Dan Rather addressed the SXSW crowd today in the Hilton Ballroom here in Austin. It was my first time seeing the man in the flesh and he's one of the few TV personalities I've seen who actually look larger in real life than on the tube.
Rather, whose ultimate career at CBS was dealt a deathly blow by the hands of the more conservative wing of the blogging party, had a stern message for the journalism industry: stop the go-along get-along attitude and start speaking truth to power. Rather went on to say that journalism has entered into a perilous state due to the "access game" they continue to play with those in power; information and access in exchange for integrity of reporting.
Rather talked briefly about his days covering the Nixon administration, being stone-walled during the uncovering of the Watergate scandal, Vietnam, and what he learned from all these experiences. "I made a lot of mistakes but I always tried to be the honest broker of news for the people who couldn't be at the White House or in a place like Vietnam."
Here are a couple of my favorite quotes:
"We've lost the sense that patriotic journalists will be the ones asking the tough questions. Speaking truth to power is part of the job. Follow-up tough questions -- this is now a rarity in American journalism. What we need is a spine transplant."
"We should be asking ourselves tougher questions. For instance, do we still believe in asking the hard follow-up questions? Do we still believe that the documents of the Constitution belong to "we the people" and not the people in power? Do we still believe in journalists being investigative? I've always thought it was redundant -- the term "investigative journalist" -- shouldn't all reporters be investigators? Shouldn't they be digging for the truth, the real story? By its nature, investigative journalism will make someone, usually someone in power, uncomfortable. It puts them in conflict with their constituencies which can be difficult for both the reporter and the contact...."
"A watchdog is not an attack dog. An attack dog goes for the kill, targets the throat. A lap dog just wants to hear "Good pup...". A watchdog barks at anything that seems suspicious and raises issue with odd strangers. We have plenty of lapdogs in American journalism. What we need is more watchdogs."
"As corporations buy up and continue to control the mass media market, and its gotten to the point that only 3 or 4 actually do own the news, the news will continue to get smaller. These are corporations that own record companies, millions of billboards, radio stations, newspapers, professional sports teams, etc. News is not their interest and neither should it be."
"Do we still believe in a constitutional republic where the most important thing is to have an informed citizenry that will judge the decisions of our leadership? I think we like to think we do, but we sure don't act like it."