Dan Rather underwhelms

I didn’t expect much out of Dan Rather’s appearance at South by Southwest and so wasn’t very disappointed that it didn’t deliver. It was a missed opportunity, though. There was the chance to question Rather about all sorts of things that the audience cared about, including the relevance of mainstream media in market with millions of voices, the low public perception of the media in general, the future of citizen journalism and the relationship between social and new media.

Instead, the moderator, Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake, opened the one-hour session with a question about Rather’s confrontation with Richard Nixon more than 30 years ago. That was an event that I suspect scarcely 10% of the audience even remembers, much less cares about, and it got the session off to a bad start. The rest of the hour proceeded through a short series of relatively tame questions about the state of journalism, along with rambling answers by the newsman (this may not be the moderator’s fault; sometimes interview subjects put restrictions on topics they’ll address). Rather had some good messages for journalists, but they weren’t his audience. The issues that I believe the audience really cares about weren’t even raised until a brief Q&A.

The highlight was Rather’s pointed criticism of what he called “access journalism,” or a style of reporting that trades off aggressive reporting for access to inside sources. Journalists too often protect their sources in order to become part of the inner circle, he said, and political and business figures willingly exploit this weakness. He blamed this trend, in part, on the decline of media competition as media ownership consolidates and the increasing distance between news operations and their parent companies.

“Very often the source is using the reporter and the reporter is using the source, but when the source begins to believe that the reporter can be part of the team, that’s when things get dangerous,” he said.

Rather said that journalism needs a “spine transplant,” a return to its role as an independent advocacy for truth and disclosure. The role of the journalist is as a watchdog, he said. A watchdog barks when it suspects danger but doesn’t lie down or attack. It’s a warning system that keeps those in power on their toes.

“Do we still believe that the documents of government belong to the people and not the people in power?” he asked. “The president is not a descendant of the Sun God. This person is elected by the people and part of what [journalists are] expected to do is check on them.”

Rather’s message was a welcome call for a return to the values of Edward R. Murrow, whose name he invoked twice. But I think the audience was interested in hearing more about social media. Rather’s own knowledge deficit in that area – he didn’t mention YouTube or podcasts once and appeared awkward using “Google” as a verb – was painfully evident. As someone whose CBS career was arguably brought down by bloggers in the Rathergate incident, you’d think he would have more to say. But the question about Rathergate, like so many others, never came up.

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