Dan Rather talks civil rights coverage then and now and the ‘fake news’ era

Dan Rather, whose six-decades-long journalism career included 24 years as anchor of "CBS Evening News," is serving as a keynote speaker at the Tom Tom Founders Festival on April 12. Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters/Newscom Dan Rather, whose six-decades-long journalism career included 24 years as anchor of “CBS Evening News,” is serving as a keynote speaker at the Tom Tom Founders Festival on April 12. Photo by Lucas Jackson/Reuters/Newscom

Baby boomers grew up with news correspondent Dan Rather covering the civil rights movement, the assassination of President John Kennedy and the Vietnam War. They raised families while Rather anchored “CBS Evening News,” a coveted position he took in 1981 and held for 24 years. Now a whole new generation knows Rather from YouTube’s The Young Turks, cable television and his active Facebook page, which has 2.5 million fans.

Like the Energizer Bunny, Rather, 86, keeps on going.

Last year he published What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism, and he’s headed to Charlottesville to serve as a keynote speaker for the Tom Tom Founders Festival on April 12.

He spoke to C-VILLE Weekly by phone from New York, and gave us the scoop on civil rights then and now, fake news—and the dirt on Walter Cronkite. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.—Lisa Provence

C-VILLE: What were you thinking when you were seeing what was going on with the Unite the Right rally here last summer?

Rather: Obviously I was appalled by what happened when it became clear how it was developing organically, which is to say, neo-Nazis and others in protest against the protesters. So I wasn’t surprised what happened. I was surprised at the president’s incendiary remarks in the wake of it. That shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. Obviously with a person being killed, it was a tragedy for the victim and her family; it was a tragedy for the community and a tragedy for the country.

In August 1963, Dan Rather was appointed chief of CBS’ Southern bureau in New Orleans, but he happened to be in Dallas the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Three days later, Rather described on-air what happened, but he came under fire for incorrectly reporting that Kennedy’s head fell forward after the second shot instead of backward, as seen on video footage. Nonetheless, Rather’s reporting during the mourning period for Kennedy earned him the CBS White House correspondent position in 1964. Photo courtesy of YouTube

You’ve done quite a bit of civil rights coverage during your career. How does what’s happening now differ from what you saw during the ’60s?

When I covered the civil rights movement on a day-to-day basis in 1962 and 1963, it was in not its earliest stages, but still in its early stages. That was a long time ago. Here we are near the end of the second decade of the 21st century. Different day, different time, different demographic makeup of the country, so one has to be a little careful in comparing eras, but there are some similarities.

And one is the vestiges of the Ku Klux Klan. What we’re dealing with as a country and a community, what people were dealing with in the events of August 12, this is the remnants of the old Klan. As an organization the Klan is not nearly as strong as it was in the early ’60s.

On the other hand, the neo-Nazi—I hate to call it a movement, which I don’t think it actually is—but neo-Nazism is much more public now and has more people who are willing to identify as neo-Nazis publicly show their face than was the case in the ’60s.

One of the things I was thinking about when this all happened last summer: Sometime in the late ’70s there was an incident in Skokie, Illinois, in which a group of neo-Nazis paraded in the streets. The president [Jimmy Carter] or certainly members of his administration roundly denounced them. They were dealt with swiftly and roundly condemned by practically all aspects of decent society. Now you contrast that with what’s different now. In the case of Charlottesville, the president, unfortunately, and I think it’s very unfortunate, tried to do some false equivalence between the neo-Nazis and the peaceful protesters who were there. So it’s a big difference.

I would say the biggest difference between now and the 1960s, number one, there’s been a dramatic change in the demographics of the country. Immigration laws changed in 1965 with immigration reform and since that time there’s been considerably more immigration and it’s much more diverse. The other difference is the Klan was much stronger in the 1960s throughout the South.

If you were watching the news coverage of the rally here, did anything stand out to you about how the event was covered or did it seem like familiar times?

One thing is, there was a lot more of it. In the post-digital age, the internet age, there are many more television channels, not to mention other reporters on scene. When I was covering the civil rights movement, CBS News was the only television news organization that was regularly covering it.

That doesn’t tell you much because in those days there were only two other national news organizations, and that was NBC and ABC, and NBC was a little slow off the mark in covering civil rights. In the early ’60s there was no such thing as a television channel with all news all the time. Whereas when this event happened last year, the cable channels were all hours, day and night, around-the-clock coverage. That did not exist in the early 1960s.

The other thing that struck me was that there’s a lot more analysis and commentary than there was in the 1960s. When the evening news expanded to a half hour, which I think was in 1963, an event like this may have gotten four, five, six minutes, but that didn’t allow for very much, if any, analysis and commentary, whereas when this event happened last year, in addition to straight ahead, on-scene, just showing the pictures, you had analysis and commentary.

While we’re touching on newscasts in the early ’60s, is there anything you can tell us about Walter Cronkite that people would be surprised to know? Do you have any dirt on Walter Cronkite that you can reveal now?

[Laughs.] Well of course I do. I knew him very well. They might be surprised to know he had a tremendous sense of humor, which he rarely, if ever, showed on the air. He liked to tell stories, some a little too long and not as funny as he thought they were, but he was a good storyteller and yarn spinner. He loved a good joke, most of them clean but not all of them. He was a very good dancer. Loved to dance. He went to a party and probably danced with every woman in the same area code.

CBS’ Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite cover the 1980 Democratic National Convention in New York City. The Democratic candidates were future president Jimmy Carter and vice president Walter Mondale. Photo by Dennis Brack

Given the often-cited “print is dead” mentality, why should anyone consider embarking on a career in journalism at this point?

There’s a whole list of reasons not to go into journalism, not the least of which is its notoriously low pay, particularly in the lower ranks of journalism. I recognize that a lot of people, including myself, have eventually gotten in positions where it pays well and, in some cases, very well. But your question was why should anyone go into journalism.

One, when it’s done well, journalism matters. It counts. It can make a difference. In journalism one can have a sense of being part of something bigger than yourself and that can be quite satisfying.

Also, journalism is kind of a constant graduate school of learning. You can’t do journalism and try to do it well without a sense of feeling you’re in a constant graduate school—you’re learning all the time. You learn what happens at the police station after midnight. You learn what happens at the charity hospital. You learn what happens at the zoning hearings at city council. You’re just constantly learning. This is broadening and deepening for one as a person.

Three, if you have a passion for it, even if you’re a local reporter, much less a globe-trotting reporter, there’s a sense of adventure with journalism. You’re learning all the time, you’re broadening and deepening yourself. You have experiences most people don’t have, access to places a lot of people don’t have, so there is the sense of adventure with it.

Journalism is also an ideal place for anyone who is idealistic, and so for all those reasons it can be a great career. However, I say that it can only be a good career for someone who has a real passion going. Journalism is one of those crafts or professions where you have to burn with a hot, hard flame if you’re going to do it well.

Now, there are other professions in which that’s true, but there are many professions that you can go into, you go to work at 9 and leave at 5 and you don’t carry it with you. Therefore you don’t have to have a particularly deep passion for it. Journalism you have to really want to do it. You have to be consumed by a desire to do it, almost something close to, if not an outright obsession.

What advice would you give aspiring young journalists?

I’m not sure I’m the person to give advice to anybody, having made every mistake in the book at least two or three times.

If pressed to do so, I would say, number one, if you’re interested, by all means get into it but understand you have to have a passion to do it. Number two, commit and keep saying to yourself that you are not going to lose your idealism. Number three is you have to learn to write and write well, and in most circumstances, write pretty quickly.

Writing is the bedrock of the press, whether one is going into electronic journalism, television, radio or whatever. You have to commit yourself to a lifetime of being ever-improving as a writer. Writing is the absolutely essential core to becoming a journalist.

One of the reasons is in order to write even reasonably well, you have to think, and writing encourages analytical thinking, challenging almost everything, skeptical—never cynical. For example, you’re covering the city council meeting. You have to say, this is what the mayor says and this is what council man or woman so-and-so says. Now let me get busy and telephone and wear out some shoe leather and find out what’s really going on.

Journalists are being called out for fake news. How do you respond to that when it’s being widely fired out at mainstream news organizations?

First of all, I recognize—and I hope that enough other people recognize—that this accusation is most often put forth by people who seek their own partisan, political or ideological advantage. They’re trying to do two things. One, they’re trying to undermine responsible journalism and the second thing they’re trying to do is exploit it. There’s always been fake news around. But this slogan of “fake news,” much of it is calling anything with which you disagree, no matter how factual it is, fake news.

My general reaction to these accusations of fake news is A), not to worry too much about it and just do the work. Just do the damn work and let it speak for itself.

And the second is that, as a journalist, as the football coaches say, you are what your record is. For good and bad and in between, you are what your record is and you have a record, and to anybody who says what you’re doing is fake news, just put the record out and that’s probably the best you can do.

In my own case, I am what my record is, and my record is not unblemished. It’s not perfect. Nobody can do journalism perfectly and we do make mistakes and it is important when you’ve made a mistake to acknowledge it and pull yourself up and try to go on. But when it isn’t true you also have to stand and face the furnace and stand up for your work.

In 1996, Dan Rather traveled to Cuba to interview Fidel Castro, the infamous dictator who ruled the island nation for more than three decades, for an hour-long CBS report. Photo by Alpha/Zuma Press/Newscom

I will say this about all these accusations of fake news: I think that most people, overwhelmingly most people—and this has been my experience with audiences—most people have pretty good common sense. Most Americans are very good at separating brass tacks from bullshine.

I tend not to be all that worried about these accusations of fake news. Because of the internet and how dissemination of news has changed, there’s so many more opportunities for people to scream fake news to undercut traditional journalism. I don’t like the phrase mainstream journalism. What the hell does that mean?

But traditional journalism can be practiced very responsibly in the four main areas, which are straight news, which is you gather the facts, and then analysis, that’s number two. You can know all the facts and still not know the truth because you have to connect the dots. So analysis is taking the facts and trying to connect the facts, and analyze them.

Then you have commentary. Commentary is not necessarily analysis. It might include it, but commentary is sort of, this is what I’m thinking. And then the fourth area is editorial. Editorial is different from the others. An editorial recommends a course of action: Vote for Mary and not for Jim. Or vote for the bond issue. When you recommend a course of action, that’s an editorial.

I think the public could use a little refresher course so that when they watch something or read something, they can say to themselves, now is this straight news reporting or is it analysis or is it a combination of straight news reporting and analysis? Or is it just commentary or does it recommend a course of action and is therefore an editorial?

If news consumers think of it in those terms, then while there’s certainly something to worry about with these charges of fake news, I’m not going to worry about it very much. What I’m going to do is go out and try to do the work and let the work stand for itself.

How has Facebook changed your life?

Frankly it gave me a whole new lease on journalistic life. I’m very grateful for that. I’m 86 years old, in my 87th year, and to be able to work full-time and then some and to have found an audience, including an audience that is made up of people much younger than myself, is sort of stunning and satisfying. I’m enjoying myself. I can’t remember a time when I enjoyed work any more than I do now.

It continues to amaze me that I came to social media, including Facebook, very late. Frankly, I thought that I was probably past the point I could engage in it, so I didn’t take to it right away. At my company News and Guts, which is a small news operation, younger members of my staff came to me and said, look, if you want to stay anywhere close to relevant, if you’re going to have a voice, it’s not a choice, it’s imperative. You just have to go to social media.

And I said, well, I don’t think that’s true, but to hell with it, if you think so, well, we’ll try it. And that’s how it came to be and we fairly quickly found an audience, which amazed me and still amazes me. Thank God and whatever other forces are responsible that it happened because I’m just having a terrific time. I get up every morning and can’t wait to get out of bed and find out what’s happening and where there’s a story and chase it.

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