News icon Dan Rather did the keynote this afternoon at SXSW 2007 here in Austin, Texas. It’s not often you get to here a longtime American news icon speak in public, especially about the topic of “new media’, so I decided to liveblog it.
The keynote was supposed to start at 2:00, so Dan is obviously playing the diva role for his keynote. The Hilton ballroom is large but people are packed in like sardines and most likely hammering away sending messages to Twitter so they’ll show up on the plasma screens everywhere.
Dan has really lived and worked through some of the most amazing events in world and American history. He’s also interviewed most major political and news figures over the past 30 years, including a famous and hard-hitting interview with Richard Nixon.
Dan is announced as one of Jane’s personal heroes, and then he comes out to a standing ovation to the music of What’s the Frequency Kenneth, when he was part of the incident that is the basis for that REM song.
Dan leads off with a joke about appreciating introductions involving Abe Lincoln once saying to appreciate praise from the audience because they’ll soon enough figure out you aren’t worth it.
Dan jokes that the acoustics are so bad he can’t understand the first question, twice, about being dismissed by Richard Nixon when he wouldn’t be dismissed.
Dan said to this crowd Richard Nixon must feel as far away as Caasar’s campaigns.
He was proud to work as a correspondent to the White House. He didn’t see himself as challenging Nixon, he was just trying to be an honest broker of information and find out what was really going on, opposed to what they wanted the people to believe was going on.
What he was saying wasn’t the facts, it was continually being disproved as not fact. Leon Jaworski and the special prosecutors would often find out the opposite of what Nixon was saying. So he tried to phrase the questions like “Mr. President, your’e saying one thing, but the evidence is saying the other.”
Nixon would respond trying to knock Dan off balance by making a comment or asking a return question.
He said the facts were that President Nixon was the leader of a widespread criminal conspiracy. And Dan has more respect for the office of the President than anyone, but he had to focus on the facts.
Jane asks if the opportunity exists for someone to do today what he did back then. Dan replies that “Over time American journalism has lost its guts.”
Journalists have learned to go along and get along. They keep people on their good side to get access to people, or they’re more worried about keeping their job and have people feel good about them.
There is also the danger of being accused of being anti-patriotic or being against the troops when you question our leaders today. It is the tough questions that are patriotic!
Dan says we have to question power. Ask the tough questions, follow up on tough questions, and it does sometimes still happen in American journalism, but it’s getting more rare.
Jane says that Beltway journalists like to keep their status and don’t want to rock the boat.
Dan replies and says he includes himself in this, but that “American journalism needs a spine transplant.”
Dan says journalists get too cozy with their sources. They make either stated or silent agreements that “if you’ll take care of me I’ll take care of you”. This is very dangerous according to Dan. You can get so close that you become part of the problem.
Journalists use the sources, and sources use the reporter. But the second the source begins to believe that the reporter can be pulled in and be “on the team”, then it’s gone too far. When the reporter begins to feel the same way, it’s gone too far.
During the Nixon Whitehouse, their became a time early on when the Whitehouse decided to strangle the journalists and cut off information. So the journalists went outside to talk to Congress and others and then called again and said they’d be on the evening news with unflattering information. Pretty soon, the Whitehouse started calling back.
It isn’t true that you have to go along with the power to get the information you seek. You don’t necessarily have to play their game.
Jane asks that most people today feel that there is a lack of asking the follow up question.
Dan says “do we still believe that it’s important that journalists are Independent with a capital “I”? Do we still believe that it’s important to ask the right question and have the guts to do so? Do we still believe that the documents produced by the government are owned by the people? Do we still believe that the people in power are here to serve the people?”
Dan then points out that isn’t the phrase “investigative reporter” redundant? He’s never liked that phrase.
When is the last time you’ve seen a true hour long investigative show by one of the big six networks? The corporations of news have gotten larger and larger and are global conglomerates. As they’ve gotten larger, the news has become less important.
There is a gap in leadership there, and a huge gap between the leaders and the reporters. And they have so many goals now that have nothing to do with journalism, there is no relationship to the news room. They would possibly do away with the news if they still didn’t need things from Washington.
Dan adds that we shouldn’t get him wrong, that he doesn’t think the leaders of the networks are evil and he has many friends there. He just said their focus is on shareholder value and other things besides investigative news. And that when they need things from the government, it puts them in conflict with those same people when their journalists are asking tough questions.
Four of five companies now own the principal means of mass communication outside the internet, and they are trying to get less more competition, while Dan is in favor of more competition in journalism.
America’s ideal for journalists is for them to be the barking watchdog. And that role has been shrinking over the years.
Jane adds that’s one reason the blogosphere has grown in importance. There are more investigative journalists and a democratization of news.
Dan replies that he anticipated this question and could talk about it all afternoon. He thinks the internet is a tremendous tool and so much potential. He thinks it’s in the “Beatles” phase of development. If Elvis was the early stage, we’re now in the Beatles phase of it really blowing up with unlimited potential.
Dan adds he has no idea where it’s going, but if you’re trying to think what the internet may become you can’t think years out. When the Wright Brothers invented flight, one reporter said “In 75 years we may be flying coast to coast non-stop.” 5 years later we were doing trans-oceanic flights. The internet is the same way.
The blogosphere and the internet is so large that it’s easy to overgeneralize about it. He hopes people will continue to investigate and report the facts, but he does have a problem with the ease of anonymous blogging and reporting, and he doesn’t have the answer. But given time, the marketplace will balance it, but in the interim people and businesses will be hurt by anonymous people saying untrue things.
Jane says what she’s trying to get at is how does new media fill that vacuum where nobody is asking our leaders the tough questions?
Dan says we need to stay on top of it. If we think that the right questions aren’t being asked, people need to point out that the right questions aren’t being asked. “So many raindrops will eventually make a dent in the rock”.
Accountability is a problem in the political system. When bad things happen, either nobody is accountable, or people at the lower levels are held accountable when they really shouldn’t be. It’s a problem that has happened in every government of every type.
Dan says the President or a general will say something, and we may think it’s a pile of steaming stuff. When was the last time someone reported that someone in power said something and a reporter contradicted it with the facts and called it a lie? Everyone just does a sidweays dance now.
Round of applause from the audience.
Jane asks if Dan thinks journalism as a craft took a hit in the Scooter Libbey trial.
Dan says it goes back to journalists thinking they are close and part of the system. If that toxic gas gets loose, we need to take care of it for the country as a whole. For example, Dan said it wasn’t that long ago that in Washington it was clearly defined what “Off the record was”, and “On background was”, and what “On deep background was”. These weren’t legislated, they were just the rules of the game.
It was up to the source to say “on what level are we talking here”? It wasn’t the journalist having to determine it, and it was often negotiated between the source and the journalist.
Dan said those rules aren’t as clearly defined today, and Dan prefers it being how it was where everything is clearly defined.
Dan continues that the ideal is that a journalist should not be “clubbable”, that they can’t be able to be associated are put in groups and get too close with people. Even if that makes their boss angry or hurts their cwn career in the short term.
Round of applause.
Jane says this is more obscure, but how many problems have been created because the Fairness Doctrine went by the wayside.
Dan says that’s a good question and he’s not sure he’s qualified to answer it. There are a lot of factors at play, and we have to keep asking questions and figure out what are journalists role in society. Some people already feel that journalists already are too aggressive and independent. Dan disagrees with that and believes the opposite, but there are people who believe that and they are good people.
Dan wants the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth and then he and his neighbors will make up their mind.
Time check by Jane, and now for a couple of questions from the audience. Of course, there is no microphone in this gigantic room so nobody can hear.
The first question is an independent filmmaker in Austin, who likes Brian Ross’ work on the news, and Dan agrees that Brian Ross does good work. There are exceptions out there who do good investigative work out there, and Dan thinks it’s important that the people they work for hear from the people who appreciate it.
Oh, there is a microphone, and a bunch of people waiting in line to ask questions! Next question is if the press isn’t willing to ask the questions, how can people get access to ask the questions themselves.
Jane answers that there isn’t really much access, as George W. Bush has about one press conference in every 6 months. Dan adds that it’s very hard to tell Presidents that they need to have more press conferences, although they should. But basically as the heat turns on, Presidents and their administrations become afraid, so they have fewer of them. It’s the same fear that journalists have of not being in the “inside”.
Dan is going to leave us with a few thoughts. A plug for high definition television as he now works with HDNet. And a question for Jane, “on the whole, and taking into account that bloggers on all sides of the politically divide, do you think think political blogging helps pull us together or push us apart as a society.”
Jane says that’s a good question and says it allows people to share their viewpoints. There is a debate that goes on that allows people to have a discourse with the various sides that doesn’t exist in other mediums, so it allows for clarification of opinion. She thinks that the powers that push and pull exist on a much greater level, so blogs probably aren’t influencing it that much.
Dan then says that stuff that happens 3,000 miles away seems to not really exist because it’s so far away. Television can seem like it makes things smaller than they really are. Larger TV screens and better definition can help that, but that we can’t think of the United States as the center of the world and universe. We can be leaders, but we have to get rid of the illusions that things happening far away are illusions. The war happening is real. If you only see small pictures of it or read about it, it descends into a video game in your mind. Fight that illusion.