Do We Even Know What Journalism Means Today?
Rather also talks about his time interviewing Saddam Hussein and how he felt when he realized he was speaking with a mass murderer. He also shares his thought process of understanding that he may not be able to get out of there alive.
Click to play below to listen to the full interview.
Is it more dangerous to be a journalist today than when you were abroad reporting from the world’s hot spots?
“The short answer is, yes. This is by any reasonable analysis, the most dangerous time for journalists in the history of the profession. There’s always been an element of danger in things such as covering war zones, hurricanes, natural disasters, but given the situation of the world today, I think it is unquestionable it’s the most dangerous time for journalists ever.”
With that in mind do you think that affects what journalists do today in areas they just simply won’t go and report, mainly Syria involving ISIS?
“Yes, Syria comes to mind and so does Yemen. Although Syria more than Yemen. There are some journalists in each of those places but again the to your answer your question is yes, it makes journalists and perhaps more importantly, journalistic enterprises, the people who employ journalists, far more cautious about going into war zones. There will always be some freelance people, some of whom are trying to make a name, and I mean that as a compliment because I’ve been in that position myself, who will go into these most dangerous places. But a lot of what’s happening in Syria goes uncovered today simply because it is such a dangerous place. But many journalists, and rightly so, say ‘You know I’m willing to take chances but I’m not not suicidal and I’m not going in there.'”
What do you think about the idea that news networks now let the public dictate, to some degree, what they will cover based on the trends and stories that are popular on social media?
“No, I disagree with this phrase ‘some degree.’ That should be ‘to a great degree.’ Unfortunately, this is, I think, another good trend in American journalism but it is clearly a trend.”
Do you think this trend will end up ending one day and the news media will get back to reporting what is important for the American viewer or is it “Let’s keep up with the Kardashians?”
“Well for the foreseeable future, I think the ‘Let’s keep up with the Kardashians’ or some version of that is likely to continue to prevail. However, Dan, as I think you know, I’m an optimist by experience and by nature. And I’m optimistic that somehow, some way, the pendulum may swing just a little bit back to what I call ‘quality news of integrity.’ But the biggest thing that’s happened to journalism in the last 10 to 15 years, is that entertainment values have like some giant tsunami, completely overwhelmed news values and with few exceptions, there are a few exceptions, most ‘news programs’ or what are called news programs are in fact entertainment programs masquerading as news, I’m sorry to say.”
Has the Internet changed journalism for better or worse?
“What a good question and I ask myself that question fairly often, Dan, I’m not going to duck the question, I’ll give you an answer. I think unbalance, overall and in the main of Internet has been a force for good. Both in terms of not just news, but information and education. However, in at least the short run, in the short term, it has damaged what I call ‘quality journalism integrity.’ Where we go from here it’s hard to say. You can find some first class reporting on the Internet, but you really have to look and to a simple point, the Internet has accelerated the trend to don’t give people what they need to know, don’t try to report important news, try to give people what people say they want to hear. You’re not going to hear people say ‘What’s wrong with that?’ Well what’s wrong with that is that journalists and the best of journalism does what’s important and says ‘Look you may not want to think about this. You may rather think about the Kardashians than what’s happening in Syria. But it’s really important not only to you, your family and our country to deal with some of these important issues. The biggest need today is one, for deep digging in investigating reporting, which you get very little of in particularly little of it on the Internet and the second big need is first class international reporting, which unfortunately has shrunken, it has shrunk tremendously in recent years.”
Dan, 24 years you served as the anchor for CBS Evening News. You were there when JFK was in office, you also covered his assassination. It’s interesting to see now that back then when JFK was in office, one of the more ladies man, reporters knew that. They knew that he had some things going on on the side. But they chose not to report that out of respect for the office. Now it seems like people are tripping over themselves to report salacious type news like that. Why is that you think…is that a reporter ethics shift, or is a programming shift?
“No, the ethics of reporting and the more ways of the journalistic craft, if you will, changed. Now there are plenty of people that say they changed for the better. It is true that during the Kennedy presidency, just to pick one example. That reporters that knew that he was doing things outside his marriage, but the view was that doesn’t affect what he does in office and therefoer that’s between him and Mrs. Kennedy and we’re not going to report it. And let me point out that I do not except myself from this. I knew that during the period. But there’s been a quantum shift, a tremendous shift away from that saying, ‘Listen, anything and everything is fair game to be reported these days particularly for anybody in elective office.’ As I say, you can like it or not like it, you can justify it or not justify it but that’s the way it is.”
Who’s the most interesting person you’ve ever sat down with and had a one-on-one conversation with?
“I can’t pick one person, Dan. I’ve been so lucky and so blessed. I’ve covered a lot of big stories and talked to a lot of very interesting people. Among those that, again, you might not necessarily like all of them but I’ve talked to Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, are a few of the more interesting people I’ve talked to. But also Jo En Lai, who was as you know was the second man down to Mau in China. He was responsible for the deaths of many, many people. No one that I know of agrees with his political ideological meanings but to talk to him, he was an extremely intelligent person and you couldn’t have a conversation with him without saying to yourself ‘Boy, I’ve learned a lot.'”
Did you ever get nervous before those big interviews?
“Sure. For example if you walk into Baghdad Palace as I did during Gulf War I for my first interview with Saddam Hussein, walked into the palace alone and meet Saddam Hussein three tiers underground, and you’re there by yourself alone, are you gonna get nervous? You bet.”
I wonder about that interview with Saddam Hussein, you’re three tiers underground. You’re sitting there next to a person who obviously a lot of people in the public have formulated an opinion against him or when he was still alive. Did you ever find yourself with a certain admiration towards some of these people you were interviewing even though they had been deemed some of the most despicable people on earth?
“No. When we were among the most despicable people on earth, I didn’t have any thoughts about admiration. With Saddam Hussein, listen, no one could be in the room with him for any length of time at all and not conclude that here you had a stone cold killer. That’s not to argue that it was our job to displace him… but once you realize that, you say to yourself ‘Whatever he thinks he’s accomplished, I can’t admire that.’ The answer is ‘no’ I didn’t find myself admiring him. Very interested, and my job as a reporter was to present him for who and what he was and to let people make up their own mind about him.”
So what is that mindset waking into that interview? Do you have to walk a fine line just because you know he is a mass murderer?
“Well you started to say. You hit one thing when you walk in particularly when I was by myself, walk in and one thing in my mind was ‘I hope I can get out of here alive.’ I don’t want to be over dramatic about that but it was true. A line is not all that fine. I asked him tough questions and anybody who thinks otherwise I suggest you go back and take a look at the video tape or take a look at the transcript. But I didn’t see it as my job to just ask him question after question and say ‘Why did you do this or that?’ It was to draw him out to get a frame of mind. I think our interview would be viewed among other things that Sadam Hussein..number one, everything was about survival… He survived, he considered himself a winner. That’s why he considered himself a winner of the wars, because he survived, at least for awhile…until he died. The other thing was, and this was so important to understand. When his feet hit the floor every morning, he dreamed of being a modern Arab Saladin. That is, he dreamed of leading a victorious Arab army through streets of Jerusalem and that’s what drove him, that’s what motivated him. I think part of my role in the interview was to throw out that kind of information from the interview subject.”
Why don’t reporters talk back like you talked back to President Nixon?
“Well number one and let me say this, I didn’t talk back to him. He tried to throw me off balance on national television before I asked a tough question about Watergate. He tended to do that and what I did was respond and kind, to an effect say ‘I’m going to get on with my question.’ It wasn’t talking back to him but I gave him a retort. He said, ‘Are you running for something?’ in sort of a sardonic way, and I said, ‘No sir Mr. President, are you?’ and then got on with my question. Everybody remembers the back and forth but nobody remembers the question which had to do with frankly, lies. I don’t like that word but it’s lies that he was telling about the criminal operation that he and the others in the White House were operating. But it was one of those moments in television time, and I didn’t make anything of it. I walked out of a news conference not thinking very much of that and it wasn’t until a newspaper reporter called and told me, and said, ‘listen you’re in a world of trouble, you ought to know that and what do you think about it?’ that I even realized that anybody else would make much of it.”
Did you ever think about crossing over from journalism and going into political office?
“Never. I love what I do. Some people like me some people don’t and I haven’t done it perfectly but I think people that don’t like me or some things I’ve done…I have a passion for journalism. I have never considered doing anything else since I was six years old with the possible exception of when I first got married and had two kids and trying to make a living and not doing very well at it. But I’ve never considered running for political office.”