Icon journalist Dan Rather was welcomed by a standing ovation at today's SXSW Interactive. (Flickr photo originally uploaded by beeez.) Once folks settled down, blogger Jane Hamsher posed some key framing questions. Rather used the opportunity to share his concerns about the recent demise of investigative journalism. Given his colorful storytelling, I've decided to 'paraquote' (some paraphrasing, some quoting) here rather than boiling things down:
Hamsher: What was it like to stand up to President Nixon during the Watergate trials?
Rather: I never saw myself as challenging President Nixon. I wanted to find out what was really going on, as vs. what people wanted to believe what was going on. What the President was saying was the situation was continuing to be disproved. The President would say one thing, the special prosecutors would find other things. I wanted to say "Mr. President, the evidence is overwhelming that what you say is not true. What say you?" As it turns out, the President of the United States was not just a part of, but instead one of the leaders of, a widespread criminal conspiracy.
Hamsher: Do you think that the climate of modern journalism is such that similar challenges could be made to the current administration?
Rather: Over the last five or six years, so many journalists have started to 'go along to get along.' This whole business of access journalism has created a very perilous state. I believe deeply that patriotic journalists will ask tough questions, with the attitude that it's patriotic, as a member of the press, to be a check and balance on political power. It's patriotic to keep on asking tough questions, and to follow up on other people's tough questions.
Hamsher: You're also talking about a relatively small clique of journalists that are based in Washington, DC ,and don't want to jeopardize their positions by asking tough questions.
Rather: What most journalists need today is a spine transplant. There's always been someone with power in Washington. In recent years, the nexus of powerful journalists, and people in political power, has become far too close. You can get a little too cozy with your sources. You make agreements, stated or unstated, that 'you take care of me, and I'll take care of you.' It's a very dangerous area. It also happens at City Hall, the county courthouse, the state legislature. Negotiating brings you closer and closer to the source. You become so close, that you become part of the problem. Sources will use journalists to the fullest extent possible, to the point where journalists have to say 'whoa.' The reporter is using the source, the source is using the reporter - it's a given. The second that the source is leading the reporter, it's gone too far. The second the reporter starts to feel like part of the establishment, like part of the team, it's gone too far.
We think very seriously about relationships with sources. But it's almost impossible for sources to seal you out. When Nixon was President, it became very clear at one point that he was trying to strangle reporters by a lack of information. But we went outside the normal channels and still got to the story. So, we would then call the administration to give them notice of what would be going onto the 6:00 news, and give them a chance to chime in with their own version of the story. Which they always did.
Hamsher: Most people would look at what's going on right now in investigative journalism and agree that it isn't acting as a check on power. What do you think they should do?
Rather: Do we still believe that it's important to be ready to
ask the tough question? To have the gumption? Do we still believe that
it's important to follow up? That if the mayor doesn't answer the
question asked by the person before me, to set my question aside and
ask the first question again when I step up to the microphone? It is true that the fewer news conferences you have, the more
pressure there is as an individual reporter to find a way to ask
questions in a meaningful way. You end up only having one shot to ask
a question. This works against the followup question, since no one
wants to give up their own one shot to get a question in.
Do we still believe that this politician is elected by, and serving, 'we the people?' Are we just conveyor belts, just reporting that "the President said such-and-such?" Do we still believe that our job is to be independent of mind? That it's part of our job to be an investigative reporter? Though I hate that distinction - if you are a reporter, by definition you are an investigator.
One reason it's gone badly out of fashion is because no one is watching one-hour investigatory documentaries. With increasing frequency, ownership of corporations has become more distant from their audiences. Larger corporations want to own more television stations, with more coverage. To do this, they need regualtory relief from the FCC and other agencies. I think you can see what's happening here. Their mindset is to do what's good for the corporation as a whole, and they are as laser-focused on that as I am on investigative news. This puts the media corporation at odds with the best interest of investigative journalism.
Commercial journalism intends to make a profit, and so it may not believe in competition. The real competition has narrowed in such a way that 4 - 5 corporations control 80% of the news on the net. They're not seeing more competition, they're seeing less competition. The next time someome says "I believe in the marketplace," I raise the question "Do we have as much competition in the major outlets, as a country and as a society? As a watchdog? What does a real watchdog do? It's not an attack dog - an attack dog goes for the throat. A lap dog wants to climb in your lap and be told it's a good dog. A real watchdog will bark at everything that moves - not because they'll always be right, but rather because they should always be barking."
Hamsher: With only a few outlets, it makes it easier to game the system. This creates a vacuum that people want to fill, and we see people going to the blogosphere instead. How has the democratization of news affected journalism?
Rather: The Internet is a tremendous tool not just for news, but also for information, education, illumination, and opening oneself up to unlimited potential. It's about the 'people's stage.' Its potential is vast. So many people that I meet think of the Internet only as the blogosphere, but there's a whole lot more out there. The Internet as a whole is what has the unlimited potential. And I have no idea where it's going. Keep in mind, the Wright brothers first flew an airplane 75 years before commercial airflight became established. It's easy to over-generalize when you talk about the Internet.
Some blogs provide very good analysis, commentary, or opinion. Some do it themselves or send out reporters, some accept anonymous information. Journalism is integrity, finding out facts, and presenting truths. I do think there's a problem with anonymity. I don't have a solution for it, but it concerns me. Over time, the marketplace will balance this out, but it can take a very long time.
Hamsher: What I'm trying to get at is: there isn't anyone stepping forward to do with this administration what you did with Richard Nixon. There's a country full of people that want tough questions asked. How can new media fill this need?
Rather: If you think the right questions aren't being asked at news conferences, then you need to go online and say, "these questions aren't being asked," or "these are major truths that aren't being told." We need to move into an area of increased accountability, all up and down the line. Bad things happen when no one is accountable. Another thing that is done is people report on "the Governor says this" and "this is what his critics say." When was the last time that you heard someone say "the Governor says this, and this is a lie?" We sideways dance instead.
Hamsher: Do you think that journalism as a craft has taken a hit?
Rather: This is what I'm talking about when I mention the problem of closeness. It's dangerous to the journalist, to journalism, and to the country. 'Off the record' used to be clearly defined in Washington. When talking to a source, you knew what the guidelines (not the rules) were. The default assumption then was that everything provided was available to be used. It was incumbent upon the source to say whether or not information could be used. Or, to say that a conversation could be used 'on background' - meaning, the information could be used with the source left unnamed. 'Off the record' meant that the information could not be used under any circumstances, and that the conversation never happened - it could only be used to conceive ideas.
If these aren't the rules of the road now, what are the new rules? If people won't let you use their names, or won't attach their name to news, how can it be trusted? If you start from an assumption that every conversation will be on the record, it's a lot clearer. Your own sense of integrity takes its first hit when you start to think about how to protect the source instead of the information. Journalists have a capital I for Independent. Any time you talk to someone, they need to understand that you are a journalist and that you need to be taken seriously. And if this costs you acccess, so be it. However we do this business of on the record, deep background, etc., independence is the idea.
Why is this important? It isn't the technicalities of our own journalistic work, but do we still believe that the single most important thing in a constitutional government is to have an informed citizenry? The only way we reach consensus on going to war or establishing trade restrictions is to get the citizenry as much information as we can. The American Way is this: give me the facts, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and let me make up my mind. And journalism is supposed to fill that gap.
Things happening 10,000 miles and an ocean away appear small. It's a dangerous illusion in our increasingly small and interdependent world. We Americans have to stop thinking of ourselves as the center of the world. We are world leaders, but we have to get rid of this illusion that things happening far away don't matter very much. They aren't far away. What happens in the streets of Baghdad influences what happens on Main Street.