PASADENA, CALIF. — Are the standards for journalists and news anchors higher than for the presidential candidates they cover?
Former CBS News anchor Dan Rather, a veteran journalist who spent years covering the American political process, thinks it’s a fair question.
“On the basis of present evidence, perhaps the standard for anchors is much higher,” Rather said in an interview while promoting his cable show The Big Interview on AXS cable. “In the political world, you can now say something that’s true or untrue and there’s very little accountability for that.”
Rather was one of the last influential big network anchors when he left CBS in 2005, and as a correspondent for the newsmagazine 60 Minutes, ending an era in which the evening news dominated public discourse.
The irony that you could run for the highest office in the United States and become commander in chief of the most powerful nation in the world, but stretch the truth or tell outright lies, is not lost on the 84-year-old journalist, who started in the business as a reporter with The Associated Press in 1950.
Rather left under controversial terms, over a disputed news report about President George W. Bush’s national guard service during the Vietnam War. He was portrayed by Robert Redford in the movie Truth.
More recently, NBC anchor Brian Williams was suspended, then reassigned, by the network for “misrepresenting” events while he covered the 2003 Iraq War.
But those missteps seem almost trite compared to the whoppers that would-be presidents spew during election season.
Republican candidate Donald Trump, in particular, has become a flashpoint in the U.S. presidential election race for statements that many say are misleading, or outright lies.
Website Politifact has found that 76 per cent of Trump’s statements are mostly false or “pants on fire false.” That includes saying blacks kill 81 per cent of white victims, to claiming he saw people cheer in New York as the World Trade Center collapsed during 9/11.
However, Trump was “trumped” by fellow GOP candidate Ben Carson, who came in at 84 per cent, with most of his statements false or pants on fire false. Ted Cruz looked good at 66 per cent.
“What Trump has done is so fundamentally different that they will be writing PhD dissertations on this,” said Mark Halperin, senior political analyst for Time Magazine attending the Television Critics Association conference. Halperin is working on Showtime’s docudrama look at the presidential race, The Circus.
Despite his controversial statements, Trump’s popularity has remained bulletproof as he continues to lead the Republican presidential nomination race.
“It’s easy to get distracted when a candidate says something outrageous or untrue,” said Rather. “I’m not a Canadian, I’m an American. I know Canada reasonably well. Just hope that our Canadian friends keep in mind that it’s still early in the process and there’s still a long way to go.”
As for the role of the news anchor, Rather said it continues to evolve in the digital age.
In Canada, broadcasters such as the CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi, Evan Solomon, and Global’s Leslie Roberts have also been sources of controversy that have made audiences question the role of the anchor.
“The tradition of the anchor as a figure of authority and authenticity has been in decline — there are so many more places to look for news,” said Rather. “Trust has to be earned over a long period of time. News trust is slow to build and quick to evaporate. I’ve made my mistakes, shown my flaws and have the wounds to show for it. But the audience is very smart. They’ll give you marks for trying if you’re dedicated to quality journalism and integrity.
“But they won’t forgive you if you become inauthentic or cross that line.”