalism do to society?
Here’s the damage, and why I think everyone should care about it, not just journalists: In a free society, such as we have in the U.S. and Canada, based on the principles of freedom and democracy, it’s absolutely essential you have an informed electorate. A free and fiercely independent press is the red, beating heart of freedom and democracy. You debase the standards of press coverage in a free country and you’re dealing with the vitals of the country. So when I say journalistic standards have been diminished, I don’t think it’s too strong to say that the potential harm to the country as a whole increases correspondingly. It’s sometimes a difficult point to get through to the public at large, but I do think most people understand that.